A Tour of Vermont's Local Comedy Scene | Seven Days

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On a Whirlwind Tour of Vermont Comedy, Here's What Worked — and What Didn't


Published February 28, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 1, 2024 at 4:24 p.m.

Owen Leavey at "G.L.A.M: Gay, Loud & Music: A Night of Musical Comedy" at the Off Center in February - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Owen Leavey at "G.L.A.M: Gay, Loud & Music: A Night of Musical Comedy" at the Off Center in February

Prior to moving to South Burlington from a Chicago suburb last July, my only exposure to Vermont humor was the clever wordplay of Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavors (see: Bohemian Raspberry and Yes Pecan!).

But I've since immersed myself in the state's comedy scene, recently attending six local shows in just two weeks — and that was still a fraction of Vermont's comedic offerings. Multiple events on the same night meant I couldn't make it to a gig by the sketch comedy group Stealing From Work or improv by the Vermont Actors' Repertory Theatre, but I packed in all the standup, sketch, improv, open mics and even burlesque I could within the constraints of the time-space continuum.

In the process, I became a connoisseur of every type of laughter: the silent shoulder shake, the bafflingly nonstop guffaw, the inadvertent snort. I had my finger on the pulse of Vermont's thriving comedy culture, and I'm here to dish on the good and the groan-worthy.

There isn't as much comedic variety here as in a big city; after just two performances, I was already seeing repeat acts by the same players. I found myself trailing a core group of comics, not seeing new ones — even when I drove an hour to a show at Moogs Joint in Johnson in hopes of escaping the Burlington crowd. Still, I caught myself belly-laughing at many of the jokes — and I swear I only had magic giggle juice (a cocktail) at one show.

Comedian Max Higgins, voted Vermont's best standup comic in the 2023 Seven Daysies awards, was at five of the six shows I attended — and, in my view, consistently one of the funniest. Higgins' autobiographical sets, centered on his experience coming out as transgender, feel like satirical therapy sessions. At Winooski's Four Quarters Brewing on a Sunday night, he told the audience he uses whichever gender's bathroom he can win a fight in. That means in Burlington, he uses the men's room, because he's "not afraid of boys in canvas sneakers." But in the Northeast Kingdom, he uses "the ladies'."

Hillary Boone at Four Quarters Brewing in 2022 - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Hillary Boone at Four Quarters Brewing in 2022

During my two weeks of nonstop comedy, the funniest performers were the ones who couldn't have simply plopped their sets onto a New York City stage. Jokes about gender and sexuality, mental health struggles, the housing crisis, rising crime, progressive politics, and Vermont's overwhelming whiteness emerged as common themes with local flair. At Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington, Eric Dreiblatt told the audience that he's "California sober," which means he's sober except for marijuana. He has a friend who's "Rutland sober," meaning "nothing but meth."

The Moogs Joint show, a Valentine's Day special, had a cozy, community-oriented feel. About 100 people, mostly middle-aged couples, had crammed into the restaurant and bar that serves as the primary source of nightlife in Johnson, population 1,402. Performer Ian Paul immediately acknowledged that audience members might recognize him as their kids' high school guidance counselor. He reassured everyone in the room that if he said anything off-color, he "learned it from your kid."

Next was Alex St. Louis, who spoke openly about her struggles with mental health. She told the crowd she was diagnosed with ADHD at age 27. It went undetected when she was a kid, she said, deadpan, because "it was the early 2000s, so ADHD was boys-only then."

Comedian Paul Tenney poked fun at Vermont's insularity — and was met with uproarious laughter. "Everybody keeps telling me, 'Hey, you're not a real Vermonter. You moved here at 5: You're a fucking Masshole!'" he said. "But you know what? I do know what it means to be a hardscrabble Vermonter. I grew up not far from here — in a 5,000-square-foot house in Shelburne."

With a $10 cover, Moogs Joint was the most expensive comedy show I attended. But the quality was worth the price of admission: Each comic performed about 20 minutes of material and drew consistent giggles.

That stood in contrast with Vermont Comedy Club's hit-or-miss open mic. The venue drew the largest crowd of any comedy night I attended, with a full house in the 160-seat theater at the start of the night. Twenty-nine comics each performed three minutes of material — though cringey acts felt more like hours. By the end of the free hour-and-a-half show, the audience had significantly dwindled.

The host set a couple of ground rules at the start — no hate speech and no heckling — though the polite, mostly college-age crowd didn't seem to need the reminder. The audience was so friendly, in fact, that even a few performers who went on incomprehensible rants got supportive chuckles.

Jokes that were more offensive than funny drew silence rather than boos, such as the following dud: "I'm 40 years old, single and still live with my parents. To answer your next question, I am not a closeted homosexual."

