Probably true: When Brett Cantrell stumbled onto The East Room’s stage in bulky thrifted rollerblades and commenced pirouetting to Alphaville’s Forever Young” recently, it was a first for the East Nashville performance space. Definitely true: It was weird and hilarious, which, as part of the weekly Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Show, was certainly the point.
     East Nashville’s not always weird and hilarious on purpose. But with a spate of recurring live comedy shows popping up and sticking around in the neighborhood over the past few years — from the monthly Laugh Cycle open mics at the Family Wash to Jokers Abbey shows at Smokers Abbey — our side of the river has been steadily becoming, if not a hotbed for comedy, at least a vibrant proving ground and destination for it.
     For comics and comedy fans in town, East Nashville’s growth as a stand-up hub is cause for applause — it’s bringing steady stage time to local stand-ups, welcoming stops for touring names and broader entertainment options for those of us who hate crossing the river and love having first-rate performers right in our backyard.
     “[Massively popular touring comedian] Tig Notaro came through and did a tour stop at The East Room [last year], and people were going apeshit,” says Chad Riden, East Sider, longtime Nashville comic, Spiffy Squirrel host and the typing fingers behind “It’s like, ‘She’s here!’ Somebody of her caliber of talent or fame level could come to Zanies or The High Watt or whatever, and people would enjoy it and go, but people wouldn’t be losing their shit that she was actually in their neighborhood. People here have bumper stickers with the zip code on it. It’s stupid, but I think it’s awesome.”
     Also awesome: the fact that, with the rise of the East Side, a town that once had minimal open-mic options now offers newcomer and rising comedians ample opportunities for testing, development and all-important practice.
     For Kate Spellman, who first started taking Nashville stand-up stages earlier this year, the shows with open mics have been a source of encouragement and a portal into a welcoming local comedy community.
     “I think I’ve been sticking with it because there’s such a growing scene around East Nashville,” she says. “People were really nice to me when I first started coming out. They were like, ‘Hey, you should keep coming out — it is really hard, but you’ll get better and better each time you do it.’ We’re always encouraging new people to come out and give it a try. After open mics, we’ll go out and get a drink and be, ‘Hey, this was a really good joke that you did — here’s another tag for it.’ Stuff like that.”
     For folks on the booking side of things, that community and camaraderie has made a marked difference in local comic quality. East Room head Ben Jones has been booking comedy shows at his Gallatin Avenue club for a year and change, and he’s seen big growth in both talent and reception.
     “I noticed there was this community of comedians — there’s a lotta inside jokes, and they knew each other pretty well, and they’re constantly talking to each other, giving each other advice,” he says, “and I wondered . . . is this detrimental to them getting better, because there’s this safety in numbers and everybody patting each other on the back? Is that better or worse than having competition between each other? They’ve said and they’ve proven, I think, that the community aspect has been better. I’ve seen it. There’s probably about 15 comedians who went from seeming promising to I think legitimately great.”
     The “legitimately great” talent is slowly and steadily pumping up the crowds, too.
     “That used to not be a thing,” comic Paulina Combow, who cohosts the monthly Comedy Pug Hugs show at Mad Donna’s, says with a giggle. “It used to be us comics in a room together, laughing or not laughing at each other.”
     Pug Hugs partner Mary Jay Berger agrees. “The quality’s increased, so now people are like, ‘Oh, we can sit through a mic.’”
     It’s not just that shows exist, that they’re steady, and good, and somewhat plentiful. There’s something uniquely East Nashville that both comics and club owners are seeing — an openness, an enthusiasm, a refreshing lack of the sensibility, as Riden says, of people “being subjected to comedy. Comedy happening to them. At them.”
     “They’re comedy fans for sure,” Combow says of East Side crowds. “Whereas when we would do bar shows [elsewhere] it’s like, ‘Oh, people are there to drink and you’re interrupting them.’ Here, people actually do come to see us. And then they have the option to get beer.”
     East Nashville’s openness to testing and experimentation feeds the scene’s growth, too.
     “People are more receptive to stuff here, and it can be more experimental, and that’s good,” Riden says, “because that’s how you figure it out. When you’re just starting, these guys don’t always know their voice yet, they don’t understand who they are as people let alone comics. So I just tell them, ‘Write whatever you can, it doesn’t matter, you’re not locked into some image because you’re trapped in a sitcom on NBC at 8:30.’ … And they feel comfortable taking risks. I would say that East Nashville contributes to the comfort there.”
     Perhaps not coincidentally, Nashville has steadily begun drawing in working comics from other cities, many of whom regularly take East Side stages to test new stuff and shape up sets. Dusty Slay, whose new Makin’ That Fudge album was recorded live at Logue’s Black Raven Emporium, moved here from South Carolina, while Ron Placone came in from Pittsburgh, and Bubba Bradley moved over from out west.
     As a home base — with at least 10 decentsized cities within a 10-hour driving distance — Nashville makes a lot of sense for touring performers of any ilk. And as East Nashville grows as a comedy corner — whatever it is that’s fueling it — the neighborhood is making more and more sense as a comedy home base within a home base.
     “I really think it’s out of selfishness, more than anything,” Riden says of the blooming East Nashville comedy show scene (and, as it happens, of his own series of regular East Side shows). “I feel like a lot of people feel that way: ‘I don’t want to leave the neighborhood.’ There’s cool stuff here. If I ever have to go to Green Hills, something’s fucked.”

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