Each month, local comedian and actor Joe Marshall sits down with a local artist to pick their brain about all things creative and their role in the D.C. performing arts scene.
A year ago, live comedy in the District seemed all but dead (yes, that includes Zoom comedy shows). The pandemic was in full swing and we all witnessed its grim effects — especially in the entertainment industry, with classic local clubs like Drafthouse Comedy Theater downtown forced to permanently close their doors. But with the help of the vaccine and masks, comedy venues have begun opening their doors once again.
However bleak this may sound, the pandemic wasn’t all bad for comedy: It created an opportunity for independent show producers to forge a path clubs couldn’t follow. While comedy clubs were closed due to CDC guidelines, independent producers took their talents to the backyard by hosting outdoor comedy shows that contained all the flair and freedom of a college kickback.
There was a coolness to these independent shows — an underground, rebel edge that gave them an extra breath of life. Amongst the trailblazing producers of these shows is Cheverly, Maryland native Mike Kurtz of CryBaby DC.
Founded by Brooklyn-based comedians Dekunle Somade and Abe Gatling in 2017, CryBaby originated as a monthly New York comedy showcase and quickly attracted some big-name talent from Comedy Central, MTV and even Netflix. As the brand began to expand in 2018, Somade reached out to his University of Maryland friend, Kurtz, to start a CryBaby in D.C.
A savvy local, Kurtz quickly expanded the show’s reach by producing nearly 200 shows at venues
including Toki Underground, The Artemis and Wonderland Ballroom, to name a few. CryBaby DC is one of the few independently run shows that consistently brings in mainstream talent, such as Daniel Simonsen of Comedy Central and Yedoye Travis of MTV, while still heavily showcasing local comedians.
“From the very first CryBaby show I went to in Brooklyn, I knew what the vibes were,” Kurtz says. “It was palpable.”
The comedian’s Prince George’s County origins exude throughout the curation of his shows.
“Any comedy show is a reflection of the producer, so the vibe of the show is basically just me,” Kurtz says. “I just try to be myself and put out something I would enjoy.”
I remember the first time I attended a CryBaby DC show. It was over the summer on the rooftop of the Upper West Side Café in Northwest D.C. As I hopped off the elevator, I could hear the harmonizing vocals of Shelley FKA DRAM and Erykah Badu blaring from the speakers. Kurtz greeted me and checked me in at the door with a smile. I thought to myself, “Who the hell is this white man and what Black man’s Spotify account did he steal to curate this playlist?”
Drinks were flowing and smiles were cracking before a joke was even told. It was obvious this wasn’t just a comedy show — it was a vibe. But Kurtz isn’t just responsible for setting the atmosphere of the show. He’s a comedian who performs and often hosts, as well.
As the show began, he stepped to the mic with an awkward confidence and lightness about him that was comically reassuring. Comedians are usually analyzed by the audience from the moment they step onto the stage. Whether they know it or not, the audience isn’t necessarily looking for clever writing or hilarious delivery: They’re looking for authenticity. That five-minute set is a difficult dance between likeability and honesty, and it’s one Kurtz excels at.
“I always try to be honest with my material and stay true to myself,” he says. “The biggest thing a lot of comics struggle with is feeling like they have to put on some big performance. But it’s not a performance as much as it is a conversation between you and the audience.”
At first glance onstage, Kurtz doesn’t look like the kind of white guy you’d expect to have a Black girlfriend (I can say this because I’m Black). He’s fairly soft-spoken, unassuming and seemingly deficient of BDE (Black dude energy). But what makes him hilariously powerful is he knows and acknowledges all of this in his act, opening with jokes about how people often underestimate his ability to satisfy his partner.
“I start with a concept I think is funny, but I also pay attention to how I feel when I say it,” Kurtz says. “I’m looking to see if the things I say feel natural — if it feels like I’m not faking it. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, people will think this is funny. Let me say it.’ But if [what I say] isn’t how I actually feel, it comes across as fake and the audience can sense that.”
What Kurtz is describing is the process comedians must go through to discover their true comedic voice: Their original perspective on the world. Comedians need time to discover themselves and it’s been estimated by veteran performers that it can take around seven years.
“Confidence in myself took time and experience,” says the 32-year-old comedian, who had a leg up in his self-actualization journey by starting standup at the seasoned age of 29. “Basically, a lot of me f–king up. But I keep going. It’s about being honest with myself and accepting the results even when I’m not comfortable with them.”
In a field where it’s easy to get caught up in competition, Kurtz refuses to play the comparison game and is firmly focused on the future of CryBaby DC.
“It’s easy to constantly compare yourself and get lost in your head. You can lose yourself that way. You just have to trust in yourself and let it go. Luckily, the D.C. comedy scene is very supportive. I want to support the growth of other comedians with our shows as they expand.”
CryBaby DC is currently producing five shows throughout the week: Sundays at The Artemis in Northwest, Tuesdays at The District Sports Bar in Northwest, Fridays at Library Tavern in Northwest and Saturdays at the Copacabana in Adams Morgan. Most shows are free, which is great news for all of us who are still ballin’ on that pandemic budget. If you’re looking for good vibes and great laughs served on a plate of authenticity, give CryBaby DC a try.
Want to check out some of Kurtz’s comedy or pop-up at one of CryBaby DC’s upcoming shows? You can visit crybabydc.com for tickets and follow them on Instagram @crybabydc for show updates. Follow Mike Kurtz on Instagram as well @oh_aiiiight.
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