PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: Wayne Wright, founder of Reno Tahoe Comedy.

Famous comedians like Kevin Hart and Chelsea Handler get their names spelled out in lights on casino-showroom marquees—but they didn’t start there.

Who knows? One of the future Harts or Handlers may be found at one of the area’s small clubs, improv workshops or open-mic nights—all part of Reno’s thriving and close-knit community of up-and-coming comedians. In those smaller venues, would-be comedians conquer flop sweat and hecklers to develop the original material and smooth delivery needed to make a run at the Big Time.

Reno Tahoe Comedy

Reno Tahoe Comedy, founded by Wayne Wright, is an anchor of the Truckee Meadows comedy scene.

“I love comedy,” Wright said. “People can come and take themselves out of their everyday existence by coming to a show.”

Although Wright doesn’t perform himself, he knows what it takes for comics to connect with an audience. “It’s all about stage presence,” he said. “It’s amazing what comedians can do; you’re one person on a stage, trying to make people laugh.”

Reno Tahoe Comedy curates shows at various venues, including South 40 and The Theatre. The events feature a lineup of both local comedians and outside headliners, often from the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Wright is open to giving new comics a chance to perform.

“Sometimes they do really well—and sometimes they take a while and need more practice,” he said.

Some standup clubs avoid giving relatively inexperienced comedians a chance to perform during a weekend show, but Wright believes there is no better way to learn than to perform alongside veteran comedians. Unlike open-mic events, which typically have a crowd made up of other comedians, weekend shows offer a newbie a chance to perform for a general audience.

Wright has been at the helm of Reno Tahoe Comedy for 12 years and also manages comedy shows at the Crystal Bay Casino at Lake Tahoe. He is working to open up other Reno venues for comedy shows. His theory is that there can never been enough opportunities for local comic talent to evolve—and that folks should seek out more opportunities to spend an evening laughing.

Reno Improv

Improv is short for improvisation, a form of live theater in which performers create scenes and characters on the spot, usually based on a premise—or even just a word—suggested by an audience member. Improv is the live-or-die gladiator pit for comics; quick wit, creativity and an ability to think on one’s feet are the basic requirements.

Reno Improv offers classes and workshops for comics and aspiring comics at all levels of experience. Friday and Saturday nights, the venue, at 695 Willow St., hosts shows that are open to the public, where some of the workshop participants perform unscripted theater. Anything goes in these spontaneous sessions, which are one-of-a-kind, in-the-moment experiences that will never be repeated.

At a recent show, the performers were divided into two groups of five performers, each given 30 minutes onstage. In the first segment, an audience member yelled, “Fantasy!”—and the lights then went off and on. One performer began acting as a witch, casting a spell to protect another castmate from future demons. The premise took off from there, as the five comics played off each other to guide the storyline—and find the funny.

Comedians I talked to said improvisation has not only helped improve their acts and stage presence, but has also had a transformative impact on their lives. Through participating in improv, they said, they have enhanced their communication skills and developed key abilities such as creative problem-solving, decision-making and lateral thinking.

The Laugh Factory

Reno is a sought-after market for budding comedians, according to Dave Mencarelli, manager of the Laugh Factory in the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.

“You’re not fighting for five minutes of stage time like you are in bigger markets, like L.A.,” said Mencarelli, who himself is a standup comic.

PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: Dave Mencarelli, manager of the Laugh Factory comedy club in the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.

Reno-based comedian Sammy Solorio can confirm that statement. Solorio launched his comedy career eight years ago and has since taken his show on the road to major cities including New York and Las Vegas. Since then, he said, Reno’s comedy scene has expanded and improved. Solorio got his start by helping with the production of Reno Tahoe Comedy shows, and gradually moved up the ranks to become a performer in his own right.

“I started to see what worked and what didn’t from watching comedians perform over and over again,” he said. “It took me two years to eventually ask to give it a shot.”

The Dead Panda

Reno offers fledgling comics varied opportunities to try out new material and hone their acts. Dead Panda Comedy, for example, hosts weekly open mics on Wednesdays at The Arch Society in Midtown, and Sundays at the Blind Onion on Victorian Avenue in Sparks. They also put on larger showcases on the second Saturday of each month, featuring a lineup of local and out-of-town comedians. Tickets prices start as low as $7.25, and the shows often sell out. Dead Panda also hosts a YouTube channel of recent open mic performances.

Luke Westberg and Michael Graham, the duo behind Dead Panda, welcome first-time performers. On a recent Wednesday night event, the audience was packed with aspiring comedians and a supportive fan base. About 15 comedians took the stage for four-minute sets. The audience was encouraging to the comics and provided constructive feedback to each performer.

The takeaway: Members of Reno’s comedy community support each other. They know it takes courage to get into the spotlight, and that evolving an act is a process of experimentation and taking chances. It’s possible that a comic genius like Robin Williams killed the first time he performed in a comedy club, but he was an exception. An open mic is an invitation that once accepted, may result in cheers—or jeers.

“You’re going to bomb, and it’s going to suck,” Westberg said. “But each time, it gets less and less scary.”

Looking for local laughter? Open mics:

  • Coffee N’ Comics, 940 W. Moana Lane, Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
  • The Arch Society, 960 S. Virginia St., Wednesday at 7 p.m.
  • Blind Onion, 834 Victorian Ave., No. 5077, Sunday at 7 p.m.
  • The Office, 248 W. First St., Tuesday at 9 p.m.

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