Every job is somewhat unpleasant; that’s why you’re paid to do it. But keep this in mind — no matter what crap end of the stick you drew at the office this week, whatever chore you were assigned as some corporate version of waterboarding, at least you didn’t have to interview 11 comedians in a coffee shop.
OK, before anybody gets their Underoos in a Moebius twist, that was a joke. In fact, it sounds like the set-up for a better joke (“Eleven comedians are hanging out in a coffee shop when they see an ad for a talking dog …”). One of my occupational hazards is inspiration — when you hang around with musicians, you want to play guitar. And if you do a story on funny-ass people, you want to be funny.
Underbelly is loaded with funny-ass people.
For the blithely unaware, Underbelly has been entertaining in-the-know audiences since 2009 and has managed to spark sketch comedy’s resurgence in Greater Cincinnati and comedy in general at the Southgate House. Underbelly’s anniversary will be celebrated on May 3 at the group’s monthly first-Tuesday show in the venue’s Parlour.
Underbelly began when Mike Cody returned to the area after a two-year comedy walkabout and started brainstorming with colleagues about how to rejuvenate the local scene, possibly by replicating things he’d witnessed in Chicago and Minneapolis.
“They had really fun, experimental stuff and it was a source of pride for the comedy community,” Cody says in the back room of Covington’s Groove Coffee. “My buddy Dave Waite was bothering me to put on a show. The idea originally was to have a regular stand-up comedy open mic and I hit up Southgate about it. We were trying to figure out what to do there and it just came out of nowhere that we weren’t going to do stand-up at all. So (there’s) improv, music, poetry, we’ve had people do monologues dressed as reindeer — anything you want to do you can do in the show.”
Over the past two years, Underbelly shows at Southgate’s Parlour have grown to include partially scripted/largely improv sketches, budding filmmakers and recurring characters, including Cody’s Mr. Han (Shanghai’s No. 1 comedian), Ryan Singer’s Bernard Breathtaking (most recently the world’s first psychiatrist/prop comic) and Mike Cronin’s bad stand-up/talk show host Hank Underham. There’s a constantly evolving sense that absolutely anything can and will happen.
Over Underbelly’s two-year history, the group has honed its presentation consistently, adding and subtracting elements for the betterment of the show.
“We stopped doing improv at the end of the show,” Singer says. “We all found out that we’re not good at improv.”
“I disagree,” Fohl counters. “We’re good at improv, we’re just not good at improv games, the traditional ‘Everyone has to say something to answer a question.’ ”
The Underbelly cast is a rotating collective, adding members as needed by virtue of who shows up, typically by word of mouth through the comedy grapevine. Several of the group’s original cast moved to New York to do stand-up and sketch work; their spaces were filled by a new wave of up-and-comers anxious for the Underbelly experience.
“It’s all stand-up comedians; we just asked our friends, and they were on board because there isn’t anything like this within four hours of here,” Cody says. “If we have the chance to take someone who’s at a certain level and bump them up a bit by giving them a chance to fail and learn from their failures, we’ll always do that.”
Some Underbelly members became eager to work with the troupe after witnessing a show and being amazed it could even exist in the Cincy area.
“At the first or second show I saw, Ryan Singer was doing this insane, crazy thing that I can't even describe and I was thinking, 'I can't believe that this is happening and I'm in Cincinnati right now,’ ” Brott says. “It was so weird and different and exciting that it didn't feel like something that could happen in this city, and that's when I felt like it was something special.”
Underbelly’s reputation has expanded to the extent that they’ve begun doing a semi-regular gig at Dayton’s Canal Street Tavern, where they’ve become a good draw. And regional and touring comedians will drop by the Southgate for a chance to work themselves into a routine.
“We’ve had stand-ups come from Columbus, Lexington, Louisville, that know about the show and want to do a sketch,” Sirk says. “(Established stand-ups) Drew Hastings and Greg Warren came in.”
“I wanted this to be a magnet show,” Cody says. “I wanted to make Cincinnati better known for its comedy scene. So that was intentional.”
Underbelly is a wildly eclectic group of wildly funny people in a chaotically charged atmosphere that is clearly reminiscent of Second City and the Groundlings. Not everything works, but it’s all worth witnessing, because it might just evolve into a killer bit the following month.
Perhaps Cody offers the best endorsement for Underbelly with this bumper sticker-in-waiting: “If you like the last half hour of Saturday Night Live, you’ll love Underbelly.”
UNDERBELLY (underbellycomedy.com) presents its second anniversary show at the Southgate House’s Parlour Tuesday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.