Seacoast comedians have built a scene on community, friendly competition,
and unexpected laughs
By Adam D. Krauss
Photos by Michael Behrmann
An elemental fixture of the Seacoast’s music scene, Steve Roy is no stranger to the stage. But something is different on a recent Friday night at The Stone Church in Newmarket. Instead of cooking up folk and bluegrass jams he’s just sitting there, staring out across a crowd of 80 people here for an evening of comedy.
Sandwiched between his upright bass and the evening’s host, comedian Josh Day, it’s unclear just what Roy is looking at. The lighting and the dark sunglasses he’s wearing have turned his eyes into a purplish-blue reflecting pool; his expression is blank. He resembles a man caught in a near-shamanistic vision, deliberate and calm, stoic before an audience remembering life before all the cold and snow.
Then again, maybe Roy’s still processing the horror of what took place earlier, when Day, excited to start February’s installment of the monthly comedy series he’s been hosting here for the past year, accidentally punctured Roy’s bass with a stool. There in the shadows sits the bass, a chunk of its wood missing.
“I was horrified,” Day says later. “I actually had a panic attack.”
Granted, he and Roy, friends since childhood, shared a good laugh over the mishap. But it highlighted the “free-form nature” of the region’s growing comedy scene, one that he and other comedians say is steeped in community and unique for the unpredictable nature of its shows.
“You’re always going to be thrown curveballs that you have to deal with,” says Day, a native Granite Stater who devoted himself to comedy after a near-fatal accident about three years ago.
Those variables are stitched into the culture of the Seacoast comedy scene and help set it apart from other regions, particularly Boston, comics say. When it comes to Boston, the very thing that makes the city stand out — bigger acts and more comedy venues — can actually squash or limit organic experiences, particularly interactions between comics and fans.
Working the region
Comics stress that dynamic is partly due to where they perform in New Hampshire — places like bars, Elks Clubs, and VFWs, where comedians can’t always expect everyone present to be there for laughs coming from the stage.
That means comics have to work the crowd a bit more, says Jay Grove, a Dover native who runs Veronica Laffs Comedy Club in Raymond and hosts “Match Game” shows locally, including at Radoff’s Cigar Shop and On The Rox Lounge in Rochester.
“You have to be able to gun-sling a little bit,” he says. Those skills separate comics working the New Hampshire circuit from those in Boston, where some “don’t know how to deal with it when people don’t sit and listen to them.”
On a recent Thursday night, Grove was nestled inside Radloff’s with about 15 people, moderating a colorful edition of “Match Game.” Inspired by the classic game show, the contest pits two contestants against each other as they try to finish a sentence with a word that matches, or kind of matches, one chosen by one of three panelists.
One of the questions that night: What do you wrap your dog’s medicine in when it refuses to take it? “Falafel” wasn’t the answer, but Grove got a good laugh out of it. It was one of the more than 1,100 questions Grove says he’s written since starting the game, which will soon hit its 50th edition.
Having made comedy his full-time job about two years ago, Grove cooked up “Match Game” as a way to stay sharp in between shows and supplement his income in what he and others say is an incredibly competitive landscape, where “everyone’s fighting for the same Saturday night spots.”
“We can’t talk about penises because we don’t have them, which is what a lot of guy comics talk about. So we mix it up and talk about what we’ve got going on.” — comedian Lauren Garza
The scene’s competitive nature, mixed with a desire to produce something different, led Dover’s Lauren Garza and friends to start LIPS Comedy, an all-female sketch, improv, and standup group. The group has performed at Leaven in Somersworth and Cara Irish Pub and Chameleon Club in Dover, and has a show coming up at Portsmouth Book & Bar later this month.
LIPS’ shows tend to have a “more female-centric vibe” to them, Garza says. “We can’t talk about penises because we don’t have them, which is what a lot of guy comics talk about,” she says. “So we mix it up and talk about what we’ve got going on.”
LIPS, which is made up of five women, hopes to book gigs in Boston in the coming months, Garza says, but she anticipates needing to “adjust our expectations,” when that happens, a nod to the homey mood bred by the local scene.
“Honestly, a lot of the people in the audience are friends or people we know or see around town,” she says. But no matter where the show is, “a huge part of it is just feeling out the audience.”
Good crowds, thick skins
At Josh Day’s comedy night in Newmarket, the material revolves around relationships, love and sex, families and having kids, race, current events, the Super Bowl, and more, all jovially spawned from the minds of several New England comics, including Jeff Koen and Kenice Mobley.
Mobley has performed throughout Boston, but she says it’s in New Hampshire, where she’s performed extensively, that she sees “a fuller audience,” with a “little bit more variety of people.” That, in turn, forces her to “come up with material that appeals not just to 25-year-olds living in an urban area.” The environment here is tolerant, even more so than other places. “In New Hampshire, I’ve never found people automatically crossing their arms, saying, ‘No, this chick can’t say something funny.’”
Koen, from Newburyport, Mass., says shows at The Stone Church provide a “professional” setting compared to other venues where comics are vying for the attention of patrons.
“If you’re at an open mic and the Bruins are playing, people are watching the Bruins,” he says. Still, the range of experiences pays off, particularly given the number of years comics say it takes to hone their craft. “You’re cutting your teeth, getting that tough skin,” Koen says.
Among the night’s comedians is Newmarket’s own Juston McKinney. His set features more Seacoast-specific cracks: the travails of saving plowed parking spots, or whether the only school open during the recent blizzard was a home-school in Lee.
For McKinney, who’s appeared on several Comedy Central specials and “The Tonight Show,” these shows are a place to practice and refine jokes.
“I’m constantly working on new material,” he says, “and these venues give me a stage to do that. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s been great for me.”
Day, meanwhile, is excited by the energy of comics trying to make it locally.
“I guess it’s more homegrown comedy,” he says. “If you want to make something happen, you pretty much have to go out there and make it happen.” Preferably, Day quips, without breaking any music equipment.
Yet, his friend McKinney says, it’s “moments like that that you’ll never see on YouTube. There are just t