"That's depressing," Anchorage stand-up comic Matt Burgoon said after I told him Alaska Dispatch News was interested in running a story about Anchorage's stand-up scene.
Burgoon, who during a set said he "looks like Macaulay Culkin if he let himself go," is a member of a small, but dedicated group of comics who perform nearly every Wednesday and Sunday during open-mic night at Chilkoot Charlie's. In the winter between 10 to 15 audience members typically filled the barroom. Despite the small crowds, Burgoon structures his life around stand-up. He schedules his college classes around open mics and annoys his girlfriend late at night asking her opinion about jokes that pop into his head.
Matt Collins is a KWHL DJ by day and Koot's open mic host by night. He's been telling jokes on Anchorage stages for seven years. In 2015, he performed more than 100 times in venues across the city, mostly at Koot's.
"It can get really demoralizing, sometimes, doing open mics," Collins said. "We'll have weeks, months where no one shows up and it will just be the comics, and then you're just telling a joke to an empty room. Nothing is more isolating than that kind of feeling."
Still, about a dozen comedians show up night after night. When people do come, they're laughing. The comics perform for each other as much as their audience. They view open mic as a way to cut their teeth on new material and test it out on one another. Even if no one's there, they still go at it.
Editor's note: The audio clips below include mature content.
"We've been doing it together for a while," Burgoon said. "There's a core group. We go to everyone's birthday parties and stuff like that. We're pretty incestuous."
Money doesn't drive these comics, who are mostly men in their late 20s and early 30s. There's no way to make a living, or even supplement an income, performing comedy in Anchorage. Passion for the craft drives them, which makes the shows fun to watch, because they're having a hell of a good time.
"The reason I still do it here (in Anchorage) is because I love getting on stage and doing it," Burgoon said. "I love telling jokes, that feeling you get after you tell a joke and then everyone starts laughing, it's like, 'Hell yeah. I did that to you.' I made everyone have a reaction and laugh. It's a really good feeling."
The comedians also organize comedy showcases at venues like Tap Root Public House and Hard Rock Cafe. Unlike an open mic, where anybody can get onstage and talk for five minutes, showcases are by invitation only. They occur every few months and are more highly attended.
Between biweekly open mics and showcases, the comics' material is surprisingly varied. If a joke didn't hit, they recalibrate and deliver the material in a different, mostly better way another night.
Collins tries to perform new material as often as possible. He views stand-up comedy philosophically, as a way to live an examined life, and to connect with others through humor. He carries a notebook, his daily observations and thoughts stuffed in the pages that will ultimately become a story to tell.
"The great thing about stand-up and storytelling is that you get to share that kind of (unique) life experience," Collins said. "I get to hear people talk about their lives that I would never have met unless I was doing this."
Like many comedians interviewed, Collins credited former Koot's events manager Greg Chaille, who at one time managed Mitch Hedberg, with regularly bringing in larger crowds. Tapping his industry contacts, he'd bring headliners to town, sometimes twice a month, and the best local talent would open the set. Chaille's since moved on, and it's left an organizational hole the locals are trying to fill, along with trying to recruit new talent into the fold.
Many of the newer Anchorage comics started as audience members. The more seasoned locals, especially Collins, encourage newbies to try it out.
"At this level it's so accessible to everyone," Collins said. "If you come to enough open mics you will wind up trying stand-up comedy. You will see so many people fail at a joke or have a joke hit that you think, 'Oh my God, I've had that same thought. I can do that.' If that person can do it, then I sure can as well."
Katelynn Sortino is one such person. The 27-year-old social worker, who joked onstage about once accidentally dating a convicted murderer on Tinder, first did standup about five months ago, three months after she saw an open mic advertised on a flier and began attending. The comedians found out Sortino started writing her own jokes and pushed her to perform.
"It was nerve-wracking and I was shaking," Sortino said of her first time on the Koot's stage.
"I've done public speaking before but I've never done a vulnerable thing like this. I thought, 'This is my sense of humor, and I'm putting it on display and you might not like it and it might be super embarrassing but I'm going to try it anyway.' "
She got some laughs and ended up enjoying the experience. The second time around things fell flat, she didn't get as many laughs, but she said the other comedians picked her up and dusted her off.
"They're super supportive," Sortino said. "A lot of the comedians who participate in open mic here do it because the community is so welcoming and encouraging."
At the time of our interview Sortino had performed at six open mics and one showcase. Despite her success in the local scene, and similar to several other comics interviewed, she said performing professional stand-up is not on her agenda.
"I think it's more of a hobby," Sortino said. "I don't plan on ever going pro. For me it's just something I enjoy doing. It makes me think of the world differently."
Perhaps local comic Rudy Ascott summed it up best after a Koot's audience member heckled him and the evening's entertainment as "amateur hour."
It'd only be insulting, he said, if he "aspired to be anything other than amateur."
It was the best joke of the night.