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In a corner of a packed sports bar, beneath a neon Captain Morgan sign and a blank TV monitor, Erik Miller steps up to the mic and launches into his regular Friday night standup routine at Chilly Bombers Bar & Grill in northwest Phoenix.
"Let's keep it going for John Hyatt," Miller says, extending the standard high-five to the comic who just finished before him -- in this case, a nervous, heavyset first-timer who, in desperation, closed his three-minute set by dropping to the floor to impersonate a man dozing off in the shower, spent, after experiencing the famed stimulation of an Herbal Essence shampoo.
"That's the worst -- you take a stage dive and nobody laughs. Chirp! Chirp!" Miller says, sounding more antagonistic than sympathetic. Then Miller, a thirtysomething part-time comic and full-time loan officer for JP Morgan-Chase, who "just had a baby," he says from the stage . . . pause . . . "two years ago," dives into his act.
"Ever get up in the middle of the night and step on a Lego? You suddenly forget every swear word you ever knew! 'Mother fetcher! Fruity! Fruity Legos!'"
It's mostly wife, job and kids jokes, but the sports-bar crowd eats it up. ("You wanna stay cuddly," he says later. "I always tell the new guys that.")
Normally at this, the weekly standup comedy showcase he runs at Chilly Bombers for a split of the cheap $3 cover charge, Miller saves the best for last -- meaning his own 20-minute set.
But tonight, following a trio of bombing rookies capped off with Hyatt's performance -- which Miller considered particularly weak -- he rushed on second to last, to keep the standing-room-only crowd from bolting early.
"I'm not gonna let anyone come in here and take a crap on this room," he says afterward, out on the patio of the bar overlooking the traffic on West Bell Road. "I've worked too hard to build this show into what it is. And it's easy to spoil. A few bad comics in a row, and you can feel the energy level just drop."
Miller, who's been kicking around the Valley standup scene for more than four years, makes no bones about why he started running the amateur showcases at Chilly Bombers last October and, beginning in August, an additional Saturday night showcase at Big Daddy's in northwest Phoenix.
"I started this show to get stage time for myself, to get better at what I do," he says levelly. "I really wanna be the number one guy in this town. But I can't be the only person in a show every week. So it's one of those weird things where in order to do something really selfish, like become the number one comic, you almost have to be willing to help other people make it as a comic, too. So that they can help put on a good show, to make people want to follow you."
Along with Sean Dillingham, a Valley comic who's been running shows for the past two years at a comedy club in Old Town Scottsdale called the Comedy Spot, where Dillingham also gives himself the primo stage time, Miller is both envied and reviled among the clique-ish standup community for his naked ambition.
"Those two guys are the most hated comics in Phoenix," says Josh McDermitt, producer of the Tim and Willy show on KNIX and a local standup many in the know consider poised to make it big. "Most of the comics I talk to feel they're both on a power trip."
On the other hand, McDermitt allows, you can't fault a comic for trying to rise above the growing pack of aspiring standups here.
With new comedy nights springing up every month at various Valley nightclubs, amateur standup is quickly becoming the new karaoke.
On almost any given night of the week, you can find some kind of open-mic night, comedy showcase or improv workshop going on around the city. If it's Wednesday, it's amateur night at JJ's Sports Cantina in Scottsdale, Haus Murphy's German restaurant in downtown Glendale and, starting September 14, the Tupelo Tap Room in central Phoenix. Once a month on Thursdays, the Comedy Spot hosts Gay Comedy Night. Fridays offer open-mic nights at Chilly Bombers and Mardi Gras in lower Scottsdale, or improv comedy at the nearby Theater 168. Saturdays, it's Miller's other showcase at Big Daddy's or the Ahwatukee Comedy Club at the Grace Inn. And Sundays feature performances by improv troupes at Mardi Gras, as well as another open-mic night at the Comedy Spot.
Still, the big room in town, the Tempe Improv -- the Valley's only A-class venue, the room Jerry Seinfeld picked as the first place to return to standup after wrapping up nine seasons of his wildly successful sitcom -- remains a frustratingly elusive stage to local comics.
Valley comedians complain the Improv's influential owner, Dan Mer, seldom looks around his own backyard for talent, preferring to jet around the country scouting out openers for the national headliners he regularly brings to the club.
"Dan Mer doesn't think there's anything special in Phoenix," says Miller, who, like most local comics, paints Mer as a kind of workaholic daddy who won't pay enough attention to his own kids -- no matter how many little shows they put on themselves.