Warm light melts over comedian Matthew Solomon as he stands on stage at the Safe Place workshop at Mable Peabody’s Bar and Chainsaw Repair in Denton. Solomon regales the audience, a handful of other comedians, about one of his mother’s characteristic outbursts during a visit home. As the laughter subsides, the audience prepares to offer tags, or suggestions for how to improve the joke.
The Safe Place workshop and show, held at 5 and 8 p.m. every Sunday at Mable Peabody’s, are part of Denton’s flourishing comedy scene, along with Taylor Higginbotham’s E. Third series, Language of Laughter with Shane Silagi and open mics at Killer’s Tacos and Abbey Underground. Although it has only been running for two months, Safe Place is already gathering a following.
Denton has been better known for music in recent years, but that scene has been hindered in the last year by the closing of Denton music venue staples including Macaroni Island, Rubber Gloves, Lion’s Den and J&J’s Old Dirty Basement. In the wake of these changes, more of the burden of keeping Denton’s art scene afloat has fallen to stand-up comedians turned organizers.
“It seems like Denton is losing a lot of its venues,” Solomon says. “It’s really good to have a stable, solid place that we know we could do shows, and we could work with performance groups."
The idea for Safe Place, which begins with aspiring comedians refining their material in front of a panel and later gives them the chance to perform, came about when Solomon and his friends Alex Meltzer and Jesse Snider were commiserating about their first stand-up performances and talking about the importance of constructive feedback.
“That’s why I love Safe Place so much,” says Snider, a graduate student studying literature at the University of North Texas. “If I say something funny for someone else, I hope for them to steal it from me. I care that all our material is funny, rather than me doing better on my own.”
Luke Moore is one comedian who comes to Safe Place to improve his sets. One of Moore's jokes is about how people can’t pronounce his name without making a kissy face. On a tip from Safe Place attendees, he now asks a crowd member to say his name when he performs it and then replies. “Oh, I’m taken.”
“It’s so supportive,” Moore said. “Matt will bring new people to Safe Place, and they’ll be terrible and nonsensical, but Matt will be patient and find the funny in them. He’s not even being kind, he just has a great sense of humor.”
It's 7:30 p.m. and Jacob Bounds is driving down East Third Street, Camel smoke lightly passing through the crack in his car window. Bounds is the music booker at E. Third, a variety show that marries comedy and music. It's put on in his Denton home, which he shares with absurdist comic Taylor Higginbotham, on a stage made of pallets that's visible from the driveway.
Bounds and Higginbotham were childhood friends in Little Elm and grew up traveling to Denton to hear music as teens. When they decided to put together their first variety show in February, they knew it would include music; the comedy element came about later, due to Higginbotham's personal connections.
“Taylor had all these connections in stand-up comedy," Bounds says. "We wanted to do something unique and have shows that ran music, and then ended with comedy, instead of just house shows where people get drunk and leave. We wanted to make it more of a showcase event."
The turnout exceeded their expectations and motivated them to continue putting on shows at their house, the only house venue in Denton with an outdoor stage. The simple setup — a black-and-white pallet stage, background lights and a DJ booth manned by Sanford Black — evokes variety shows of the '70s.
At first, Bounds and Higginbotham were worried that it would be difficult to successfully blend comedy and music. At the beginning, they put the music on first and the comedy second, partly to prevent noise complaints by neighbors. Now the two are interwoven more organically. After a band performs, the comedian will make a joke or two and introduce the next act.
Bounds feels E. Third is filling an important niche in Denton's deteriorating DIY scene.
“It’s really served to integrate the bands and stand-up comedians to the point where they’re forming friendships outside,” Bounds says. “After the bands perform, they stick around to watch the stand-up comedy, because they’re fans.”
Safe Place, E. Third, Language of Laughter with Shane Silagi and Joe Coffee's open mics are among the early contenders for “home of Denton comedy.” The scene is marked by collaboration and a lack of pressure to conform to a format that sells. It's easy for Denton comedians to get on local lineups, gain experience and work toward booking shows in Dallas and Fort Worth if they want to.
Nick Fields credits the randomness of Denton’s comedy venues with helping him define his message and persona.
“You’re never in a place where you’re supposed to be, so you have to prove that you should be there,” Fields said. “When I started playing shows in Dallas, I already had that sense of, 'This has to matter.'”
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At the center of the growth in Denton comedy is Joe Coffee, a comedian and host known for his self-deprecating wit. Bounds credits Coffee's improvisation skills, recognizable voice, strong work ethic and generosity for making comedy more popular in Denton.
Denton lost one of its most popular venues for both music and comedy when the Old Dirty Basement venue at J&J’s Pizza closed on Aug. 14. Coffee hosted the farewell show and predicts Little D's comedy scene will continue to inflate, as evidenced by the new venues and shows continuing to crop up.
Solomon agrees that the early success of shows like Safe Place is an indicator of health. “For a brand new show to get the turnouts we’ve had — it’s actually more successful than we thought it would be,” he says.
Solomon, Higginbotham and Coffee are in talks to collaborate so they can optimize the talent pool in Denton. Comedy events happen there intermittently throughout the week, starting with the Sunday workshop for the ballsy at Mable Peabody's. Comedy is acting as a lifeline to the wounded Denton music scene, and in the process it's maturing into a viable art form in its own right.