Laughing all the way: regional comedians vie for headliner status at The Grove

The late Dave Clark, "Uncle Dave," watches the entrance to The Grove Comedy Club in Lowell. As they club heads into its ninth year of operation this April, regional comedians are taking part in a Sunday Comedy Showdown, which will give them the chance to be a headliner at the club, not an easy feat for a newcomer. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Monica Hooper)
The late Dave Clark, "Uncle Dave," watches the entrance to The Grove Comedy Club in Lowell. As they club heads into its ninth year of operation this April, regional comedians are taking part in a Sunday Comedy Showdown, which will give them the chance to be a headliner at the club, not an easy feat for a newcomer. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Monica Hooper)

To be a headlining comedian, you must first be a headliner. Kind of like when an entry-level job opening requires that applicants have previous experience before applying.

Thankfully for regional funny people, they've found a workaround at The Grove Comedy Club in Lowell.

Every Sunday through April 7, regional comedians are competing for a chance to be a headliner at The Grove. The small comedy theater has brought in comedic giants like Dusty Slay, Nikki Glaser, Taylor Tomlinson, Rodney Carrington and Trae Crowder, as well as annual performances from Saturday Night Live alums like Kevin Nealon, Tim Meadows, Rob Schneider and Jon Lovitz. Comedian and impressionist Greg Morton, who is part of the infamous mural on the outside of the club, considers the owner Bill Adams a good friend.

Kevin McCaffery, who had a regular spot on the David Letterman show, recorded an album at The Grove in January.

"The Grove was my favorite club that I performed at in the last, I don't know, year and a half, probably," McCaffery said in an interview ahead of his show in January. "And I had heard it was good, but it surprised me how good it was when I was there."

He said was impressed with the way that the club puts comedy first.

"You would think comedy club owners would like comedy, but that is way more rare than you think," McCaffery added. "And this club ... puts the focus on the show."

Before entering the venue, patrons put their cell phones into sleeves that lock with a magnetic enclosure at the top that has to be released by a device near the door. This way the audience cannot record comedians' sets and leak their material online. It also puts the focus on the stage during the show.

"It seems very obvious, but it makes the show a lot better," McCaffery said.

There's also a strict no-heckling policy.

"Everyone here is my friend," Adams said. "Everybody here is here to have a good time and if anybody comes in to mess a good time for everybody else, we ask them politely once to leave."

The longtime comedy fan and owner said that he became interested in comedy after coming home from Somalia where he was stationed with the Army on a peacekeeping mission.

"I had been a little dark toward the world because I had been shot at, been ambushed, been stabbed at and everything else by people who we were just trying to help," he said. "We had learned very quickly that we're good at peace-making as United States soldiers, but we're not great at peacekeeping."

When he came back to the States, Adams estimated that he went a year without laughing. Then someone suggested that he check out a comedy show in Fayetteville.

From there he started listening to more comedy and attending comedy shows.

"I found that it was cathartic, so I thought whenever I get successful in life what I'm gonna do is create that type of environment for the people who might also be having some issues like me . It doesn't have to be combat, it can be 1000 different things that can make people not want to smile, but if we can change that, then we changed the world at least for one person."

In 2016 Adams had a chance. He and his wife purchased a restaurant on Pleasant Grove Road not too far from where The Grove is now. He called buying the restaurant serendipitous: Adams is from Holly Grove, Ark., often called "The Grove" and his wife's maiden name is Grove. The couple saw it as a sign.

Adams kept the restaurant open long enough to run through the food inventory, then converted it into a comedy club.

"We learned a lot in the scope of three weeks from watching shows, how we did things, and what comedians would tell us," he said. "Then we make quick changes."

The operation kept growing and The Grove started to sell out weekend shows.

At the new location is a mural dedicated to comedians who have received standing ovations at his club -- Greg Morton, Dusty Slay, Linda Stogner and Stewart Huff and an honorary addition for the late Dave Clark, a local musician nicknamed "Uncle Dave" who slightly resembles actor Sam Elliot.

