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Tulsa's Comedy Scene: Past, Present and Future

BY Meg Webb

Before we dive in to where to see comedy in Tulsa, let’s explore the history of funny in this town we call “T-town.” You may already know that Tulsa’s claim-to-comedy-fame includes former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader, who was born and raised in Tulsa, but our roots in comedy go deeper than Hader (more on him later, however). Let’s go back to school, shall we?

Mazeppa Pompa- What? The Legend of Gailard & Gary

In the early 1970’s, Tulsa was kind of a big deal. Leon Russell lived here and frequently brought his hotshot musician friends, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, to town, and two guys (also Russell cronies) named Gailard Sartain and Gary Busey were on Saturday late night TV locally. For three quick years, 1970 to 1973, Gailard was Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi on a local weekend show “The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting.” Busey starred as a manic character (go figure) called “Teddy Jack Eddy.” 

The show pre-dated “Saturday Night Live” by several years, was extremely weird and hip for its time, and featured an off-brand humor that made Sartain and Busey stars. In 1973, Sartain left to join the cast of “Hee Haw” and Busey went on to star as Buddy Holly in the “Buddy Holly Story.” Both became prominent film and TV actors who continue to work today. Fun fact: Leon Russell named his son Teddy Jack after his pal Busey’s TV persona.

“In Another Time and Place He Would Have Been Called a Prophet”

Legendary stand-up comic and comedic actor Sam Kinison wasn’t born in Tulsa, but called the city home for a time in the 70’s when he was a Pentecostal preacher in town (where did you think he learned to yell like that?). Kinison was known for wearing a trench coat and beret and had a comedic style truly unlike any other. He was hard living, hard screaming and frequently appeared alongside buddy and mentor Rodney Dangerfield. 

Kinison appeared in the 80’s film “Back to School” with Dangerfield, hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 1986, had a musical hit with his hard rocking version of The Troggs “Wild Thing” and even appeared in Bon Jovi’s video for “Bad Medicine.” He was and is a favorite of many and the late comedian, Bill Hicks, sited Kinison as one of his biggest influences.

Kinison died in 1992 when he was hit by a drunk driver in California and now rests at Tulsa’s Memorial Park Cemetery. Long live the trenched-one!

Live From New York

“I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma like an idiot in some a book,” said Bill Hader while hosting an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 2015. We aren’t sure what he meant by that, but all shout outs are good shout outs, right?

A student at Cascia Hall Preparatory School, Hader spent his teen years making movies, frequenting the old Cherry Street record shop Sound Warehouse and filming friends at local parks. At Cascia, Bill was part of the theater group and the schools TV show “You Can’t Do That on Channel 1.” 

After high school, Bill headed west to attend The Art Institute of Phoenix and enrolled in the entertainment program at Scottsdale Community College. He left Arizona and moved on to California (this is beginning to sound like the lyrics to Don William’s “Living on Tulsa Time”), worked as a production assistant and performed with Second City and iO West Los Angeles. Hader was discovered by fellow Oklahoman Megan Mullally of “Will & Grace,” who brought Hader to the attention of “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michael; Hader was cast as a featured player in 2005. 

With incredible impressions of people like Al Pacino, Vincent Price, Alan Alda and James Carville and his original characters like Steffon, Vinni Vedecci and Herb Welch, Hader soon became a star. He was eventually nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his performances on “SNL,” and most recently starred as Amy Schumer’s love interest in the 2015 Judd Apatow film “Trainwreck.”

Other notable comedians from Tulsa:

Rodney Carrington (stand-up, “Rodney,” “Beer for My Horses”), Josh Fadem (Funny or Die, “30 Rock,” “Another Period”), Toby Morton (“South Park,” “Team America”)

Local actors who have appeared in comedies:
Tim Blake Nelson, Mary Kay Place, Tony Randall, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Alfre Woodard 

Catch It Live

Tulsa is quickly becoming a hotbed for stand-up and improv. You can see comedy almost seven nights a week, whether it be locals hosting shows at bars or at established comedy venues like Comedy Parlor and the Loony Bin. Once a year you can catch four days of comedy at the Blue Whale Comedy Festival.

