At Denton Square Donuts, on an unseasonable cool April night, four members of Denton Comedy Collective sit at a table shellacked with Bible verses. Matthew Solomon, Robert Joseph, Alex Smelser and Ron Lechler are all 20-somethings trying to make it in the big, bad world of stand-up comedy. For them, Denton is a training ground for up-and-comers, a place to hone their craft before leaving for bigger, less friendly cities, like Dallas.
Joseph, who started out in Dallas, was quick to notice the difference between the Big D and the Little one. In Denton, people don't heckle you on stage; they simply diss you behind your back after the show. Loudly. But that's all part of paying dues.
Matthew Solomon started Denton Comedy Collective on pure accident. Showing up at Banter (in Denton) for their open mic early last year, he jumped on stage and delivered 10 minutes of some seriously raw stand up. The crowd was not impressed, probably because this was a music open mic and some audience members weren't old enough to stay out past 11. Solomon had no idea.
"I was really profane, and I was talking about Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in detail," he says. "There was a woman with her child there, and I didn't stop." The music open mic host, Bone Doggy, liked Solomon so much, the comedian came back the next week. Word soon spread, and in only a couple of weeks, more comics started showing up. Crashing other locations' music open mics followed, and soon, a group formed. Now the Comedy Collective performs regularly around Denton. They also created a twice-monthly workshop called Safe Place.
At Safe Place, comedians provide an editorial ear for each other. Comics get up and perform their acts, welcoming interruptions from their peers. The crowd is critical but never cruel. It's a place to work out new stuff and develop a voice, something members of the Comedy Collective are still working on.
Members' styles range from Smelser's deconstruction of the everyday to Joseph's last-minute musings. "My favorite thing is to tear things apart and show what's inside them," says Smelser, whose comedy heros include Joe Rogan and Patton Oswalt. "That's where I get my humor -- how everything is the same, but different, and ridiculous." As for Joseph? "I usually think of shit on the way to the club," he says. A fan of Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, whatever stands out to him is fair game for material. "I try to say something real," he says.
Solomon's work touches on the labor-intensive qualities of suicide, and his delivery is as intense. With a public speaking and slam poetry background, "Matthew delivers his stand up like he's delivering a lecture at the Lyceum," Smelser says. "He speaks in prose." He looks to Mel Brooks and Richard Prior for inspiration, comics he discovered when living in Baton Rouge. It's like a schizophrenic talking to himself, except a willing audience is allowed to listen in.
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Lechler's moved on from quirky, non sequitur humor into a place more in line with his real self, while keeping his authentic darkness. "I feel like I've only recently found my voice, and that's the hardest part -- to get the voice you project on stage to match the voice on the inside," he says. His best bit to date, about a recent hardship with a girl, didn't come easy.
"I had to hurt, like really bad, for a while," he says. But the pain is often worth it. "That's the most you you've ever been on stage," Joseph says of Lechler. "It's the reason to get up on stage more than once," Smelser adds.
"Through my humor, I think people can get a sense of actual visceral emotions," Lechler says. "And that's what makes it not just funny but powerful."
Find the Denton Comedy Collective tonight through Thursday in various locations around Denton: Monday, The Garage, 9:30; Tuesday, Treehouse, 9; Wednesday, II Charlie's, 9:30; and Thursday, Banter, 11.