Part 1: Omaha
An ingenious passion project by the owner of an architecture firm is doing its part to keep comedy alive in one Midwestern city
When I was booked to perform at the Big Canvas Theater, I didn’t know what I was getting into.
And I mean that in the best of ways.
It’s difficult to sustain a full-time comedy club. Paying rent, utilities, and staffing a business that’s only open two or three nights a week is tough. You’re going to have some incredibly thin margins, and little to any profits.
Walking up to the address I’d been given, the first sign I saw was “Slate Architecture.”
I was slightly confused, but then I spied the “Big Canvas Theater” placard.
“Oh,” I thought. “They must share the building.”
Turns out, the owner of the architecture firm also happened to be a big fan of comedy. His company had an extra room that could seat just under 100 people, and, well, they were architects after all… so they converted the spare room into a beautiful little “theater.”
Thus, the Big Canvas Theater of Omaha, Nebraska, technically exists inside an architecture firm.
During the day, designing structures pays the bills. On weekends—when the day players have all gone home—the gift of laughter is offered to the community at large.
This arrangement allows the room to be as intimate as it is. A stand-alone structure couldn’t survive with such a low headcount, not without charging incredibly high-ticket prices anyway. But a business using their spare room for bonus income? They can offer affordable tickets, because it’s technically all gravy to them.
It made me wonder if this could be the future of comedy: solvent businesses with a passion for comedy nesting full-fledged showrooms within them.
This is a vast oversimplification, but there are two kinds of comedy clubs these days: those that bank on name recognition alone, and those who work to build an atmosphere of trust with their market.
The former clubs only book comedians with a TV credit. They want butts in seats buying alcohol, and believe people will only respond to comedians with “As seen on” next to their name. The latter rooms build a relationship with their community. People visit the club because they know that even if they’re unfamiliar with the person on the marquee, they’ll still have a good time.
Doug Rothgeb, the man behind the Big Canvas Theater, is shooting to be more the latter than the former.
“Our mission is: comedy is for everyone. Our theater offers everything from clean, family-friendly shows, all the way to the bluest of the blue material. We let our audience know when it’s safe for all, and when it’s for those ready to get a little dirty.”
It’ll be impossible to attract big comedians to such a small room, but the thing with comedy is: you can always find undiscovered gems. Just because someone hasn’t been on TV doesn’t mean they’re not hilarious.
I absolutely enjoyed my night in Omaha, and can’t wait to go back.
I hope I see a few more mini-clubs like the Big Canvas Theater pop up across the country.
Interested in more of me? Buy a book…