When the pandemic shut down clubs around the country, Clark helped Adams arrange an outdoor concert to help musicians make a little money during lockdown. Five hours after the concert, Clark died.

"I commissioned [the mural] for him, but we also established a fund for musicians in Northwest Arkansas," Adams said. If a local musician dies, the Grove will give their most immediate relative a check for $1,000, no questions asked. It's one of the quiet ways he gives back.

Sunday Comedy Showdown is Adams' latest venture. It gives regional comedians a chance to headline at the club plus the comedian will make $1,000 for the show, which Adams said is well above the industry standard.

In bigger cities like Nashville, Dallas or Denver, Adams explained, there are plenty of stages for regional comedians to get promoted from host to featured performer to headlining performer. However, comedians here didn't have that opportunity.

"We have (people who) are getting better and better and better, but they're never going to be able to go to these big markets and become a headliner if they don't headline somewhere else first," Adams explained.

Every Sunday four comedians perform a 15-minute set of comedy. The audience judges each individual comedian on whether or not they think the comedian can be a headliner. Meanwhile, Adams checks to make sure they are not repeating material so that they will have enough to become a headlining act at the end of the showdown's run.

"It kind of eases them into it, while also forcing them to write new material," he said. "A headliner (has) got to keep people going almost constantly."

In April the winner will be decided in time for a special anniversary celebration as the Grove goes into its ninth year. Greg Morton will return for a performance for those who missed his show at the Walton Arts Center earlier this year.

Also coming back to the area is comedian Sarah Colonna, who said there wasn't a place for local talent to perform comedy, much less advance in it, in her early days of doing comedy in Northwest Arkansas. Colonna grew up in Farmington and attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville before heading west to find success.

"I wish there would have been something like that when I was in school there because there wasn't really anything around," she said. "There were open mics and stuff, but usually that was more music. There wasn't really a lot to try, so I didn't get to do stand-up until I moved to Los Angeles, which was kind of terrifying."

In addition to performing stand-up around the country, Colonna starred in the Netflix series "Insatiable," on the Showtime series, "The United States of Tara" and was a regular on Chelsea Lately which was on the E! network. She's also the author of two books, "Life As I Blow It," and "Has Anyone Seen My Pants?"

The process of writing stand-up comedy takes longer than one might think, Colonna said. And only having a short amount of stage time means less time testing punchlines in front of a live audience.

"You really have to kind of work it out in increments and build your setup that way and it can be really tricky," she said. "You almost have to have more material than you are given time for, so that if something doesn't feel like it's right for that crowd, or something doesn't feel like it's going the right way, you have other material in your pocket."

Colonna said that it's not just the proximity to home that draws her to return to The Grove.

"It's a great excuse to go home and visit and also work at the same time," she said. Her first time at The Grove was last year. "I just had the best time. It's such a great club and great crowds."

Colonna will perform three shows May 10-11 at The Grove.

"When I come back to a place that I've been in the past year, I always make sure I have a significant amount of new material, so that people that who come to see you a second time are surprised and they hear some of the stuff they love and then they hear a bunch of new stuff too," she said. "Being from there, it's just it's so fun to go back and it's nerve-wracking to perform in front of your friends and family, but at least I've already done it once."

Colonna said that the Showdown is a good opportunity for the comedians to learn the ropes.

"It's a great opportunity," she said. "Bill is a very big champion of comedians, so if he sees something in you, he's going to be able to help you parlay that work into something else."

  photo  Comedians who received a standing ovation at The Grove are featured on a mural on the side of the club. From left are Stewart Huff, Linda Stogner, Dusty Slay and Greg Morton. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Monica Hooper)
  photo  Nationally touring comedian and former hometown girl, Sarah Colonna, will returns to The Grove this May. She said that the club is on par with the clubs she works while on tour. Also an author and actress, Colonna grew up in Farmington and attended University of Arkansas before publishing two books and starring on shows such as "The United States of Tara," "Chelsea Lately," and "insatiable." (File Photo)

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