The Wilmington comedy scene has seen a steady increase for the majority of the past decade.
Many within the industry attribute that growth to strong business relationships, a larger network of comedians and a steady, regular-attending audience.
Timmy Sherrill, co-owner of Dead Crow Comedy Room and one of the founders of the annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington, has been working to grow the comedy industry in the city since 2008.
The evolution of the industry in Wilmington was very slow in the beginning, Sherrill said. The number of local stand-up comics who perform has grown significantly since, he said.
“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” Sherrill said. “I used to have to go on Front Street and really beg people to come watch comedy. I would have to beg people to come in and watch people [comics] that now you couldn’t really afford a ticket for anymore.”
Sherrill joined forces with Cole Craven to open Dead Crow Comedy Room, a comedy club in downtown Wilmington. Sherrill said the club has been selling out shows and has brought in some national acts over the past three years.
The co-owners of Dead Crow teamed up again, to plan and organize the eighth annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival earlier this month. This year, the two, along with Dead Crow General Manager Aimee Elfers, worked to expand the festival, drawing more comedians and a larger audience to even more venues in the Wilmington area.
The festival has grown from a three- to five-venue festival in years past to eight venues in 2017. The additional venues allowed for an increase in the average number of performers this year.
Nearly 70 acts were scheduled for the festival, including national headlining act Piff the Magic Dragon slated to perform May 17 on the stage of The Rooftop Bar.
But the comedy festival’s headliner is not the only big name in comedy moving through Wilmington this year. Arsenio Hall took the stage at Thalian Hall on May 11;
Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center is bringing in Whoopi Goldberg in June; and Brian Regan is performing at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater in August.
The general consensus of those in the industry is that the headlining acts is a reflection of the flourishing comedy business in the city.
“Those are all big names for sure and big for the town,” Craven said. “We hope to do something of that level on a regular basis. It’s really interesting to see what it takes to bring that level of fame into Wilmington. And it seems like each year it gets more and more reasonable and makes more sense to do it because the town is supportive.”
The community’s audience has increased ticket sales at Dead Crow an average of about 15 percent a year, Craven said.
Elfers has seen much of that business growth firsthand. She said much of the club’s business has happened organically as comedy attracts more and more people. Elfers said she sees a mix of regulars and newcomers to the club.
“I think that’s because it is present – not only on TV, but in the community,” she said.
Through her work at the club, she has also taken notice of some of the local names that have moved on to the national scene.
Sherrill added that Dead Crow and other venues in the community are unique in that they allow comics at any level to gain their footing and grow on stage. It’s something that both Sherrill and Craven work to keep in the local industry, even with the growing market.
As word of mouth gets around the national market that Wilmington is a place for comedy, Sherrill said, the quality performances, like the ones in Wilmington this year, will “do nothing but benefit the town.”
“It’s like a really fun spider web that we create, and it all becomes connected,” he said. “And then, some of these guys become really big acts.”
Local comedians are able to move on to venues nationwide because of the networking relationships in Wilmington’s comedy scene, Sherrill said, and with it, the comedy business has proven to become more successful each year.
But the payoffs may not always come in the form of dollar signs.
“I think that it’s profitable in that we are bringing more people an hour-and-a-half of laughs. More people know about us. And so it’s profitable for the town,” Sherrill said. “We’re just really trying to make sure that we can keep the doors open, and keep providing betterment for comedians.”
The comedy scene’s growth afforded Wesley Brown, owner and director of Pineapple-Shaped Lamps, a Wilmington- based comedy theater production company, the ability to grow its comedy group, which expanded to Los Angeles last year.
“The biggest thing that has happened to us is the West Coast branch. That is something I could have never foreseen seven years ago,” Brown said. “It’s been a wild ride, and I can wait to see what happens next.”
Brown said he’s noticed a “natural surge” of creative people in Wilmington since 2010, which has helped the group build a following that stretches down the East Coast.
The rise in Brown’s group along with others in the industry have shown just how strong that community can be.
Blaire Postman, who opened up for Hall this month, said Wilmington’s bigger stage is better fostering comedic talents and expanding options available to local comedians.
Postman was one of several local comedians offered the chance to try out for the opening act of Hall’s performance at Thalian, something she said wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Dead Crow and Wilmington’s growing comedy industry.
“If there wasn’t a Dead Crow or any offshoots … there wouldn’t have been candidates for him [Hall] here to choose from,” Postman said. “We have a pool to pick from that most cities our size wouldn’t have.”
While not as large as the New York, Chicago or Los Angeles markets, Postman said that Wilmington’s booming comedy scene has still put the area on the map.
“It’s a vibrant comedy scene,” Postman said. “It’s really is one of those creative engines that could drive economic growth in Wilmington, and that is a big deal.”