The bar got more crowded as the night wore on. That didn't bode well for the comics. They already had to compete with the two dozen televisions showing college basketball. As it turned out, it was also league billiards night, an unfortunate double booking.
They managed to squeeze some good laughs out of the crowd that night at Jocks in Bluffton, at one point even gathering a small yet attentive audience by the bar. But at other points, they were close to being drowned out by chatter and the click-clack of pool balls.
Herein lies the issue for these young comics in the Lowcountry: With everything else competing for attention in a tourist area, how does stand-up comedy rise above the din?
A group of about 15 local stand-up comics, mostly from Savannah, have been performing regularly at bars and restaurants in Bluffton, on Hilton Head Island and in Beaufort.
They have monthly nights at Mickey's on Hilton Head, Crybabies in Beaufort, and Jocks and Coconuts in Bluffton. It's a circuit they've created on their own.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities so we have to make it ourselves," Savannah comic Steven Clark said.
'I KNOW COMEDY CAN WORK HERE'
Comedy has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Hilton Head and Beaufort. Comedy nights and clubs have sprouted up every now and again only to whimper out. The most recent success was the Hilton Head Comedy Club in Pineland Station. For three years, comedy business veteran John Biddle brought in well-known comics. Gallagher, Pauly Shore and Elayne Boosler played there. But it opened as the economy tanked and couldn't find stable footing. When its lease came up last year, Biddle decided not to renew it.
The club has re-emerged in a different form. Biddle started hosting comedy nights at a few locations across Beaufort County. The most success came at the Kingfisher restaurant. The club's 2012 season starts Feb. 28 with Pat Godwin. Through the summer, nationally known comics will play Kingfisher six days a week.
Biddle transforms the Kingfisher ballroom into a makeshift club with stage lights and cocktail tables. Like he did with the old club, he relies on years of connections to bring in the talent. Most are friends, so he pitches it as a sort of working vacation: They stay in his spare room; he finds deals on golf, bikes or whatever else they may want to do.
Biddle could have moved on, found a more fertile place for comedy. But he couldn't leave.
"I love it here," he said. "I didn't want comedy to die here. We do get great crowds. I know comedy can work here."
UNITED FOR THE LAUGH
The amateur comedians are starting with much less. They come from Bluffton, Hinesville, Statesboro and Savannah. They play Georgia mostly, but have been working consistently in Beaufort County.
One member, Chris Davison, a 2003 Hilton Head Island High School graduate, grew up idolizing comedians such as Conan O'Brien and Chris Rock. Davison wasn't just funny; he worked at being funny. It was part of his identity.
"Being funny has always been very important to me," he said.
He never felt like he could be a comic. He didn't live in a big city. Eventually, he figured if he wanted to do it, he just had to start doing it, no matter where he was. He was living in Savannah at the time and started going to open mics at bars and coffee shops. He started finding others like him, guys who weren't professionals but who loved comedy and were trying to find a niche. They formed the group, banding together as a way to pitch themselves to bars and clubs as a cohesive unit. They can come, bring their own sound equipment if necessary and put on a couple solid hours of entertainment.
"We can do more as a group than we can on our own," said Clark, a Savannah resident who works his day job on Hilton Head.
Because comics don't have a club to play, nights can be scattershot. They've been performing enough that they've started to get a following. Mickey's and Coconuts have been particularly receptive, for instance. But sometimes the crowds are hostile. Keep in mind that these are places where people walk in and aren't necessarily expecting to hear comedy. The comics have to deal with screaming children, drunks or hecklers such as the retired Marine who once berated Clark on stage. Afterward, the Marine was nice enough to give Clark an informal lesson on the art of stand-up, the drunk lecturing the most sober person in the house. But that's how it goes when you're starting out.
For all the distractions, the amateurs are getting an opportunity they wouldn't have in a place like New York City. Clark, for example, did 10 shows in a month, about 15 minutes each on stage, sometimes longer. He's constantly performing and revising material on stage, finding out what works and what doesn't. In New York City, he'd have to fight to get five minutes in front of an audience.
Don't get them wrong. Ultimately, this is a training ground. They will have to move on if they want to be professional comics. What they can do here is refine their craft and band together with others who have the same dream.
"The goal is to do this professionally," Clark said. "If one of us succeeds, all of us succeed."