The Evolution of the Comedy Scene in Nashville

December 4, 2018 | Advertising Disclosure | Our Sponsors may be mentioned in this article.

These days, the local comedy scene is thriving: There’s a popular new comedy club in Marathon Village, and A-list comics frequently headline Bridgestone Arena and the Ryman. But it hasn’t been an overnight success. Here’s a look at how Nashville’s standup, improv and sketch culture has grown over the past three decades, plus resources to help you keep up with what’s happening now.

The Evolution of the Comedy Scene in Nashville

1976: The exact date and details are up for debate, but here’s the hilarious story that most agree upon: Steve Martin performs three shows at Exit/In, and at least one of them ends with the legendary comedian leading the crowd out the door, down the street and to a fast-food joint for 300 burgers. (Martin wrote about the incident in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up.) Several years prior, Cheech & Chong performed at Exit/In; their names, along with Martin’s, can see be seen on the venue’s famous wall of names.

1983: Zanies opens as the first dedicated comedy club in Nashville. Over the next three decades, it hosts some of the biggest names in comedy—Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Margaret Cho—while changing very little in terms of its gritty appearance and ethos.

2004: Scott Field launches Improv Nashville, which produces improv and sketch shows until the company folds in 2009.

2009: Music City Improv is founded, specializing in short-form improv with a heavy musical influence. It eventually becomes the longest-running improv troupe in Nashville and currently performs at Third Coast Comedy Club on the third Friday of every month.

2010: Jazz and Jokes, a 175-seat comedy and jazz venue, opens in downtown Nashville. The comedians are involved in the music, and the musicians are involved in the comedy. The venue closes in 2013, but the concept continues through individual shows nationwide.

2011: Nashville Improv launches, specializing in fast-paced, pop culture–inspired performances like the song-and-dance improv show “Your Musical,” the sketch-based “Live from Nashville” and T. Hanks Giving, in which performers dress up as Tom Hanks characters. Nashville Improv also offers workplace teambuilding workshops with partners like Dell, Comcast and Nissan.

2012: The High Watt opens in the Cannery Row complex, with dedicated comedy nights.

2013: The LOL Nashville troupe is founded in the name of unfiltered long- and short-form improv comedy. The group performs at festivals all over the country in addition to regularly sold-out shows in town.

May 15-18, 2014: The inaugural Wild West Comedy Festival takes over Nashville. Vince Vaughn (a founding partner), Aziz Ansari, Marc Maron, Aisha Tyler and Dennis Miller appear at venues across town, including Ryman Auditorium, Zanies and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC).

January 2015: Ryan Arthur and Austin Huff form Yes, And. The improv troupe currently performs at Cafe Coco on the fourth Saturday of every month.

April 12-15, 2015: Billed as “the greatest dumb thing we’ve ever done,” smashes the Guinness World Record for Longest Stand-Up Comedy Show–Multiple Comedians. Over 184 hours and 16 minutes, about 100 comedians rotate through The East Room as part of the second annual Wild West Comedy Festival. The group broke its own record in 2016.

July 2015: The debut of the Ben & Morey Show, a weekly late-night talk show performed in front of a live theater audience at Centennial Performing Arts Studios. Over five seasons, hosts Ben Oddo and Morey Hill have interviewed local celebrities ranging from author Ann Patchett to Titans legend Eddie George to the Nashville Zoo’s Emily the Skunk. *ended in December 2018*

November 6, 2015: The first season of Aziz Ansari’s critically acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None, dedicates an entire episode to Nashville (Season 1, Episode 6). On a weekend escape from New York City, Ansari’s character takes his new love interest to the Hermitage Hotel, Manuel Couture and, of course, the honky-tonks on Broadway.

December 11, 2015: Emmy-winning comedian Amy Schumer headlines a raucous show at Bridgestone Arena. Nashville is one of only seven cities she stops in on this tour.

April 2016: The Kickstarter-funded Third Coast Comedy Club opens in Marathon Village, becoming the first permanent home in Nashville for all forms of comedy—improv, standup, sketch shows, etc.—and only the second comedy club in the city. The venue is a lovechild of LOL Nashville founder Luke Watson and Music City Improv director Scott Field.

April 17-23, 2017: Patton Oswalt headlines the Wild West Comedy Festival, with assists from David Spade, Adam Sandler, Brad Paisley, Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani, Heather McDonald and Jay Pharaoh.

September 26, 2017: Olympic ice-skating champ Scott Hamilton and Nashville Predators star P.K. Subban cohost Comedy CARES show at Zanies. Proceeds from the fundraiser, featuring comedian Ryan Hamilton and magician Stephen Bargatze, benefit the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation for cancer research and education.


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