Anwar Newton still remembers the feeling he had his first time on stage: embarrassment.
"I wrote down some stuff beforehand, but you realize very quickly that what you think is funny is actually really dumb and boring," he says. "I don't even remember what I said. My brain just locked it away from my memory forever."
Now, the 30-year-old local comic has, in his own words, hit his stride, opening up for acts like Hannibal Buress and Tig Notaro. While the stage is where he feels at home, he and Erick Biez — a successful talent in his own right — have opted to make their mark on Phoenix's thriving comedy scene in a different way: by hosting a new monthly show.
L.T.W.S.E. debuts at Valley Bar on Thursday, September 3, at 9 p.m., bringing with it a variety of talent, some local, some national — all of whom Biez and Newton are fans. Local comedians Pauly Casillas and Cristin Davis are on the bill. Casillas organizes The Switch, an improv-style show with audience-submitted topics that just wrapped up its summer residency at Crescent Ballroom. Davis runs a weekly show at Monkey Pants in Tempe and has opened for Doug Stanhope (whom Biez, 31, counts among his favorite comics.)
The heavy hitters opening night include Jeremiah Watkins and headliner Dean Delray. Watkins hails from Los Angeles and has become recognizable on the comedy festival circuit, while Delray is making a national name for himself thanks to spots on Marc Maron’s popular podcast, WTF, and as an opener for his recent, largely sold-out tour.
But Thursday night is as much about the comedy scene in Phoenix as it is about the comedians. Earlier this year saw the opening of an outpost of The Laugh Factory in Scottsdale and House of Comedy in the North Valley. There are monthly, weekly, and nightly shows that play in venues from indie bookstores and art galleries to sports bars and "proper" comedy clubs.
"It feels like there might be a mild oversaturation," Biez says. "So many spots opened without enough seasoned comics here."
"Other scenes are so saturated, too," Newton adds. "In Los Angeles, everyone's there and no one can get on stage. In Las Vegas everyone's there and you've got to be goddamned amazing to get on those stages. So Phoenix is the next closest thing. It's going to crumble. It’s going to fall the fuck apart. It's a bubble."
It's a trend that goes beyond our spread-out city, affecting the industry as a whole.
"There's a comedy boom right now like there was in the 1980s," says Dean Delray, L.T.W.S.E.'s headliner, citing his favorite comics as Maron, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, and Nick Kroll, many of whom have been around for years but gained traction only over the past decade. "Everybody wants to get right in on the business. When the bubble will burst again we’ll see what clubs — and comics — are left. As far as clubs go, if people are going to them, that’s great"
People are going — in droves. Not just to watch, but to perform. Newton and Biez come from a community that is as bursting at the seams as it is incestuous, where everybody knows everybody, at least on Facebook, and the shared mutual friends between comics hovers around 200 to 300 people.
As a result, there's a surge in what Biez calls "structured" sign-up sets to theme- and character-driven shows, to variety shows and, of course, traditional comedy club sets: host, opener, feature, headliner.
"A lot of people love comedy. People listen to podcasts, people watch Comedy Central — you can't find someone who doesn't have a comedian they love," Newton says. "And nearly all of them have never been inside of a comedy club [because] it feels like they're being wrangled in and paying a lot of money to not have the best experience. We want to you to come and feel like you're a part of the show."
"You're catching people and want to be there and are invested in what you're going to say," Biez adds. "I can do something on stage that won’t work in a bar that people are distracted in."
The duo partnered with Stateside Presents to create this new monthly performance. It was a marriage of perfect timing, familiar faces, and a desire to inject a new format into an arguably over-saturated scene.
Newton had worked security for Crescent Ballroom and opened for Notaro's show there earlier this spring. Stateside approached Newton about a residency for the summer, but the idea of filling a venue as large as the ballroom made him nervous, especially since he had never considered running a show before.
"But that's when I got wind of Valley Bar opening up," he says. "A smaller venue that caters a little more toward the local scene. This is the perfect time to strike. Not only do we have access to a really cool venue, but what can we bring to it that we're not seeing?" Newton says.
He reached out the Biez, who he says "knows everything about comedy here," and the two decided to tackle the project. (Biez, coincidentally, was bar backing at Valley Bar when it started in late spring and was receiving write-ups and press for his open mics.)
Biez has been in the business of making people laugh for the better part of five years, from working at Stand Up Live in CityScape to running his own open mics around town. He got into comedy on the recommendation of friends and landed at The Comedy Spot in Scottsdale, performing his first-ever set to a crowd that ended up loving him.
"I realized, 'This is a lot easier than being in a band and babysitting four or five other people,'" he says. "I don't have a problem being in front of people. It’s writing jokes I have a problem with."
Biez created an open mic at Stand Up Live’s sister restaurant, Copper Blues, shortly after the two opened. The show survived downtown for three and a half years before moving to the Tempe bar of the same name. It's going strong even four years on, and Biez has continued performing, promoting and organizing open mics at other venues like The Turf.
"What better way to learn how comedy and open mics go than running one?" he says. "And it's the quickest way to stage time."
