This weekly blog series features interviews taking place at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) open mic with me and some of the funniest stand-up comedians in the area, most of whom just happen to be my best friends! Read to learn about your favorite local funny people and about the curious emotional makeup of people who like to go onstage alone every night to get laughed at. Karen Cunningham: The Booker
Karen Cunningham is different than most of the people I interview. She is not currently a stand-up. But as the box office manager and talent coordinator of the Addison Improv, Cunningham is one of the most successful people in Dallas comedy. For her, comedy is not a dream or an avocation, it's her career, and a successful one at that. A former stand-up herself, Cunningham's drive and passion for finding talented comics and giving them opportunities at the prominent Improv club has quickly moved her up the ranks to become one of the most influential people at her job, as well as within the scene. I cornered Cunningham, an avid watcher of open mics, on Tuesday night at the Dallas Comedy House, and we talked about the killer perks and occasional bummers of working in the business of comedy.
When did you start comedy? I guess it would be whenever I started working at the Improv. I just found the job on MySpace...(laughs) MySpace shout out! I was working at the Kidd Kraddick show during the day, and I saw a MySpace bulletin about a server position. And I pretty much got hired the same day I applied. Started that day. And after working there for a little bit, when we had open mics at the Addison club I'd sit and listen to comics and think, "Whatever. I'm funnier than these people" (laughs). I think everyone who's worked there has gotten the "bug" for a little while. I did a little bit of stand-up. The first time I went up wasn't at the Improv but the bar O'Riley's. I went up between my friends' band's sets, so my first time was at a bar show, where people weren't expecting comedy.
How did you transition from working box office to working with talent? It's awesome, because we get out 30 minutes before the end of the last show, so I could go in and watch. I went from box office to helping out with just knowing who the other comics were, then I was giving my suggestions on who I thought should work there, and then it got to the point where they'd ask me who should be doing support in shows. I was like, "Oh man, they trust me."
You're the eyes and ears. I guess, I'm the only person that's been around and listening to other comics. I was also friends with comics outside of the Improv, so I started going to open mics and stuff.
What do you love most about your job? Meeting people. A lot of people are nice to me because they're like, "Maybe she'll get me somewhere!" It's just fun meeting so many people, especially within the industry, especially at festivals. I've gone to Riot L.A., which is very alternative, which was hard, figuring out if we could really have many of the comics there at our club. Been to South by [Southwest] for a couple years, that was fun...kind of a clusterf**k. Moontower, I went to last year for the first time, really fun. I think it's like a smaller version of Just for Laughs in Montreal—the way it's set up is perfect, the venues they have, the foot traffic, not too far where it's unbearable. Montreal's a little bigger. I went last year, that was like...the ultimate. I was super stoked.
Who are some of the comics you've booked from those festivals? Or persuaded the Improv to book? Persuaded is definitely the right word (laughs). It's hard to get someone else on board when it's me going alone to a festival. I'm really looking for the next big person, the next Dave Chappelle, the next Ron White. That's one hard person to find, [a comic] in the blue-collar department, which is crazy because we live in Texas, you would think they'd be a dime a dozen, you'd be able to walk into a room and say, "Oh dude, that guy's hilarious and he's honky tonk," but they don't have the same delivery or even feel you get from any of the guys on that tour. And that's not even something I'm into.
But it's a niche. And that's what you're looking for, you're looking for people who do variety acts. I always, always want to find a new impressionist, there's so many of them—anybody who's been a cast member on Saturday Night Live or MadTV especially are very character driven. Aries Spears does really well and Anjelah Johnson's gotten huge because they do all these impressions. I'll look for a magician, too. I don't want to step on anyone's toes here, because we have some really good magicians in town! But someone else who's working and doing it at festivals.
The thing that sucks with Moontower is you see a lot of good people, but when it's somebody...very alternative comics, and that's such a broad genre and most comics hate being put in that, that's a lot of Austin comics that get automatically put in that category. Sometimes when you live in places like that you get stuck in those ways. But here, I feel people write for a much broader crowd.
What's your favorite memory of working in comedy? Probably free-styling with T.J. Miller. It was after his show. He and his feature Nick Vatterott were free-styling back and forth, and [Nick] was over it, walking off the stage, and I said, "May I?" and grabbed the mic. I don't know, man, I've just had so many really good memories there! Of people that I've met, of awesome opportunities, of all the times I've said, "Man, I can't believe this, I've seen you on TV!" It's just been really a lot of fun.
Lauren Davis is an improviser and stand-up comedian from Dallas, Texas. Currently a student at the DCH Training Center, she can be seen weekly performing improv with her troupes LYLAS: Girl on Girl Comedy and Please Like Us, as well as doing her stand-up act at clubs around the area.