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Funny Business in the Cobblestone District

(photo by Joseph Baldovin)

Local impresario Kristen Becker talks about Buffalo’s new comedy club

For the past several years, the bulk of the comedy scene in Buffalo has been carried on the determined shoulders of Kristen Becker—a performer whose own material draws on real-life experiences to deliver funny, in-your-face observations on life, lifestyles, relationships, and her hometown.

“I feel like we’ve been the butt of everybody’s jokes for so long, like, you have to have a sense of humor to live here,” she says. “It blew my mind that there wasn’t a vibrant scene—for a region that ought to be ripe with comedy.”

Becker’s father worked for General Motors in Buffalo in the mid-1980s when jobs were being cut back. When she was nine, the family relocated to Shreveport, Louisiana, where a new S-10 plant was hiring. In one of her routines, Becker imagines what her parents must have been thinking at the time: “Man, we better get out of here. We don’t want our daughter growing up full of self-doubt and hopelessness. Let’s move to Louisiana and throw a little ignorance into the mix.”

By 2001, Becker came back north to Toronto, where she studied at the Humber School of Comedy, which offers a two-year degree in the comedic arts. Classes included standup, improv, acting for television, entertainment management, and so on. After one year there, she landed a road gig and started piling up experiences—honing her craft as real entertainers must do—by going from town to town and learning to connect with audiences.

“When I moved back to Buffalo in 2005, there was no comedy open mic,” she remembers. “And I was a comic, so…”

So she started working gigs as the emcee for nouveau burlesque dance troupe the Stripteasers. Soon, she would roll her life experiences from growing up in the deep south into a whole new act. She explains, “I just realized that nobody was trying to entertain Southern lesbians. Like, if you went to a gay bar you just got a drag show. So I just thought, ‘If you have a drag show, you have a microphone. If you have a microphone, you can do a comedy show.”

The result was the Dykes of Hazard. Initially, the traveling road show focused on dates in the Southeast. Becker recalls how, after one show, a lesbian couple came up to buy a Dykes of Hazard t-shirt. They said they were going to sleep in it.

“I realized it was because they couldn’t wear it in their town.” She pauses, letting the situation sink in. “Like, you know what I mean? You’re in small-town southern Mississippi or Louisiana or whatever—and this was just like six years ago. The shirt just said ‘Dykes of Hazard’—but that can piss off some people.”

Becker lights up when she reports that the Dykes of Hazard has just signed with Buffalo-based Neon Entertainment, one of the biggest booking agents to colleges in the country. “They don’t really have a lot of LGBT representation, so Dykes of Hazard is going to join their roster.”

While Becker was doing the Stripteasers and the Dykes of Hazard thing, she was also actively promoting shows and creating the kind of atmosphere for new comics to blossom at Nietzsche’s, in Allentown. She modeled the Doin’ Time Comedy Showcase after some classes she’d taken at the old Funny Bone comedy club that used to be located in the Boulevard Mall years ago. The supportive atmosphere has helped many fledgling performers find their stand-up voice. As a show producer, she began booking marquee comedians into Nietzsche’s and drawing large, supportive audiences. These successes led to a phone call from Marc Grossman, a comedy club entrepreneur from Philadelphia who was pitching an online ticketing service to handle the improbably successful shows Becker was bringing to town.

“He said: ‘Can I interest you in this ticketing engine?’ And I said: ‘Sure, can I interest you in building a comedy club in Buffalo?’ And he said: ‘No.’”

She laughs, looking back on it, but Becker wasn’t prepared to take no for an answer. Grossman is the man behind the successful and influential Helium comedy clubs that currently operate in Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon. Top-of-the-line comics work these rooms, and they have a close relationship with Comedy Central as a proving ground for up-and-coming acts. She kept at him.

“He was very open-minded about it, it just wasn’t on his radar. If you’re not from here, you don’t really realize the revitalization that’s been happening—which actually worked in my favor because when he finally came here—which took me about a year bring about—he was pleasantly surprised,” she says.

Becker would send him emails with listings of properties, or videos of possible venues. The old Showplace, Ya-Ya’s Bayou Brewhouse—they weren’t the right spots. Finally, Grossman agreed to come for a visit with his business partner, Brad, who also happens to be his brother. Right as they flew up to get a sense of the Buffalo scene, Morrissey’s, in the Cobblestone District, was put on the market. “It was the right location, the right size, had the right kitchen for what they do, and they pulled the trigger,” she explains.

It will take roughly a half-million dollar investment to convert the former W. J. Morrissey’s Irish Pub and next door Benchwarmers Sports Bar and Grille into the comedy club Helium and its adjacent holding room/restaurant bar called Elements—but it’s all going to be done with private money. That, in itself, is a pretty funny notion around these parts. Not counting the construction jobs for the conversion, the new club should employ 25 to 30 people.

When completed, the former Morrissey’s will become the 250-seat Helium club with high-quality acts and sound system, next door to the 100-seat Elements Bar and Grill, ready to offer dinner/show packages. On event nights at First Niagara Center when no comedy is booked, the rooms can also be used to cater to people stopping in for a drink before or after the game or concert.

Thanks to the experience she’s built up working all aspects of the comedy business, Becker will also be taking on a new title, that of General Manager at Helium. While for years her dream was to open a small club and continue championing the entertainment she loves, this new opportunity could do more for the comedy scene in Buffalo than she ever imagined.

“These guys have such good connections,” Becker stresses. “Comedy Central called Helium and asked if they could put this in all their club cities—a thing they call ‘Comics to Watch.’ And they’re looking for their comics for this year. And so now, where Buffalo had no horse in the race for comedy on a national level—we’re now tied up with one of the lead horses in the race.”

If all goes as planned, the Buffalo location of Helium will open on December 1.

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