Connor Hannah may have been the first to lead Tucson comedians out of bars and into wide open spaces. Late in the last decade he started an open mic in the alcohol-free Kava Bar.
In the Tanque Verde area, 420-friendly Harambe Café & Social Club hosts a couple of regular open mics and has begun hosting booked shows in recent months. At $20, tickets are steep for the market, but they include CBD treats.
In April, long-time open-mic’er, occasional showman and entirely likeable host Ernie Celaya started a mic at Spark Project Collective, a collaborative space shared by tattoo and body-piercing artist, massage therapists and a practitioner of metaphysical arts, among others.
Now comes Lady Ha Ha Comedy, run by longtime comic about town Priscilla Fernandez and her sidekicks Mo Urban and Amber Frame, to blow the scene wide open with an intimate comedy show for 35 cats. Of course, they’re calling it Kitty Ha Ha.
The cats are awaiting adoption, and meanwhile taking cuddles at El Jefe Cat Lounge, 3025 N. Campbell Ave., suite 141. Human seating is limited to 30. Tickets are $18 via eljefecatlounge.com/reservations. BYO beverages and snacks. A prize will be awarded for the best crazy cat lady costume.
Fernandez’ comedy persona can be summed up in one word: Gonzo! Like that cat that’s into everything. Whether it’s improv, standup, hosting or, especially, winding up a show, she jumps on every risk and revels even in the falls.
In her professional life, she is a death doula. That does seem at odds with her high-energy, often ribald comedy life. According to the website of the National End-Of-Life Doula Alliance, in her day job she “provide(s) a non-medical, holistic support and comfort to the dying person and their family.” Something about that dichotomy, full force comedy faces down death, might evoke a smile. But obviously, it’s more complicated than that and sadly different for everyone.
Certification as a death doula is a fairly recent thing for Fernandez. But her experience with Tucson comedy stretches back decades.
She says she started telling jokes at Laff’s Comedy Caffe around 2005. “I got started with Dan Soder (a UA grad and touring comedian best known for his part in Billions) and Aaron Panther, Chad Lehrman. We were all writing together. About two years later, I started doing improv with Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed until 2014.”
Fernandez credits her improv training for the wildly popular character comedy she’s plied for years. Her Sister Shalom, a Jewish nun, and especially her sassy, cholo prostitute, Elena Sanchez, were featured for years on the monthly Hotel Congress series, Retro Game Show. Elena Sanchez also often stars and creates custom material for comedy roasts. In April, she ribbed Tucson attorney and comedian Elliott Glicksman at an awards presentation where he was recognized by Step Up to Justice for his work representing crime victims.
Fernandez also performs with Glicksman and comedian Nancy Stanley, who produces The Estrogen Hour benefit comedy show, in the Arroyo Café Radio Hour, an annual fundraiser hosted at The Rialto Theatre by cartoonist and comedian David Fitzsimmons. And she emcees as well as creates customized standup sets for other benefits.
So when she talks about changes she’s seen in Tucson comedy, she knows, deeply, whereof she speaks. “It’s different, now,” she says, and she’s made that change a personal priority. With Mo Urban and Amber Frame, she has started a weekly open mic, Lady Ha Ha, for women and LGBTQA+ . It’s every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at The Rock.
“Lady Ha Ha is a comedy open mic for folks marginalized (in the world of comedy). “All genres of comedy are welcome, not just stand-up,” she says. “For 20 years I was taught that you have to be competitive. You have to be cutthroat. You have to get as much stage time as you can. You have to just stab anyone in the back, do whatever it takes. And one day I woke up, I was like, wait a minute. Imagine how much better I would be as a, as a comedian if somebody told me I was doing a good job, or I was funny, anything positive.”
Now she and her partners have their own audience of people who are never seen anywhere else, and they behave like a community, supporting and enjoying each other. The feel is almost akin to that of a Montessori class. Everyone is friendly and busy creating, looking for something new to share.
“There is zero competition,” she says. “I literally took the model I was taught and flipped it upside down. We’re going to have a model based on safety, support, encouragement, and creativity. Try anything you want on stage as long as it’s comedy. But no misogyny, no hate speech, period. I want to see more people that look like me on stage. I want to see more older women, people that are black, that are gay, that are trans. I want to see more kinds of people in comedy.”
Fernandez encourages craziness, too, particularly at the end of a show. She celebrates the unfurling of any freak flag.
“I really want to focus on doing comedy with marginalized people and creating a supportive space,” she says. “I’m encouraging other people to do characters because it was so much fun for me.”
As an example, she mentions local favorite Kathy Hedrick, “She gets up there and is so nasty and cringy that we all are obsessed with her. She knows (that some people think) she’s wildly inappropriate. How do you get more vulnerable than that?
“I do cringe comedy, too,” she says. “I’m very irreverent and I like to push the boundaries. People sometimes cringe at that, you know? That’s not my crowd.”
Fortunately, she and others are now able to find all different crowds in Tucson’s many and varied outlets for local comedians.
COMEDY AND METAPHYSICS, BECAUSE OF COURSE.
