JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Joplin region's future looks kind of funny.
"The Bob and Tom Comedy Show" will make a trip to Neosho on Jan. 25, with appearances by Chick McGee, Drew Hastings, Tim Wilson and Jack Freeman. In December, JB's Piano Bar booked a comedy show featuring Bilal Muzaffar, Parker Willis and Kameron Johnson for its new 180 Lounge. The show got such a big response that it had to be moved back to JB's main bar. The 180 Lounge has another comedy show featuring John Pinney, Patrick Mahon and Ryan Smith booked for Valentine's Day.
And in March, Downstream Casino will host Bill Engvall, one of the members of the famous "Blue Collar Comedy Tour."
Some would say that if you can't see comedy is on the rise in Joplin ... here's your sign.
But a closer look shows that the convergence of comedy is just a scheduling quirk of several entertainment venues' business as usual.
Joplin has drawn big comedy names in recent history. Carlos Mencia, star of the Comedy Central show "Mind of Mencia," played the now-closed Joey Thumbs in 2011. Last year, Downstream hosted ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who has starred in several comedy specials on Comedy Central.
"The Bob and Tom Comedy Show" has made plenty of stops in Joplin, and Missouri Southern State University and Pittsburg State University add comedians to their lineup of student activities each year.
Jukebox also hosted a pair of comedy nights in 2013, featuring performers such as Velly Vel, Sophia Star and Sheila.
But none of those appearances were tightly packed together.
Booking comedy is not a priority for Downstream Casino, said public relations manager Sean Harrison. Getting a comedian booked takes a combination of availability, routing and affordability, he said.
"We get some on a long list of available acts routing through our area," Harrison said. "If they are within our price range and all the puzzle pieces come together, then they are a viable choice. It just so happens we've done a comedian two years in a row, but there was no formal strategy in place to make sure we got comedy."
Casinos such as Downstream and Buffalo Run have larger facilities and budgets to attract bigger names. But a smaller club may be challenged to snag such a name.
Curt Zimmerman, manager of Jukebox, said a club his size has to find an act with a popular enough name that will bring audience members, but at a reasonable cost.
"It has to make sense," Zimmerman said. "People have come to me in the past wanting to do shows. If it's someone who our customers have heard of, and it makes sense, then you don't have to talk me into it."
Zimmerman said the club on South Range Line Road hosted two comedy shows last year. One was more successful than the other, filling up every table and leading to a standing-room crowd.
Betting on laughs
While one club is backing off, another is taking a chance.
Jon Buck, owner of JB's Piano Bar, recently renovated one part of his complex on Main Street into JB's 180 Lounge, and comedy is a part of the plan for the new section, he said.
"We're working on doing one every six weeks, until we see the support for it grow," Buck said. "Then maybe we can do it more often."
A stable of performers across the Midwest, including places such as Kansas City, Tulsa, Springfield, St. Louis, Wichita and Little Rock, can easily navigate to Joplin on I-44, Buck said. That means he can take advantage of travel itineraries, similar to how he gets piano players booked for the dueling piano bar.
And comedy is a good option for Buck's new room, he said, because he's looking for things that would play well to a more laid-back, date-night crowd. He said people's appreciation of laughing and hearing a comedian say something they would never say out loud themselves fits in well with the new bar's environment.
"We know people aren't going to get drunk during a comedy show," Buck said. "They want to let loose enough and enjoy some laughs without taking it over the top. They want to enjoy themselves."
More comedy coming?
Though it appears more comedians are on the way, Harrison said it's probably too early to say it's a trend.
"Maybe it's catching on," Harrison said. "It all depends on the audience response. If they keep liking it, showing up and asking for more, I could see it becoming a trend."
While he wouldn't turn down the right show, Zimmerman said he's not currently pursuing any comedy acts. He said Jukebox is primarily a dance club.
Harrison said that Downstream wouldn't search out additional comedians, either Ñ it will continue to book acts in its usual method, and if one of those acts happens to be a comedian, then so be it, he said.
Additionally, the casino's other bar doesn't lend itself to spoken-word entertainment. The stage that towers over the Legends Sports Bar is not the typical platform.
"With all the stimulation of the casino floor, we've found that acts can't compete unless they have that thumping bass and drums," Harrison said. "So that's where we end up."
On the other hand, Buck hopes the 180 Lounge's strategy of regular comedy shows is the start of a trend.
"I really kind of hope we're setting a trend," Buck said. "It's something that's been building over the last couple of years, with the 'Bob and Tom' shows and a couple of shows we've done (including an appearance by Costaki Economopoulos)."
The Joplin area has a few laughs forecast for the next two months:
- ¥ Drew Hastings, Tim Wilson, Jack Freeman and host Chick McGee will appear as part of "The Bob and Tom Comedy Show" on Jan. 25 at the Neosho Civic Center.
- ¥ John Pinney, Patrick Maon and Ryan Smith will appear as part of "For the Love of Comedy" on Feb. 14 at JB's 180 Lounge.
- ¥ Bill Engvall will perform April 19 at Downstream Casino.