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The Year of Romo 

How Tucson became one of the only cities to have its own late night talk show

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It's about 5 p.m. on the final Sunday of the month and Steven Romo arrives at The Flycatcher. He calls his producer, he calls his guests, he calls the bands, he calls the opening comedian. The stage is set—his desk, his chair, a coffee table and three more chairs. The sign behind his desk advertises something like "Romo Tonight Live. Blah Blah Blah" or "That One Guy Tonight Live. Borrring."

The guests and performers start to arrive a couple hours later. Sound check is running late and there's a line of attendees—a who's who of Tucson's nightlife scene—forming outside. Three weeks of planning begins to coalesce as the crowd is finally let into the venue at around 9 p.m.

"You should see me the day of the show. I'm insane," Romo says. "When you peek out and there's a line of people waiting, it fucks with your head."

So, the crowd piles into folding chairs set up in front of the stage and, once those are all taken, they cram into the upper deck of the room with a headcount totaling somewhere over three hundred people. The opening comedian takes the stage, but Romo is across the street and down a block at Che's Lounge. He's in the back chain smoking and "trying not to puke," wearing a Scott Aukerman-like sweater layered over a collared shirt.

"There's a moment when I put on my collared shirt and I just think, 'What are you doing? Why are you doing this?"

STARTING YOUNG

Steven Romo turns 31 this week. However, he admits that he's been playing late night talk show host since he was a kid.

"My Tonight Show dream has been around my entire life. I would set my stuffed animals and G.I. Joes up and perform when I was little," he says, adding, "I had an overactive imagination as a kid."

Fast forward a few decades and the third generation Tucsonan was still harboring late night tendencies that he refers to as "easter eggs."

"My email has been RomoTonight for six or seven years and no one even questioned it," he says.

Still, as a self-professed sci-fi nerd and someone that cops to the fact that he believes humans were brought to this planet in a Battlestar Galactica-like quest for the propagation of the species, Romo isn't exactly the most likely choice to become the voice of Tucson's late night.

"I'm crazy enough to have my own talk show and people pay me $5 to talk about nothing," he jokes.

However, working at local bars and eateries like No Anchovies ("it was cool then," he assures) in the past and La Cocina and The Flycatcher currently, as well as drumming in four different local bands, including an LCD Soundsystem cover band called TFA Soundsystem, has positioned Romo to know people in town—a lot of people in town.

"I think everything was in line to make this show good," Romo says, explaining his booking process, which starts with the closing band, then the guests based off events and happenings in town, then the segments and finally the opening comedian.

Even after the first show was booked, Romo says there was a bit of confusion over what exactly he intended to do that first night on Sunday, June 29, 2014—just one day after his 30th birthday.

"No one's really doing this on a DIY level. It took a while to explain what it was to people and they still didn't really get it. People think it's a comedy show, but it really is just a run-of-the-mill talk show."

THE FIRST SHOW

Back onto Che's patio and something pulls Romo to his eminent show as his thoughts bounce from excitement to concern. His house band (yes, he even has a house band) starts playing a jovial little tune on The Flycatcher stage that's known to regular audience members as the show's theme song—a song that is Romo's ringtone and is currently available in the iTunes store for purchase.  

The band's name—Dirty P and the Thunderchiefs—comes from Romo mishearing AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" as a kid. To this day, he insists it's the story of Dirty Pete and the Thunderchiefs. Whether that's the case (it's not), the band is very real and comprised of Christopher Pierce, Kalyn Stalinski and Paul Jenkins, who functions as the Paul Schaefer to Romo's David Letterman or maybe more like the Reggie Watts to his Aukerman. Either way, Romo says he knew Jenkins had to be in on it.

"I thought, 'If I'm going to be official I have to have a house band,'" he says. "And pretty much any time I need a musician's help, I go to Paul Jenkins. He's one of the most brilliant people I know."

A year ago Jenkins played that song for the first time, and then Romo came out to do his first monologue—the part of the show he readily admits to be the least comfortable. As the drummer in his bands, he's used to having a barrier between him and the crowd. As a late night talk show host, he's typically behind a desk, so standing in front of everyone can be nerve-racking.

"The monologues are the worst moment of my life. It's like I'm just standing there, naked," he says. "There's a lot of comfort behind that desk."

Still without the comfort of something between him and the audience, he began the show with a rather impressive first-night crowd of about 150 people. The show featured Carole Kennelly of Historic Brewing Company, comedian Jeffrey May, local piano rock band Sorry About the Garden and The Flycatcher's then new owner Justin McLamarrah. It lasted a marathon-like three and a half hours.

"It is fun, I mean, considering I have massive stage fright," he says. "But I can't help but wonder when people are going to stop giving a shit about this."

UPSTAGING YOURSELF

"It get's worse each time," Romo says, reflecting on his odd pre-show ritual. "The first show there was no expectation. It was uncharted territory."

"After the first one it was like 'This is terrible, but we gotta do it again,'" he adds.

By the second episode of Romo Tonight Live, he started a trend on one-upping himself that he says is likely the cause of most of his nerves before the show.

"I feel like I always have to outdo myself and make the show even better," he says. "It gets stressful."