Tobin Mollett at Vermont Comedy Club in December - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Tobin Mollett at Vermont Comedy Club in December

I was also unwittingly involved in some crowd work. After the host told a performer to tell "the Seven Days reporter" in the audience how to spell her name, there was a target on my back. I blushed as several comedians pointed me out in the crowd and made jokes at the paper's expense.

"I have a confession to make: I've been writing fake I Spys. Anytime I need a date, I just write, 'You: farmers market ... unshaven,'" Austin Borg told the crowd.

"Remember when Vermont freaked about Rod Stewart last month? Seven Days wrote an article about it, and then the next day they were like, 'Sorry, that was just an English guy with messy hair,'" Borg continued.

"Seven Days, catch this," Kayla Erb said, looking toward my seat in the front row. "So, I am from the Bronx, N.Y., which is kind of interesting with me being in Vermont. But what has really made me feel at home is the rise of crime."

A few lesser-known comics also made an impression. Maddie Cross told the crowd she's looking for apartments with her boyfriend, and she has a rule that she's not going to live in an apartment in which she's had casual sex. With Burlington's housing crisis, she said, that's "genuinely a limiting factor."

At Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington, sketch comedy and improv took center stage in "Spork: A Variety Show." The performers played a game called "Sex With Me," in which audience members volunteered a geographic location, profession or object. The comedians then had to play off that suggestion to form a sexual innuendo. For example, "Sex with me is like ketchup. It works way better if you just keep tapping on the sides!"

Smaller crowds of around 30 people showed up for weekly comedy nights at Burlington's the 126 and Radio Bean, where the scene consisted mainly of comics performing for other comics and testing out new material.

Mike Thomas, the 2023 winner of Vermont Comedy Club's Funniest Comedian contest, told a story at Radio Bean about how he had planned a date right after Election Day in 2016, but the woman was so upset by Donald Trump's victory that she canceled. "I got cockblocked by Trump, and I don't even know the motherfucker!" Thomas said. "So that's why he's not getting my vote. All the other stuff, I could get past." He paused. "You know I'm kidding, right?! I'm a Black male."

He also shared an idea for a charity: He'd go to people's houses and hold their white babies. "We might not solve racism, but we'll go one step closer to it. Or maybe 'one, two step' closer," he said, seemingly referencing a 2000s hip-hop song by Ciara and Missy Elliott. He was met with groans.

"OK, fine, guys. I'll write new jokes! Fuck you! I know, all right?! I hate myself, too," Thomas joked, glaring at a group of what seemed like his friends.

The scene illustrated the reality of a comedy culture that punches above its weight relative to the population: Vermont comedians are skilled but limited in number. Attend one or two shows, and I can all but guarantee some organic laughs. But attending six in two weeks? You might catch those same comics still honing their acts — and find yourself forcing a polite chuckle.

Upcoming Local Comedy

  • Comedy Night (standup), Sundays, March 3, 17 and 31, 6-9 p.m., at Four Quarters Brewing in Winooski.
  • Open Mic Comedy (standup), Tuesdays, 7 p.m., at the 126 in Burlington.
  • March Madness Two-Prov Tournament (improv), Wednesdays, March 6, 13, 20 and 27, 7 p.m., at Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington. $5.
  • Max Higgins’ “The Underdog” (standup), Thursday, March 7, 7 p.m., at Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington. $25.
  • “Off Campus: A Middlebury College Comedy Night” with Middlebury Discount Comedy, Keziah Wilde and Jonah Joseph (sketch, standup, improv), Thursday, March 7, 7:30 p.m., at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. $5-10.
  • Wit & Wine with host Meredith Gordon (standup), Friday, March 8, 7-9:30 p.m., at Shelburne Vineyard. $10.
  • Vermont Comedy All Stars with David Deery, Eric Dreiblatt, Ruth Fuller, Meredith Gordon, Scott Goyette and host Gordon Clark (standup), Saturday, March 9, 7:30 p.m., at Next Stage Arts in Putney. $12-15.
  • Mondays Are Scary! Standup Comedy with Geeda Searfoorce, Adison Eyring, Vicki Ferentinos and host Maddie Cross (standup), Monday, March 18, 7 p.m., at the Phoenix in Waterbury. $10.
  • Comedy Wolf with host Max Higgins (standup), Thursday, March 21, 7:30 p.m., at Radio Bean in Burlington. $5-10.
  • Live Comedy (standup), Thursday, March 21, 7 p.m., at Bent Nails Bistro in Montpelier.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Show and Tell | On a whirlwind tour of local comedy, here's what worked — and what didn't"

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