A lot of stand-up comedians owe their first break to Steve Allen. No, not the host of The Tonight Show before Johnny Carson took over, but rather a man with the same name who is the host of Vancouver’s oldest comedy room.
The story behind it even sounds like the set-up for a joke. An actor walks into a flamenco bar and asks to start a comedy night, but this is precisely what happened when Allen approached the owners of the Kino Cafe Flamenco and Tapas Bar on Cambie Street in 2007.
He had recently returned home after several years of living in Los Angeles, a city he moved to because of a small recurring role on The X-Files (under the stage name Willy Ross, he is best known for playing the guy who shot Cancer Man) and he headed south when the show relocated in 1998. He tried breaking into the L.A. comedy scene and discovered firsthand how tough it is to make a name for yourself.
“I wanted to find a user-friendly room where newer comics can learn the trade,” said Allen. “All the other comedy rooms just seemed to be guys who knew guys and so new comics couldn’t get a foot in the door.”
After noticing the Cambie Village venue, which most nights of the week hosts live flamenco music and dance performances, tended to be a little empty on Tuesdays, he and fellow funnyman Byron Bertram (himself best known for playing a helpless husband in a NyQuil cold medicine ad) asked about using the place.
Six years later, hundreds of different people — mostly male, mostly young — have since stepped up to the microphone at Komedy at Kino and it has become a popular weekly destination for new and established comics alike. It offer veterans a chance to work on new material in a more forgiving environment than traditional comedy clubs as well as giving rookies their first shot on stage in shorter sets lasting just three minutes long.
“While there is always a professional who is the headliner, it’s also for people who want to try doing standup for the very first time — a lot of people want to try it at least once just to say ‘I did it’ — and then there are people who want to see if they have the knack for it. A lot of people think they can just go up there and talk like they normally talk to their friends but it doesn’t work like that.”
Allen, 52, added he is particularly proud when he sees Kino comics move on to bigger things.
“I had Graham Clark coming in here years ago doing three-minute sets and he went on to win the Canadian top comic award and $25,000 at Yuk Yuks,” said Allen. “Even after that, he would still come in here and work on new material.”
Ivan Decker, who was among the performers at the packed sixth anniversary party in January, is another rising star in comedy circles who likes to fine-tune his act there.
“Regardless of how high up you might get in comedy, you’re still going to need rooms like the Kino,” said Decker, a regular on the CBC Radio show The Debaters who is headlining later this month at the Comedy Mix. “Open mike rooms are very important for people who make their livings as comedians because you have to have them to practice your craft. There is no way to tell if a joke is good or not unless you tell it in front of an audience.”
The clean-cut 27-year-old, who recently quit his day job at Science World to do comedy full-time, says starting out in stand-up is no laughing matter.
“It’s very intimidating as a new comic. The idea of deciding that you want to go onstage is a hard enough battle and then there is the task of actually getting booked on a show.”
Seasoned performer Riel Hahn, whose father was one of the founders of the renowned improv troupe Vancouver TheatreSports League and who grew up surrounded by comedians, credits Komedy at Kino for reigniting her own passion for the craft after nearly giving it up.
“I took some time off a few years ago for some personal reasons and I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it anymore and out of the blue wrote this song I thought was really funny,” she said over the phone from San Francisco. “I’m terrified of singing in public but I decided it was too funny to keep this song to myself so I asked Steve to do it and it was just such a great experience and such a great crowd. It brought me back into performing in a really positive way and it’s such a great room to try stuff and see emerging talent. It’s just a really good place to get your chops.”
Komedy at Kino kicks off every Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. at 3456 Cambie St. Admission is just $5.