The two are big fans of plenty of sets on the local scene, from Matt Micheletti’s "Comedy on Fire" (which Biez describes as a feeling harkening to high school house parties) to "Snap Battles" an ongoing roast at the Tempe Improv. They praise Space 55’s "The Storrs Objection," where comedians are criticized for the validity and factual accuracy of their jokes, and Casillas' "The Switch" (which will move to FilmBar this fall).
But they wanted to fill a hole that was missing: a comedy club show without the comedy club feeling. After all, "a lot of people don’t like going to comedy clubs these days, and the clubs are feeling the backlash because of the two-drink minimum and things like that," Newton says.
With Valley Bar, they have more freedom. The show and its comedians, both those performing and the two at the helm, are playing partly for the crowd the underground space already draws. More comedians are defecting from comedy clubs and playing music venues because of a change in scenery and in audience, Biez suggests, like Valley Bar and Crescent Ballroom.
"I think stand-up works at both venues, [it] just depends on the atmosphere you’re looking to create," says Alex Bruno, who helps handle bookings for Stateside Presents — the promotion company run by Charlie Levy. (Levy is creator and owner of both Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar and undoubtedly responsible for the last concert you saw.) "Valley Bar is a great place for new opportunities. We’re still working on a format, and why not try comedy? The room is perfect! It's a cozy room that offers low ceilings which [are] great for laughter. It kind of bounces off the walls.
"Having worked with Anwar in the past and Erick's strong presence in the comedy world, I just knew it was a match," she continues. "We truly believe in their vision."
"I always feel like when you do a comedy club show you have to live by a set of rules," Newton says. "When you do your own comedy show you can just let it all hang out and people are less tense and accept more unorthodox-style comedy."
Part of that "unorthodox style" was to choose a handful of unorthodox comedians to lead off L.T.W.S.E.
Which is how he came to ask Dean Delray to headline this first set.
Raised in the Bay Area and no stranger to a scene of Harley Davidsons and heavy metal, Delray lived a full life as a touring musician before ever considering standing stationary behind the microphone. As a musician, he opened for Tom Petty and Lenny Kravitz, had a residency in a Cabo club owned by Sammy Hagar and spun records at parties attended by Mick Jagger. Then things changed.
As a 40-something up-and-coming comic, Delray found his voice almost immediately but worked harder than younger stand-ups to hone it. He performed every night, multiple times a night, at clubs throughout Los Angeles and Hollywood, which he still does. When we spoke on the phone, Delray mentioned he had wrapped up two shows the night before.
"I can't do big shows on my own! I don't care what size the show is: if there's people there, I'm in," he says. "I love doing stand-up more than anything. I do it seven nights [a week]."
Delray has played large crowds as an opener but still finds himself in mid-size or smaller venues, like this upcoming show at Valley Bar, which he doesn’t seem to mind. The intimacy is helpful, both for audience and performer, and in a time of comedic "boom," it's a welcome change of pace.
"[The comedy scene is] better than ever, I think. When I was growing up, you had great comedies. The best. You know, [Richard] Pryor, [George] Carlin, Cheech and Chong. They were awesome. But there weren’t so many easy outlets to see them and become a fan," he says. "Now there's so many great comedians and so many great outlets to see them: Comedy Central, YouTube, Hulu, Twitter, Vine …. so you find these people that are doing fantastic work [and you find them more easily].
"A comic is going to be different in all different rooms. A show with 18,000 people is going to be a little bigger [experience]. They're going to be doing a set, doing a show. If you see them at a small, intimate venue, like 100 to 200 people, you’re going to see the raw person. You're going to see what's going on in their eyes and what they’re thinking. They are different dynamics — and both great. But my ultimate room would be the original Comedy Store room."
He plays the Store almost every night ("I’m playing the Store when I'm not on the road," he says).
When not onstage he’s on the air, hosting his own podcast, "Let There Be Talk," and guest speaking on shows like Maron’s "WTF," Jay Mohr's "The Mohr Stories" and Joe Rogan's "The Joe Rogan Experience." He says he views his own as a digital flier. He recently sold out in Toronto and had never even played there before. Podcasting is "the best thing for my career — besides Marc Maron," he says.
"It's not monetary, it's personal experience. For me, I've already made it. If you're 49 and doing stand-up and you're on tour with the biggest comic in the world, you can't ask for anything better than that," he says, referring to his recent tour with Maron.
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Still, he says, he looks forward to returning to the stage on his own in Phoenix, bringing his unfiltered and insightful observations to the town where he first went on tour.
"I really like working in this town. It's the first place I ever did a road date," he says. About a year into working he was asked to do a 20-minute set as part of a NASCAR- weekend gig. It was daunting but useful. "After ten minutes you're like, 'Oh no! I have ten more minutes to fill!' I learned so much on that one road trip."
Like Newton, who still remembers those early sets on stage, Delray says he still thinks about that moment every time he returns to the Valley. It’s safe to say Biez, Newton and Delray now have plenty of material to perform — so even if it's what L.T.W.S.E. stands for, Thursday night won't be, well, "literally the worst show ever."
Doors open at 8:30 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 3, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue. Tickets are $8 in advance; $10 day of show. There is no drink minimum for the 21-and-over event. Visit www.valleybarphx.com or www.facebook.com/events/1068284959878908 for details and to purchase tickets.