“How’s everyone doing tonight?”
If you’ve ever been to a comedy show, you know the comedian uses this question as a kind of rhetorical mic check to get the audience applauding and ready to listen — a gauge of the vibe.
But on a recent sweltering summer Friday, down in the cool basement of Adams Morgan’s new comedy hotspot Hotbed, 32-year-old comedian Saw Walton asked and only a few people answered.
A Sought-After Spot
Crowd participation is more than Walton can expect at his day job teaching seventh grade math over Zoom. In his opening set, he cracks wise about the perils of teaching, the best way to order at Chipotle and the similarities between supreme pizza and an activity my editor definitely wouldn’t let me type here. Along the way, he’s checking in with the audience, none of whom are more than 20 feet away in the intimate, 100-seat venue.
“You’re like a guinea pig up there,” Walton says of opening a show. “A piñata. A thermometer. The first Wright brother.”
Born and raised in Prince George’s County, Walton has worked the comedy scene around D.C. for the last five years. A self-described lifelong learner, he’s excited for the possibilities Hotbed offers.
“Every day I’m getting better and better, little by little,” he says. “This is the perfect place to build up those chops: in front of a great crowd. Hotbed is the spot everybody wants to be.”
Two Concepts, One Incubator
Hotbed opened this past April, taking over half of the old Songbyrd on 18th. The venue is focused on creating a propagative environment for local talent — but you never know who’s going to stop by or break out.
The two-floor club is also the new home of Underground Comedy, one of the most notable independent comedy production companies around. Ever heard of Michael Che, Patton Oswalt, Michelle Wolf, Hannibal Buress, Judah Friedlander or Jim Jefferies? They all performed in Underground Comedy shows.
The brains — and muscle and heart and many other parts — of Underground Comedy is Sean Joyce, D.C.’s comedy impresario. After the pandemic claimed business licenses of several of Joyce’s regular venues, including Dupont’s infamous The Big Hunt in early 2021, he began planning Hotbed. The company also occasionally works out of Room 808, a club tucked inside a Petworth row house, and hosts weekly shows at Reliable Tavern and Columbia Height’s Wonderland Ballroom.
A Sinister Evolution
In many ways, Hotbed is an evolution of The Big Hunt’s basement stage, right down to its charmingly sinister feel.
Walking down the tight staircase from the all-black first floor which houses a full bar and minimalist neon chandeliers, I felt a shift. Though the air was cool, the room, with its low ceiling, red lightbulbs and carnelian walls felt like an infernal lounge, complete with its own bar. Above the small stage, baking under concentrated beams from three lights, Hotbed’s fiery logo glowed. A lone stool and microphone cast shadows across the wall of jet-black shale tiles.
“It’s the kind of place that appeals to me,” Joyce says. “It’s a more mature version of Big Hunt, and it goes well with comedy. Basements are perfect for comedy. Tight spaces. Everybody being close — too close — together makes it more fun and exciting.”
Embracing a Culture of Growth
Walton, too, believes Hotbed will carry on The Big Hunt’s legacy, where so many DMV comics cut and sharpened their teeth over thousands of shows between 2013 and 2020.
“It’s really important for us to have Hotbed. It reminds us of the history and community we had at Big Hunt, which we can recreate over here.”
Backstage, past a cartoon devil sign, I bumped into Steven Chen and Eddie Morrison discussing changes to the comedy scene and the hustle it takes to develop a career, including occasionally performing back-to-back-to-back shows at different venues. They compared the Friday 8 p.m. audiences to the late Saturday night crowds with an anthropological level of detail.
In between shows (which currently start at 8 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., with larger bills each show and more shows on their way), I ran into performers on the stairs or sitting in the audience.
“Even if I’m not in the show, I want to be in the room watching,” Walton says. “You get to see your peers work stuff out and get better. I’m analyzing them to see how my writing and segments can [improve].”
I watched five comics that sultry Friday night: Walton, Chen, Morrison, Denise Taylor and headliner Lafayette Wright. Each brought a distinct performance style to the stage, from anxious to confident to everything in between. Even when similar subject matter popped up in their sets, nothing felt redundant because each take was so unique.
“This is what a great local comedy scene looks like,” Joyce says. “These are comedians going through the big topics of today. They’re constantly developing material and some of them are at Hotbed multiple times a night throughout the week. You get to see them evolve and grow.”
Together, their sets served as a catalog of anxieties: dating, family, finances, therapy, sleeplessness, political polarization, climate change, the gastrointestinal effects of fast food, racism and performative allyship. Some of these topics have long been the fodder of American humor, but many are distinctly 2022. The evening was a needed pressure release, allowing a time and space to laugh at issues serious and absurd.
Joyce points out that the show is live, and the comedians are constantly shaping their materials to the moment, unlike a comedy special or even a show at a bigger venue.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, how the comedians are going to react to the room, how the chips are going to land,” he says. “That’s the exciting part of it.”
That night, I watched as comedians handled everything from bothersome flies to handsy couples and unexpected but informed responses.
It’s all part of being a D.C. comic, Walton shares.
“D.C. comics have to be well-versed. You have to learn about a lot of different things, even if it’s something you don’t agree with personally. People will come up to you after a show and say ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ with that joke. It sharpens you. And it’s not just politics. Everyone’s diverse in terms of knowledge and passions and backgrounds. You have to have respect for everybody.”
For Joyce, the bond between performer and audience is paramount.
“I want to have great shows. I want the crowd to have fun. I want the comics to want the crowd to have a great time. My goal is for every show to be packed and for everyone to love it. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Hotbed is off to a hell of a start.