As far as that second show goes, it's certainly a difficult spectacle to top. It began with 4th Avenue Deli owner Austin Counts and the 2014 Hot Dog Shoot Out champion Dustin Cox. In a Deerhunter-esque game of ghost chile-topped hot dog roulette, Romo found himself on the loaded end of the hot dog gun and got a mouthful of ghost chiles.

"We went on break right after and I went back to the bar and chugged a whole glass of milk," he says. "I was crying and my nose was running all over the place and my mouth was on fire. I went to the bathroom to clean myself up a little and then went back out."

Back on stage, Romo's next guest was Ed Slocum of Tattoo Artistry. While having a nice, informal interview, Romo winced through Slocum tattooing his forearm with a six-inch Bubo tattoo—you know, the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans. Interested sadists can find a video of it on YouTube. Luckily for him, after that segment local favorite Acorn Bcorn took the stage so he could relax after what turned out to be a punishing, but rewarding second show.

"I wanted to show the audience that I'm willing to do anything for them if they're willing to come," he says.

LEARNING CURVE

One year, 10 shows, 12 bands, nine comedians, two magicians, five bartenders, four bar owners, one tattoo artist, one restaurant owner, one stripper, one brewer, one party planner, one comic maker, one conference founder, one rock climber, one weed grower, two hip-hop artists, one fashion blogger, one podcaster, one cosplayer, two videographers, one photographer, one boutique owner, four artists and one best friend later, it doesn't seem like Romo Tonight Live is showing any signs of slowing down, despite taking its June anniversary month off.

In that time, Romo has learned a thing or two about the late night game. Gaining videographer Andrew Brown as the show's producer, Henry Barajas as the comedic sidekick à la Andy Richter, Justin Miller as co-producer and having Kenny Stewart (a.k.a. Magic Kenny Bang Bang) involved in almost every show now rounds out his regular line-up and ensures the shows run smoothly. Although he wasn't certain how crowds would react to Stewart as a regular fixture, Romo explains that his magical illusions are just that good.

"There's some bits where I'm not sure how it'll turn out or I think it might even be terrible," Romo says. "But [Stewart] is a witch. He would've been burned back in the day."

"Actually one thing that really did bomb was a joke that I made about Nepal like a week after. People booed. You could hear chairs moving around. Then I changed the joke to be about Hurricane Katrina and everyone laughed—what is that?"

For moments like that, Romo employs the bell at his desk, which, when rung, beckons the audience to drink. He proudly declares that it's been the cause of many hangovers.

With his supporting cast and crew solidified, smaller details began to get fine-tuned. He says that, first and foremost, while his show is about and for the Tucson community, it's OK to say no.

"The biggest thing I learned is not to listen to everyone's suggestions, actually," Romo says. "Someone is always going to come up after and say something like 'Oh, you should get a mini bike and go down A Mountain'—it's like, why?"

Romo also learned to develop that first three-and-a-half hour show format into a more concise two hours—the "perfect length" to him. Even though the event draws over 300 attendees most months now and even though the show is shorter in length, Romo does notice a very sharp drop in crowd size after the first half of the late Sunday night show.

"I keep forgetting that not everyone is a bartender. People stick it out as long as they can," he says. "I think some people go to enjoy the show but some people just go to be seen."

Interestingly enough, Romo's show has become a meeting place for folks in the music scene, comedians, bartenders, industry-types, etc.—mostly people Romo works with on a regular basis.

"I can look out into the crowd and see my friends and then I'm not as nervous," he says. "It's nice to see the chairs full of people I know."

"I realized that I'm doing something right when more and more people I didn't know would stick it out through to the end," he adds.

Although that first hour is a completely packed room, overflowing onto both patios, Romo says he hasn't and won't even consider another venue in Tucson for his late night show.

"If it does move, it'll be because I'm taking it on the road," he explains. "I like how busy it is and how tight it is in there."

EXPANDING HORIZONS

So, at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, you can likely find Romo at Che's smoking and waiting and thinking, building up to walk back over to The Flycatcher. There, he'll be preparing mentally for that night's show, though the guests for the July 2015 episode have yet to be booked at this point.

"I guess I should be out there doing vocal warm-ups or something but instead I'm having this existential meltdown," Romo says.

Nerves be damned, Romo has plans for his show. Although he doesn't necessarily see himself taking over for his hero David Letterman any time soon, he would like to broaden the scope and reach of the show.

"I was closing down La Cocina by myself and I got to watch the last Letterman show alone. It was really special for me and I'll never forget that moment," he says. "I think network TV would be terrifying though."

"I eventually want to pitch the show to Funny or Die or YouTube so I would need to figure out how to make it not so regional," he says, dialing back. "This town has always felt really comfortable for me. It feels like home."

While he has plans to eventually stretch Romo Tonight Live outside of just Tucson guests, bands and audiences, Steven Romo says he's ditched any adolescent desire to rebel and leave his hometown. Best of all, now when he thinks, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?", he's at least got an answer to that nagging self-doubt brought on by what he pinpoints as his own criticism and high standards.

"It's not about me. It's my guests' show," Romo says. "I'm showcasing much more talented people than myself."

More by Heather Hoch

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