STORY BY TIM WEBBER
Laser Man is confronted by an old foe in the caboose of a train, a gypsy aunt gives too much advice to her niece and a Cub Scout leader picks the wrong embroidery shop for his merit badges.
For the Last Laugh Comedy Theater, it’s a typical Thursday.
Owned by Josh and Stephanie Chamberlin, the Last Laugh has already established a presence in Des Moines just one year after opening in April 2014.
Located in West Des Moines, it’s one of several comedy theaters where people can experience the city’s booming comedy scene.
“(Comedy) has really taken off here in the last couple of years,” Mike Kitzman, director of operations at the Last Laugh, said. “It’s really cool to see. The comedy community has grown. It’s a thing now.”
Rachel Weeks, who graduated from Drake last May, is a regular performer at the Last Laugh.
In the year and a half since she took up comedy, she’s witnessed changes first-hand.
“The first time I did stand-up was to an entirely male room,” Weeks said. “The second time was also to an entirely male room.
I took a break, and when I came back, I had a little more improv under my belt. I knew a lot more women in the scene.”
Weeks and Kitzman both say they have seen an increase in the number of female comics participating in Des Moines shows, from stand-up to improv.
In a traditionally male-dominated field, the Des Moines comedy scene’s female presence is unique.
“The best part about comedy in Des Moines is that we have a higher girl-to-guy ratio than any place I’ve ever seen,” Kitzman said. “We have more female comics than anywhere else per capita. To me, that’s our biggest win. We’re getting more women into comedy, and those are voices that you don’t hear a lot of.”
“The Last Laugh in particular works very hard to keep a balance,” Weeks said. “I get to know people from very different backgrounds. I get to know people who are my age through late 40s, late 50s that love to do what I love to do. There are all different races and all different backgrounds. It’s a beautiful little thing.”
The Last Laugh isn’t alone in the vanguard of Des Moines comedy.
Other venues where local comics regularly perform include Streetcar 209 (formerly House of Bricks) and the Basement at the Des Moines Social Club.
“When I started, it seemed like just a hobby,” Kitzman said. “Now, it’s turning into a legitimate culture.”
Eli Gross has made several trips to the Last Laugh before, but this is his first time performing stand-up.
After an enthusiastic introduction from Kitzman, he walks up to the stage and begins his first-ever set.
“I really loved improv, but I always wanted to try stand-up,” Gross said, whose comedy roots go back to an improv troupe at his high school. “I think it went pretty well. People are pretty nice here. There’s no heckling or anything.”
Gross is performing stand-up as part of the Last Laugh’s open mic night, which is held every Thursday.
Dozens of comedians and supporters pack the cozy confines of the theater. Less than 20 yards separate the bar in the back of the room and the stage in the front.
“Everyone’s super nice,” Gross said. “I’m never really sitting alone when I come here.”
As Gross finds his way back to his seat, an audience member shakes his hand and tells him he did a good job.
Kitzman seeks Gross out, bear hugs him and compliments his performance.
“In the scene in general, everybody’s super supportive,” Weeks said. “(Everybody) goes to each others’ shows and wants to see you succeed. It’s not really competitive. You just want people to do well.”
For fledgling comics like Gross, that support system can go a long way.
“The community here is really open to helping you learn and try new things,” Weeks said. “If you want to do something, there is an avenue for you to try.”
Laser Man, the gypsy aunt and the Cub scout leader are results of the night’s sketch comedy event, “Sketch Comedy Cage Match.”
The friendly competition pits two teams of sketch comedians together and gives each team 45 minutes to develop a sketch based on audience suggestions.
For example, the scout leader is in such a dire position because his team of comedians used the audience-selected words of “embroidery” and “erotic.”
The sketch comedy is a change of pace from the open mic stand-up from earlier.
“After six stand-ups in a row, people’s eyes kind of glaze over,” Kitzman said. “I really like (the Last Laugh’s) open mic because it’s normally not just stand-up comedy. On a regular night for the open mic, it’s stand-up, sketch and improv.”
Forty-five minutes isn’t long enough to write a full, fleshed-out sketch, so the performers came up with an outline of their ideas and relied on their improvisational skills to fill in the rest.
Improv is an essential component of the Last Laugh’s repertoire.
The venue hosts improv shows on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. But the Last Laugh and other theaters in Des Moines support all kinds of comedy, including sketch and stand-up.
That variety could play a role in Kitzman’s goal of making Des Moines a launching pad for the careers of young comedians.
“Long term, I see – in our region – people moving to Des Moines, doing comedy here, then maybe moving to Chicago, then New York, then L.A.,” Kitzman said. “That seems like something that will probably happen. And I’m seeing a little bit of that (already).”
Weeks expressed plans to move on from Des Moines after the end of the year to a more-developed scene but is still grateful for the stage time and support she was able to receive in the city.
“(Comedy) is my favorite thing right now,” Weeks said. “It makes me happy right now. And I’m going to do it until it makes me not happy.”