Something funny is happening in North KC
While Kansas City’s comedy scene is typically associated with venues in the urban core like Stanford’s, Comedy City and KC Improv, the Rino (short for “River North”) is quickly becoming a new hub for comedy in the Northland as production manager Ben Wendt works to cultivate an intimate new room in the booming downtown of North KC.
“As a musician myself, at first I was focused on making [the Rino] a great space for music,” says Wendt. “We had amazing results with our Song Lab open mic for music, so we wanted to try the same thing for live comedy with the Laugh Lab. We realized pretty quickly that it’s an even better room for comedy than we originally thought.”
Since starting the Laugh Lab in late January, Wendt says he’s been blown away at the reception - and how fast the audience has grown. The open mic takes place every Wednesday at 8 p.m., and anyone is welcome to get on stage for a five minute slot.
“A lot of times when you go to open mics, it’s pretty hit-or-miss,” Wendt says. “The audiences can be mostly comics working out new material, and there’s not as much an incentive to try as there is with an audience who is just there to see the show. The makeup of the room is really important.”
As the audience continues to swell each week, Wendt believes that while the room, the great next-door bar and the lack of cover definitely help, the talent is really what keeps people coming back every Wednesday night.
“People would be shocked at how many comics are grinding and trying to make it in KC. That hard work shines through at [the Laugh Lab], and I do my part to make sure that talent gets more stage time.”
“[The Rino] is a great place to start,” says regular Evan Christian Goldt. “The sets are five minutes each, which is low stakes, and you can get booked and produce your own shows from there.”
Newcomer Aaron Scarbrough started doing stand-up in Kansas City last July. “I love this place,” he says. “I got invited to be on my first showcase here -- it all spirals from Ben [Wendt].”
According to Wendt, while the Wednesday open mic is a great way to get your feet wet as an audience member, the best the scene has to offer comes in the form of weekly or monthly showcases, which are often put together by regular Laugh Lab performers.
One such performer is the venerable Brandon Patrick, who just released his new birthday special, “30 for 30 for Thirty” (coincidentally recorded at the Rino in front of 30 people for 30 minutes on his thirtieth birthday). Patrick, originally from Oklahoma City, hosts a monthly showcase at the Rino every second Saturday called Cream of the Crop with fellow comic Jack Merrywell. He believes that the Rino has been integral in providing a space for developing local talent.
“A lof places are like, ‘The mic is on at 8, go,’” he says. “Ben [Wendt] personally seats the room a certain way. He’s always asking, ‘What do you guys need from me?’”
Patrick says this has helped foster a greater appreciation for comedy in the city, especially in the Northland. “People come out to places with a good show, and if you’re funny, they’ll give you a shot.”
Ryan Trickey, another Laugh Lab regular and co-host of the Set to Destroy podcast with comedian Stephen Taylor, agrees that the Rino is quickly becoming his favorite venue in the city -- and audiences are responding. “It’s a great room and the staff and management are just a dream to work with,” says Trickey. “We’ve had a number of shows reach standing room only which is really fun to get to do.”
Trickey encourages folks to come out and meet the comedians. “It’d be cool if people started to follow comedians the way that they follow bands,” he says. “Go to a show and if you like the comedian, go up and say, ‘Hey,’ afterwards. We crave your approval desperately.”
Maeret Lemons, a longtime KC comic who has opened for national acts like Marc Maron, says that we may see more music venues giving comedy a shot. “The Rino is having a lot of success with [live comedy],” she says. “The bigger the audience gets [in Kansas City], the better the comedians get. The venues have a part in helping that process.”
“Because we’re getting more places like [The Rino] that help expose all this original talent here, comics are taking it upon themselves to get better, too,” says Jeff Nelson, a comedian from Shawnee.
“The Rino is pushing the trend of having more [open] mics, and when we have more resources and outlets we can start to carry over our audience through things like Barrel of the Bottoms (a local comedy studio in the West Bottoms), improv, podcasts -- things like that.”
“More people need to know it exists,” says Colby Cusick, referring to the Kansas City comedy scene. Cusick puts on a free showcase, “Shut up and Clap,” every Thursday at the Mockingbird Lounge in Strawberry Hill, in addition to regularly appearing at the Laugh Lab open mic.
“We all grew up on this stuff on the Internet,” he says. “People watch standup on Netflix all the time -- you can come watch it in real life and a lot of the time it’s free.”
The Laugh Lab takes place (almost) every Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Rino in North Kansas City. Be sure to get there early for a seat.