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Development News

From Second City to Beer City: These GR comedians plan to open improv comedy venue



Grand Rapids comedian Joe Anderson knows that when it comes to opening an improv, sketch and experimental comedy venue and cocktail bar in downtown Grand Rapids, failure is not an option.

“We want to come out swinging because unless we do that, we can't open,” says Anderson, who has worked for the past two years alongside fellow comedian Ben Wilke to draft plans and garner support for The Comedy Project. The two recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for the venue, and its $25,000 funding goal is growing steadily within reach.

“Even with the Kickstarter, we could have done it for more money, but the worst thing that would have happened would be not meeting that Kickstarter goal because we need everything to be a win,” he says. “In the same way, there are so many people — whether it's a restaurant, but certainly a theater and comedy — so many people have had enough bad experiences or just mediocre experiences that they're not excited to go back… So, we need to make sure that anyone who comes, the first time they come, they're just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is great. I could do this once a month.’”

A Western Michigan University graduate, Second City alumnus, and seven-year board member of the non-profit Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, Anderson began working with Wilke — a Chicago native who also has roots in the Windy City’s famed Second City comedy troupe — began working more dedicatedly on The Comedy Project two years ago.

The goal of the space, Anderson says, is to be a kind of “repertoire comedy place,” with a small group of six to 10 performers who are on stage performing both improv and sketch comedy shows regularly,  with scheduling wiggle room for other comedians and improv troupes to host their own shows.

“There would be this core group of people doing the ‘heavy lifting’ of the performances, but then there would be an unknown huge amount of other people putting shows on, putting shows on the other nights, stepping in when for some reason someone else can't do the show — kind of building this stable of performers,” he says, adding that although they are open to hosting some alt stand-up comedians for special event shows, they’re avoiding the more traditional comedy genre in favor of the more experimental.

In addition to daily improv shows, The Comedy Project will offer improv and sketch comedy classes geared at career development and innovation within professional organizations, using the tenets of improv to help people in all walks of life sharpen their communication skills.

“There will be an 18-year-old kid who just thinks he's funny, and then the 35-year-old mom who also does improv and then some 65-year-old executive at a company who’s also trying to learn how to talk more extemporaneously, how to seem more approachable or be more open to other people's ideas, since those are all things that happen in good improvising,” Anderson says.

Though the duo are still waiting to finalize details on the space, they’ve already solidified a few very important partnerships, including working with Matt Smith, owner of PitStop BBQ & Catering, to bring a full menu to a space with only a prep kitchen in its plans.

Anderson and Wilke have also received support from Michele Sellers, who was instrumental in the launch of local establishments that include Stella's and Hopcat, and like Revue Holding Co.'s Brian Edwards has been consulting on the project and plans for the future space -- which promises something just as unconventional as its performances.

“In our minds, we want this space to look like the comedy place cobbled together after some kind of apocalyptic event happened, and everyone just grabbed whatever they could to make this place seem like a theater — but they did grab the best things they could,” Anderson says.

There are a few logistics and funding hurdles to clear before solidifying any concrete timeline for opening, though ideally the The Comedy Project would be fully operational this spring for LaughFest 2017.

In a city that just keeps growing, Anderson says he’s confident he and Wilke have come to Grand Rapids at a time when something like The Comedy Project has a real shot.

“It’s just what's happening right now in Grand Rapids. It's the same reason why there's all these restaurants and all of these new developments; there's a Trader Joe's, and there's another brewery,” he says. “I think people just feel like they've been given permission to try things, and I think that applies to us as well. Looking at the kind of climate here in Grand Rapids right now it's like, ‘Yeah, we gotta do this. Grand Rapids can pull this off.’”

Click here to learn more about The Comedy Project’s Kickstarter campaign, which is open through Nov. 11, or find The Comedy Project here on Facebook.

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of The Comedy Project
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