Justin Lukasewicz, founder of the Tucson Comedy Arts Festival, doesn't have a favorite joke. "I'm not good at telling jokes," he says with a smile. But the idea of making Tucsonans laugh consumes almost half of Lukasewicz's waking hours.
Since moving here in 2012, he's created a theater space, an improv school, four stage shows weekly, a company comprising 70 regular members and the four-day comedy festival, now in its second year. All that's housed in a structure at 329 N. Fourth Avenue, where his enterprise, the Tucson Improv Movement, T.I.M, is poised to triple its space and add a bar well ahead of the 2017 festival.
Were there an award for Fastest Assimilating New Kid In Town, he could probably retire it.
The Tucson Comedy Arts Festival, Nov. 9 through 12, includes a host of local stand-up and improv acts among many more from national hubs of comic creativity. Thirteen showcases are $5 each to see three to five acts. Details are at tucsoncomedyarts.com.
Local performers include Female Storytellers (FST); veteran touring comic and open mic host Pauly Casillas and relative newcomer Matt Ziemak, a finalist in the 2016 Arizona's Funniest Comic competition. A handful of T.I.M. house and indie teams, three teams from Tucson's longest-running improv theater, Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed, and one from the newer Comedy Temple round out the improv component.
Amanda Hurley, having plied her Tucson-honed standup chops in New York in recent years, returns for a victory lap, alongside several imported comics who packed their venues at last year's TCAF. Among them are YouTube pioneer Mike Falzone, Mental Floss vlog host Elliott Morgan and national headliner Jordan Perry.
The weekend also offers workshops for those who want to learn and develop improv skills. Sean Fisher of Los Angeles' original hip hop improv ensemble 808, covers ways to incorporate rap, hip-hop and beatboxing. Award-winning, L.A. sketch artists Big Grande; Zach Ward, founder of Chapel Hill's Dirty South Improv (DSI); and internationally known improv instructor and producer Emily Holland help hone character definition, scene development and commitment to scene roles. Instructors also perform sets in the Saturday-night finale.
TCAF's a stunningly ambitious production for a young company, and its timing serendipitously coincides with a cyclical surge in Tucson's comedy scene. Local comedy nights have grown to almost two dozen a month, and open mics compete for fans with trivia nights and karaoke.
A Pennsylvania native, Lukesewicz did a Tucson fly-by from 2006 to 2008 while earning a master's in education administration at the UA. Then he relocated for a residence life position at UNC in Chapel Hill, and found himself at loose ends. "When I was in high school and college there was always a theater club to join," Lukasewicz says, "So I was kind of looking to refill that interest in my life."
He found community among like minds, and a vision for his future, at DSI (Dirty South Improv) Comedy Theater. "Everything we do here at T.I.M is based (on) how that was created. I was just really lucky that Zach (Ward) had spent multiple years in Chicago. He helped produce the Chicago Improv Festival for a couple of years." Ward also is executive producer and artistic director for the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and previously produced improv festivals in Boston, Toronto and Richmond.
Lukasewicz returned to the UA's residence life executive team in 2012 and brought Ward's vision with him. At the time, Tucson had no improv theater, and its established improv company, Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed, had a different approach.
By year's end, he was offering an improv curriculum based on DSI's, using methodology that improv avatar Del Close developed for the Upright Citizens Brigade. Lukasewicz invested in a couple Living Social deals, but new students came mostly via word of mouth. Classes and shows were held in the Red Barn Theater. In June, 2014, a Kickstarter campaign furnished $10,000 plus to lease and build out suitable space for T.I.M.'s current theater. By November, the company was able to mount its first Tucson Comedy Arts Festival.
"I think that the cornerstone of a strong comedy community, and really specifically an improv community, is having a comedy festival," Lukasewicz says. "It's a weekend that really gets people excited. People who may never come to the theater (might) come for a special event and then they're thinking, 'this is happening every week here. I should come back sometime.'
"It makes (company members) better because ... people watch some of the best ... in the country do this work. They take workshops ... and it makes us a better organization."
LIKE A BOSS
If Lukasewicz's startup approach seems millennial, Gary Bynum's was positively old school. Bynum owns the venerable nightclub, Laffs Comedy Caffé, featuring professional, touring comedians in four shows weekly. Established in 1988, the Tucson club was second in a wide network of comedy clubs Bynum eventually operated around the U.S.
In 1986, with a master's in social work, Bynum had spent years doing drug and alcohol counseling for the U.S. Department of Defense in Europe, and was then specializing in issues of death and dying at the Naval hospital in Washington, D.C. Then, he says, his wife's bartender brother called from Albuquerque and said, "Let's open a comedy club."
Bynum says he funded it by selling out his retirement funds, his house and two cars, and then persuading his mother to get him all her savings as well as his brother's.
"Albuquerque took off like a shot .... And 20 months later we were looking around saying, 'Where else can we do this?'" Tucson was the answer.
"I have really good professional comedy here, Friday and Saturday nights," Bynum says, adding, "So I have a reputation to protect," But he also has long encouraged local amateurs with a free open-mic night, Thursdays at 8 p.m. "Pablo Francisco is probably the biggest name to come out of this room," Bynum says. "He started here at open mic night in 1989 or '90."
