Nevada City Stand-Up Comedians Thrive in Un-Funny Times

If you’re feeling like the customary greeting of “Hi, how are you?– Fine! And you?” is currently inauthentic, what with the devastating wildfires and surging COVID numbers, you’re not alone. Nevada City comedian Michaela King pointed this out recently.  

“The minute you ask how someone’s doing, you’re thinking, ‘Why did I ask?” says King. The new answer among King’s circle is: “You know” [deflated voice], to which the other person responds: “yeah” [equal level of deflation.]  

King, inspired by her guided meditation practice, wrote a new response to “How are you?” that goes like this:

I woke up this morning, and I felt so tired that I felt existentially sad. But, then it occurred to me that if there is no ‘I’, then how can ‘I’ be sad? We’re all particles floating through space. And I’m fine!

“There’s a lot of truth and validity to that,” says King. [Beat] “But at the same time, you hear a super bizarre answer like that, and the appropriate response is, ‘Woah, dude. You’re not fine.’”

King’s brand of self-deprecating, head-tripper humor is one of the driving forces behind what’s become a strong local comedy scene. She and fellow comedian Trevor Wade helm the comedy collective known as The BVNKR (pronounced “the bunker”), which hosts popular open-mic stand-up comedy nights each week in different locations in Nevada City and Grass Valley. And together with another local comedian, Jori Phillips, who runs a multimedia production company called WhimsiCorps, King and Wade have been putting together stand-up showcases for the Miners Foundry Cultural Center once a month to sell-out crowds. There is one such showcase playing this Friday, with tickets on sale online for two evening outside performances. The wild success of both the open mic and showcases has shown that especially in times of stress and struggle, stand-up comedy is an essential business. 

Michaela King does her set at a pop up open mic

When you read the words “local stand-up comedy scene” you’re probably not thinking: “High-quality talent! Extremely hilarious!” After all, stand-up is hard. Even the pros aren’t always funny. And Nevada City and Grass Valley are small towns. How could these shows be funny? At the Miners Foundry’s first comedy show put together by Wade, King, and Phillips last spring, audience members seemed somewhat unsure of what to expect. But when the handful of comics delivered universally strong sets, the mood turned buoyant. Topics ranged from the awkwardness of being a landlord, to sexism in comedy, to local slow drivers, and many points between. But some of the biggest laughs came when comics waded into potentially divisive waters. 

Matt Kellegrew, a local public defender, did a bit about what he characterized as the hypocrisy of the Blue Lives Matter movement. 

“I was a pizza delivery guy in Olympia, Washington, and I can tell you that being a pizza delivery person is one of the most dangerous jobs out there,” he began. You get held up. You have to drive in terrible conditions. So how come you don’t see a pizza delivery person’s lives’ matter” movement? Or how about EMTs? “The number of EMT flags bolted to the back of a truck are just a lot lower,” he noted.  

The laughter as Kellegrew pushed the audience closer and closer to an explicit condemnation was almost explosive. It was as if the tension and frustration that had been building up in this particular crowd during the pandemic had finally found a satisfying collective release.

After that first evening, the monthly show has repeatedly sold out at the Miners Foundry.

“Comedy is a powerful tool for processing reality,” says King. “The phrase: ‘Making light of something’ is often misused—like you’re making light of somebody’s pain. But really in the literal sense, it means to take something dark and bring some light to it. To look at it from a different perspective.” A perspective that makes you laugh isn’t such a bad one.

48 Coolest Towns

The backstory of Nevada City’s comedy scene is about as bizarre as you’d expect. In 2019, local actor and comedian Trevor Wade was hosting a variety show at The Stone House, where he met fellow comedian Jori Phillips, who had recently moved here from Canada. They decided to do a stand-up tour of all 48 contiguous states in the U.S. This ambitious plan, which involved camping and road tripping in Wade’s Prius, came about because Wade wanted to move away, but wasn’t exactly sure where.