Ernie Celaya was a fixture on the Tucson comedy scene for years, showing up regularly at Laff’s and an under-the-radar mic run by top local comic Pauly Casillas at Mr. Heads. Celaya finally gave up three years ago.
Then one day, he read a Facebook post announcing a new open mic at Spark Project Collective, close to his neighborhood at 4433 E Broadway Blvd. Celaya was drawn to the place because, he says, “They’re really community-driven. They’re a nonprofit organization and they help autistic kids.
“It was their very first comedy open mic,” he says. “Chris Carlone organized it and it was going to be his first time. I told him I’d done comedy before. Did he want me to host it? And he said, ‘Sure.’ And I loved it because I got more stage time.”
Carlone runs The Four of Wands, an enterprise offering Tarot and oil readings, spiritual counseling, chakra balancing and shamanic Reiki, also incorporating crystals and singing bowl. The Four of Wands is part of the Spark Project Collective, a group that also includes tattoo, piercing and permanent make-up services, and a shop vending related body ornaments and books. Spark also runs a small event and meeting space nearby. That’s where the comedy open mics are held.
Celaya says it makes sense for places like Spark, Kava Bar and Harambe to host comedy shows because a lot of people, including a share of comics, are seeking out friends and friendly places that don’t involve alcohol.
He says he’s had as many as 15 comedians show up, even on a night when other mics were available to them. The fact that they get 10 minutes on stage is a major attraction. Stage time is the exchequer of local comedy. But Celaya knows that to build audience, Spark needs to settle on predictable dates for the mics. Right now, it’s once a month on either a Friday or Saturday, with the next one scheduled for Friday, June 10. He suggests that interested people friend him on Facebook for updates.
As for his own comedy, Celaya says that being prepared is not his strong suit, but he has the perfect outlook for keeping comedy an enjoyable hobby. “I’m a little more of a spontaneous guy. I try to interact and just be myself and hope it’s good enough. And if it’s not, then that’s too bad. I’m not gonna give up on it.”
Go ahead, jump in! You know you’re funny, and you know you’ve always wanted to try. Or maybe dare a friend. A surprising number of comics start out that way. Try all the mics because folks tell us there’s one for everybody.
6 p.m. signup, 7 p.m. start, The Rock, 136 N. Park Ave., Priscilla Fernandez, Mo Urban host.
6:30 p.m. signup, 7 p.m. start. The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress, Chris Quinn hosts.
6:45 p.m. writing workshop and signup, 8 p.m. start, Laff’s Comedy Caffe, 2900 E. Broadway Blvd., Casey Bynum hosts.
Alternating Thursday, next mics: 06/02, 06/19; 8 p.m. signup, 8:30 p.m. start, Tucson Improv Movement, 414 E. Ninth St., Jennifer Blanco Thomas and Kurt Lueders host.
6:30 p.m. signup, 7 p.m. start, The Kava Bar, 4376 E. Speedway Blvd., Connor Hannah hosts.
Friday After Dark booked mic, second Fridays, apply via unscrewedtheater.org/fad/, 9 p.m. start, Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Blvd. #39, Cy Barlow and Allana Erickson-Lopez host. Lineup TBA.
5:30 p.m. signup, 6 p.m. start, The Music Box, 6951 E. 22nd St., Tony Bruhn hosts.
First Sundays, 7 p.m. signup, 8 p.m. start, Arte Bella (420 friendly), 340 N. Fourth Ave., Joey G hosts.
First and second Mondays, 7 p.m. signup, 8 p.m. start, The Mint, 3540 E. Grant Road, Joey G hosts.
A Big Wet Throbbing Queer Comedy Show! sounds like just the thing to start off Pride Month. Tucson Improv Movement promises all that at 9 p.m., Saturday, June 4. Tickets are $7 at the door or at tucsonimprov.com.
TIM Director Justin Lukasewicz says that TIM members have worked for a month to come up with “the zaniest, over the top, improv comedy show Tucson has ever seen.”
El Jefe Cat Lounge (eljefecatlounge.com/reservations)
Friday, June 3, 7 p.m., 21+, $18, limited seating; BYO beverages and snacks. Lineup: Amie Gabusi, Eden Nault, Kathie Hedrick, Kyle Verville, Mo Urban, Priscilla Fernandez, all of them cat owners.
Laff’s Comedy Caffe (laffstucson.com)
Friday and Saturday, June 3 and 4, 8 and 10:30 p.m., Los Angeles raunch comic Michael Malone; $15 - $20.
The Screening Room (screeningroomdowntown.com)
Saturday, June 4, 9 p.m. Lineup: San Francisco nerd comic Ryan Goodcase with Autumn Horvat, Matt Ziemak, Chris Quinn, Drake Belt, Carl Medina and Anthony Jenkins; $10, $7 on Eventbrite.com
Unscrewed Theater (unscrewedtheatre.org)
Friday, June 3, 7:30 p.m., From the Top, a clean improvised Broadway musical; Saturday, June 4, 7:30 p.m., clean house team Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed; $5 kids, $8 adults, in person or online.