Laffs' open mic has provided hundreds of locals with chances to give comedy a try, workshop new material, get feedback from other comics, learn tricks of the trade, and hone skills they dream of developing into a side job or, perhaps, stardom. "If they get good enough (at open mic nights), they get good structure, good delivery, good enough confidence," Bynum says, "they get a guest set. That's their first step.
"I'm happy to be there for open mic nights to give them decent audiences that are coming here to see amateur comedy, but this is where they're judged when they're onstage."
THE NEW KIDS
Bynum is proud to point to open mic regular, sometimes Laffs server and TCAF 2016 comic Matt Ziemak as one who is headed to bigger things.
"Didn't know anybody. Just showed up. Started doing it," Ziemak says of his first open mic, October 10, 2013. He was 20 years old and had been writing material for six months. He remembers that (TCAF 2016 comic) Amanda Hurley was there.
Ziemak won guest sets at Laffs, and full sets for the Arizona's Funniest Comedian Competition and the Big Pine Comedy Festival in Flagstaff. He grasps the essential role of the guest set, but says getting that is the easy part. The point of the guest set is to get the featured professionals excited enough to talk you up to other comics and clubs.
"It's all about who you know," he says. "There are little opportunities everywhere. You've got to go after them all (because) stage time is the most important thing in the world. You never know who's in the audience." Unfortunately, Laffs' open mic only gives each comic two to three minutes, not enough to perfect a 5-minute guest set. So enterprising comedians have opened a dozen other amateur nights to provide each other time to practice sets from five to ten minutes or longer.
The oldest alternative open mic is a late-night affair, hosted at Mr. Head's by Pauly Casillas, another artist featured at TCAF 16. Casillas' co-host is Alex Kack, a scene regular who also occasionally creates shows around national comedians passing through. The duo also host a monthly show, "The Stitch," that mixes stand up and improvisation. Kack hosts his own monthly showcase at The Hut and co-hosts the monthly Laughing Liberally showcase with Mo Urban and veteran comic Phil Gordon.
A Laffs open-mic regular, Urban recently enjoyed her first guest set, but she's been a frequent guest in the Estrogen Hour showcase. That quarterly show, organized at Laffs by veteran comedian Nancy Stanley, benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
With Roxy Merrari, another Estrogen Hour regular, Urban co-hosts amateur comedy shows semi-monthly at the Surly Wench. She recently started a Sunday twofer of open mics: eastside at night with Ziemak, and midtown in the afternoon with Rory Monserrat, who debuted the Thursday after Ziemak at Laffs. Ziemak's own comedy takes priority, but he also co-hosts Brew Ha Ha, a monthly showcase at Borderlands Brewery, with fellow newcomer Nick Cerami.
All Tucson's comedy showcases invite Phoenix talent, especially those connected to showcases in the capitol. Cross-pollination flourishes between the two comedy communities. Tucson comedians are generally tight-knit and supportive. "I met all of my best friends through it," Ziemak says. "I've met so many people through comedy in general!"
Former TV newswoman and current assistant UA Law School dean Nancy Stanley dabbled in improv with a couple of Lukasewicz' early classes. But it was to improve her crowd work in stand-up, which already had stolen her heart on a comedy cruise.
She'd found that comedy was a way to bond with her teenage son. "My marriage was unspooling, and my kids were leaving," she says, "and I didn't know what I was going to do next. "One magical night we went to see Lewis Black and John Bowman in Phoenix. In 30 seconds, (Black's) energy with the audience was so palpable, I knew instantly that's what I wanted to do."
So she booked a comedy cruise featuring Black and Kathleen Madigan among others, and was delighted to discover it included a workshop for standup comics. After taking the workshop, she and a handful of others won a chance to perform an onboard showcase.
In the audience was comedian, comedy writer and Emmy-winning producer Jeff Stilson. He thought she had an act. "So my onboard (set) was November 11 of 2011, and the first time I did Laffs open mic was December 11. Everybody was so nice to me!"
Stanley performs guest sets at Laffs, but started her own showcase for more stage time. Flagging attendance inspired her business plan for The Estrogen Hour at Laffs. The next Estrogen Hour is at 6:30, Sunday, Oct. 30, $15 at the door.
"Comedy makes me a better person, and I think other women who are trying to conquer their fears should really try this. We wanted to involve the women in town who were developing as comics, and then new women, usually socially well-connected, who would come in and do something for charity. And some of those stayed!"
EVERYBODY'S A COMEDIAN
Neither stage-time equity nor sexual harassment were factors in Stanley's creating The Estrogen Hour. And fans of nightclub comedy traditionally relish material many might find offensive.
The improv world, however, has been shaken recently by harassment complaints, and uproars about their handling, in some of its most revered institutions. Throughout the country improv companies are evaluating standards for potentially inappropriate or offensive behaviors, and a "Women in Comedy" panel is scheduled for TCAF 16.
Lukasewicz says, "I want to make sure that anybody (who takes) a class with us, or performs with us feels comfortable. That they feel like if they have an issue there's someone they can talk to and the issue will be taken seriously.
"And that's not just a gender thing. It's anybody. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We're doing our part in the improv world. Hopefully we can help do it everywhere else."
Lukasewicz's paraphrase of Martin Luther King's quote recalls another by Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world."