Comedy Parlor, 328 E. 1st St.

Local improv guru Jason Watts opened Comedy Parlor in 2013. If you have ever taken in an improv or stand-up show at iO or UCB in Los Angeles or New York, this place has that same neighborhoody, indie-improv house vibe. A small black-box theater with an in-the-round feel features the best in local stand-up and improv and frequently gets regional and national acts like last year’s visit from New York comedian Dan Soder. 

The Parlor also offers stand-up, improve and sketch classes. Legendary Tulsa stand-up Peter Bedgood teaches a class every season that has produced some pretty amazing local talent. Learn more at comedyparlor.com.

The Looney Bin, 6808 S. Memorial Drive

Looney Bin is a live stand-up club that features local, regional and national stand-up acts every Wednesday through Saturday night. This is your traditional style stand-up club where you can take in dinner, drinks and some laughs with friends. Call ahead on Thursdays and get $2 tickets. A great date-night spot and worth the Uber ride! For more, looneybincomedy.com/Tulsa.

Bars in Town

Local comedy in Tulsa is going grass roots. Stand-up acts and variety shows are taking to the stages of several local bars, and they are all worth going out to see. The list includes: Centennial Lounge, The Fur Shop, Lot 6 Art Bar, Soundpony and The Venue Shrine. Research or call the venue ahead of time to verify when live comedy is planned.  

Theatre Groups and Venues

Want to see some great comedy at the local theatres? These spots are home to the OG’s of Tulsa improv and theatrical comedy.

  • Nightingale Theater – Dubbed “Tulsa’s home for unconventional entertainment” by local paper, Tulsa World. Check the calendar for any upcoming shows. 
  • The Spotlight Theatre – If you are a lover of architecture and comedy, go check out a performance of the “Drunkard and the Olio.” Starting in 1953 at this gorgeous art deco theater, the “Drunkard” is the longest running play in America. This is a family-friendly performance, so feel free to bring your kids. 

A Big Blue Whale in a Landlocked State

When you think of comedy on a large scale, you may not think of Tulsa; but you will.

In 2013 Blue Whale Comedy Festival was formed by local cofounders Stanton Doyle, Eric Lieberman, Jason Watts, Shannon Easton and myself, Meg Webb. Blue Whale Comedy Festival, Oklahoma’s only alternative comedy fest is a four-day long comedy event that includes the best in national and regional comedic talent. The weekend also includes live music, panels, podcasts, workshops and comedy short films. Blue Whale’s mission was and is to put Tulsa on the national comedy map. Tulsa has always been supportive of the arts in all its forms. 

BWCF looks forward to growing this festival and the city's appreciation of all things funny. In the two-year history of Blue Whale, featured comedians include: Judah Friedlander, Matt Besser, Joe Wengert, Jon Gabrus, Betsy Sodaro, Sarah Tiana, Maronzio Vance, Josh Fadem, Johnny Pemberton, Upright Citizens Brigade, Natasha Leggero, Michael Ian Black, Nikki Glaser, Nick Thune, Aparna Nancherla, Sara Schaefer, Brendon Walsh, Chris Cubas, Randy Liedtke, Byron Bowers, Brody Stevens, Dan St. Germain, Joe DeRosa, Michelle Wolf, Tim Bagley, Erica Rhodes, the Bone Zone Podcast, the 1491’s and Dan Soder.

Writer’s Picks for Local Comedy

If you need a recommendation of who to see, I suggest you catch: Andrew Deacon, Toby Morton, Shawna Blake, Peter Bedgood, Ryan Green, Michael Zampino, Drew Welcher, Laughing Matter Improv, Back In My Day Improv and the acts at Spotlight Theater.

 

Meg Webb is a Founder and Director of the Blue Whale Comedy Festival and the Facilities Administrator and Marketing/Communications Coordinator for Guthrie Green. She is a life-long Tulsan and resides in downtown with her husband and four fur children. She is a lover of all things comedy, especially the lady greats like Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett. She longs to be Fran Lebowitz when she grows up.