“There’s always those lists, like in Thrillist, of ‘The 50 coolest cities in the country,’” says Wade. “So I compiled a list of those and then I routed it out in Google Maps.” In order to pay for the cost of food and gas, he booked himself and Phillips the odd comedy gig in local clubs along the way, and hitting open mics elsewhere. The adventure showed them not only that they could hold a room, but that most open mics were lame. 

“Open mics are not a nice, welcoming environment typically,” says Phillips. “Either people are writing their jokes in the audience in the middle of your set, or they’re rating your jokes.”

When they returned, Wade temporarily put his move plans on hold, and started his own open mic at The Brick (then Cooper’s) called Liquid Courage. The atmosphere, unlike what he and Phillips had encountered on their tour, was inclusive and encouraging. It became a place where people tried out stand-up for the first time, including Kellegrew, the public defender that killed it at the Miners Foundry.

“When I heard the open mic was happening, I just mainly went to watch it because I always used to go to them in LA,” says Kellegrew. But when he saw that this one was “less hostile,” he decided to try it himself, and was surprised at how much he liked it and how welcoming the crowd was. 

Trevor Wade performs at open mic

Liquid Courage grew so successful that it began attracting participants from as far away as Sacramento. Then came the first onslaught of COVID in March of 2020. Bars shut down, and along with it, the open mic. For a few months, Wade, King, and Phillips lay low. Wade and King officially formed their collective, “The BVNKR” (its name an homage to pretentious bands and brands like CHVRCHES and Grindr that leave vowels out or replace them with the letter V.) They attempted to perform together on Zoom, but felt it was unsatisfying. 

Finally, the three friends decided to take it to the streets. King bought a microphone and a PA, and they set up in a Grass Valley parking lot. They texted their friends and comedy community and told them to show up–ready to do a set.

“It was behind…the Del Oro Theater, in a really awkward triangle with a dumpster and some trash and a stain, and we did it there,” says Wade.

The pop-up open mic continued through the spring and summer, until it became too cold. It happened in people’s backyards. In parks. Even once on the grounds of Nevada Union High School, where they feared they were going to be shut down by an approaching official, but learned it was just a janitor offering to open a restroom for them. To keep the gatherings on the relative downlow, the BVNKR would put the word out on its Instagram the afternoon before an evening show. The organizers encouraged people to social-distance, and they sanitzed the mic in between people’s sets. 

“We wanted to kill, but we didn’t want to kill,” quips King.

A year later last March, the group was offered a paying gig at the Miners Foundry. At the pop-ups, they’d typically let the first 10 people who direct messaged them on Instagram perform. “Some of them we’ve never seen before, and we’ve had very awkward situations,” says Wade. For the Miners Foundry, which Wade describes as a “classy-ass joint”, they reach out to the shiniest, most dependable talents from their growing network. This Friday will feature two performances–one at 6 and one at 8:30pm.

Jori Phillips performs at the Miners Foundry

After a short lived run back at The Brick before COVID spiked again, The BVNKR’s open mic is now back in its outdoor pop-up form. You can follow the stories of @thebvnkr on Instagram to find out about it. 

“It definitely feels like a weird deja vu or Groundhog day,” says King. “This time last year we were up against the same thing–COVID and fires, and hazardous air quality…It’s very disconcerting.” King admits the current state of the world has been rough on motivation, but that is precisely why she keeps coming back to writing and performing.

“You find themes in comedy that are pretty prevalent, like breakups, parents, kids. These are things a lot of people are going through,” says King. Now, you can add to that the pandemic, and natural disasters of various kinds. “There is this pretty rich communal experience to be had, if you are able to make light of it in a really relatable way,” says King. 

It’s another way of saying: we’re all in this together. So we might as well enjoy it.

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Nevada City-based Artist Ruth Chase is part anthropologist, part visual artist. She makes paintings, public art, and films that are inspired by