Walking into the Stab Comedy Theater isn’t like walking into a typical comedy club.
Its panelled pine backdrop is surrounded by bright blue, white and pink paint, breaking the stereotype of the dark and seedy comedy club. Pretty much any seat puts you within grabbing distance of the microphone stand — it’s a snug fit. Fitting, given that the venue itself is wedged between a pawn shop and a tax accountant’s office on Broadway, one of the main veins of Sacramento.
Best friends Jesse Jones and John Morris Ross IV opened the club in June 2018 as a live studio for their podcast, Stab!. They also host improv and stand-up shows. In opening, they added another platform to a local comedy scene that has suffered from a lack of stages but is bursting with talent, according to Jones.
“For some reason people seem to think there’s a more finite pool of talent than I’ve always thought there is. There’s not a lack of funny people, but there is a lack of place for funny people to hone their craft,” Jones says. “The point in opening the space was bringing more of the greater Sacramento comedy community together, because for too long it’s been been so fragmented.”
Jones says comedians sometimes were blacklisted from performing at certain venues if they performed at rival clubs. “ … it was definitely an unspoken thing,” he says. “They’d stop booking you at shows altogether for doing shows at other clubs.” Letting comedians practice their craft at other venues has become one of the focal points of Stab.
Stab is not the type of club with a two-drink minimum or will-call window. It’s a club built by comics, for comics. It’s part of a larger trend in the Sacramento comedy scene where shows are increasingly being held on non-traditional stages; pop-up shows like The Moving Van Comedy Show or Don’t Tell keep their performers and even their location secret until hours before showtime. Members of the local comedy community say having more of these DIY spaces, where emerging comics can develop their craft and their audience, helps everyone in the industry.
Shahera Hyatt, co-producer of the Moving Van, says a lot of the DIY comedy culture was created because of how difficult it is to get stage time in a city with only a few clubs, including Punchline Sacramento, Comedy Spot and Laughs Unlimited. “It comes down to accessibility because a lot of the barriers to access certain stages are pretty high,” Hyatt says. “There are stages that take years to get onto.”
It’s one of the reasons Ross and Jones have allowed open pitches for shows at Stab. Rather than handing over the keys to established house performers, they will give stage time to any performer with a strong enough pitch. “They’ve been really open to people producing shows there and producing really unusual shows,” Hyatt says. “It’s such a tiny house, you can do weird and kind of one-off things you can’t do at other places.”
There aren’t many other venues in Sacramento that let performers use their stage as a testing ground for bigger stages. For comedians like Kiry Shabazz, who recently made the jump from Sacramento open-micer to performing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, there’s nothing more important for a struggling comic than to experiment on stage in front of an audience.
“If I’m on a show, I have to present my best material, but at an open mic there’s no rules, or expectations, so that’s where you create the material,” Shabazz says. “You need places like Stab to work your jokes. You need to work small rooms like that to work bigger ones later.”
Jones agrees the venue’s size adds to its allure for up-and-coming comedians. “There’s a finite amount of time and opportunity, especially as your venue gets bigger and bigger,” he says. “You only have so many hours that you can put programs up and you only have so many spots on those shows and a lot of people aren’t going to get stage time. So a place like (Stab) can offer more opportunity to comics being overlooked by those bigger clubs and help them get to bigger clubs.”
Providing a platform for emerging talent also inspired Jones and Ross to organize Sacramento’s first Podcast Festival. From May 31 to June 2, the venue hosted a weekend of live podcasts recorded on the Stab Theater stage. About 70 podcasters, from as far away as New Orleans, flocked to Sacramento to participate.
But with a room that can seat only 40 people and issues attempting to acquire a beer license, the duo behind Stab say they have struggled to regain their initial investment or turn a profit because a comedy club typically relies heavily on ticket sales at the door and concession sales. “We haven’t had to come out of pocket yet because we were short on rent or anything,” Morris says. “I mean we’re still not profitable, but we’re definitely not losing money. It’s paying for itself … no one’s gotten a paycheck yet though.”
Jones and Ross have to get creative to cut costs. Stab started a GoFundMe to raise money for renovation projects and to build a second stage in the lobby to provide more spaces for performers, but as of June, they’ve only raised $840 of their $4,000 goal. The team also has embraced a hands-on approach to designing the space’s interior. “This whole place,” Jones says, “is built on a dollar store aesthetic.”