The First Laugh: Stand-Up Comedy in Richmond’s Museum District

April 12, 2011

As Brian Mann steps off the stage at Café Diem, fresh from performing a joke which ended with him in the arms of a burly bar employee, he heaves a sigh.

 “That felt good.” he said.

Before Mann is able to take his seat the bearded MC is already
on stage, insulting the crowd before announcing the next performer.

 Scenes like this are commonplace at Café Diem.


header2.jpgAs Brian Mann steps off the stage at Café Diem, fresh from performing a joke which ended with him in the arms of a burly bar employee, he heaves a sigh.

 “That felt good.” he said.

Before Mann is able to take his seat the bearded MC is already on stage, insulting the crowd before announcing the next performer.

 Scenes like this are commonplace at Café Diem.
The center of Richmond’s stand-up comedy scene for the past two years, Diem, located at the intersection of Patterson Ave. and N. Sheppard St. in the Museum District, has recently seen an upswing in the number of performing comedians each week, and with it, a city-wide infiltration of open-mics, shows, and headlining gigs.

The founder of the Cafe Diem open-mic, Joe Hafkey, has seen first hand the number of comedians that flock to his show more than double in the past year.

“The number of people doing it has grown,” Hafkey said. “There were ten or eleven comics that did it regularly. Now there are close to 30 every week. Word of mouth kind of spread that there’s a scene growing.”

Listen to an audio interview with comedian and Cafe Diem open-mic founder Joe Hafkey, where he discusses the impetus behind starting his own successful open-mic:



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And it continues to grow. The Museum District, nestled in the Fan and just North of VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, is an all too-perfect atmosphere for stand-up comedy to thrive.

Indeed, following the success of Café Diem’s open-mic nights and the receptive nature of the Museum District, similarly structured open-mic nights have begun cropping up all over the city, organized by like-minded and enterprising comedians.

Open-mic nights can be found weekly at McCormack’s Irish Pub, Fallout, and Bottom’s Up Pizza in Shockoe Bottom and New York Deli in Cary Town, All of which, when combined, offer anywhere from twelve to sixteen shows a month. And it continues to grow.

Watch a Vuvox presentation about a typical Cafe Diem open-mic night:

Although this wasn’t always the case. The stand-up comedy scene in Richmond had long been a fringe affair, as many, including long-time comedian Ray Bullock, openly admitted.

For comedians either too unknown or unconventional for the Funny Bone in Short Pump, Bullock’s 9:55 Club was the last hope for stand-ups looking to cut their teeth in the River City.

Established nearly twelve years ago and housed in Bottom’s Up Pizza, the 9:55 Club provided (and continues to provide) a stage for up-and-coming Richmond comedians to play before an audience and hone their craft. However, it wasn’t until the Café Diem open-mic started that stand-up comedy truly began to flourish.

“Café Diem came and put it right in the heart of everything,” Bullock said. “It’s still an underground thing, but it’s not a massive underground thing because Joe had the brilliant idea of making it completely open.”

Watch a video interview with Ray Bullock about the stand-up comedy scene in Richmond’s
Museum District:

 

He’s talking about Joe Hafkey. Once confronted by the rigid formality of places like the Funny Bone, Hafkey took it upon himself to open up his own room, where anyone could get time.

Enter Café Diem, which not only had an atmosphere conducive for live performance, but was also looking for something to offer patrons on Monday nights.

“I started doing comedy briefly at the Funny Bone, but I didn’t like the system for open-mics,” Hafkey said. “I lived down the street and [Café Diem] needed something to fill Monday nights, so I figured it would be a good thing to start a real open mic.”

That was two years ago. Today, Café Diem has become the go-to place for stand-up comedy in Richmond. Every other Monday night, comedians from as close as Patterson Ave. and as far away as Virginia Beach gather to perform in Richmond’s Museum District.

Every comedian has their opinion as to why the Museum District has proved to be fertile ground for stand-up comedy. While Bullock credits wide-eyed and idealistic “hipsters” still enthralled by the purity of stand-up, Hafkey posited the idea that a neighborhood with countless bars populated by people itching for a creative outlet has hatched a comedic powder-keg.
Comedian John Reaves offered the idea that the Museum District’s central location makes it easy to find.

Watch a video interview with John Reaves/coverage of the Cafe Diem open-mic from March 14th:

 

Recently, this gathering wave of stand-up comics has begun to make itself known, with younger and younger people showing up to perform, and more and more individuals returning week after week.

This is the case with Brian Mann, Richmond’s youngest stand-up comedian, a fact that the older comedians are quick to point out. Currently seventeen, Mann began performing at Cafe Diem, and has since established his own open-mic night in Carytown.

“I don’t have a [driver’s] license, I’m still living with my parents, I’m still in high school, so I can’t stay out too late,” Mann said. “They crack jokes because I’m younger. But that just means I have a lot of time to improve, which is good.”

 Listen to an audio interview with Richmond comedian Brain Mann, where he discusses what factors drove him to first try stand-up comedy:

Like Mann, Reaves began doing stand-up at Café Diem. Reaves, a resident of the Museum District and a one-year veteran of the Richmond comedy scene, was very aware of the recent influx of new blood.

According to Reaves, unlike years prior, first-timers are sticking around more and more, becoming fixtures at city-wide open-mics and adding their voices to the city’s evolving comedy scene.

“Word got out that Café Diem was the spot,” Reaves said. “It’s sort of a Mecca. It’s definitely the best open mic.”

This “growing scene” has not only led to a vibrant stand-up comedy culture in Richmond, but has also had a significant impact on the Museum District itself, one Bullock is quick to point out.

“It’s made it a little brighter,” he said. “As bitter and jaded as we all like to pretend we are, it’s actually made it brighter. It’s actually made it a bigger community because they’re laughing.”

A Google map of the entire Museum Dis­trict, includ­ing neigh­bor­hood hot-spots and places of inter­est:

View Museum District in a larger map