Article & Photos by Steven Sanchez | firstname.lastname@example.org
When you think of hot-spots for comedic entertainment, certain cities come to mind – Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, places have long-standing reputations for springing consistent comedic talent for the stand-up stage, film or television. Those meccas, with their established venues, allow for these aspiring funny people to not only hone their talents but to stand in a well-known spotlight that could launch them to the next level of their career. Venues that have become landmarks in the comedy landscape like The Comedy Store in LA, Second City in the Windy City, and the Caroline’s on Broadway in the Big Apple. Now it’s the Central Valley’s turn as two local comedians, Danny Minch and Dave Apkarian, have thrown Fresno onto the list of comedic destinations. And out of all places to set the stage, it’s not a theater or an auditorium, but the backroom of Di Cicco’s Italian Restaurant in Old Town Clovis.
This past December they celebrated their first anniversary of calling the restaurant their home.
“When I started doing stand-up comedy in the Central Valley I realized there wasn’t as deep of a scene as I wanted there to be. So, I started putting on my own shows and learned from there, and it has escalated in the last ten years leading to now,” mentions Minch. And then that’s when Apkarian, who’s got a year-and-a-half of comedy under his belt, got on board and started helping Minch with the hosting duties. “With our shows we book everything, we promote everything, they (Di Cicco’s) don’t have to pay the talent, that’s our thing,’’ Apkarian specifies.
Di Cicco’s already had music in the area, and the establishment stayed open till 10 or 11 o’clock at night, so it was a good fit for the guys to slide right in. Minch and Apkarian took the Saturday slots to start, then evolved to hosting Tuesdays at another venue, Grogg’s Irish Pub, based on the success of their brain-child, ‘Just the Tips’ where visitors get free entrance but bring enough tip money to donate to the headlining comic to make a small profit. Adding to their growing schedule, they moved the Grogg’s show over to Sundays. And now, they’ve expanded, yet again, to Barmaggedon in Tulare on Wednesdays where local comics sign-up to do open mic by trying out new jokes and bits, using that audience as a test group to assess their material. Minch and Apkarian have grown their roster from two days to six-days-a-week, four of which are the ‘Open Mic’ nights. The weekends, what they call their ‘Slice Of Life Comedy’ nights, are the financial earners, offering paid premium packages like VIP tables, services, and tickets to attend the show.
“If you’re a venue out there, and you think comedy will work for your venue, you better have a love for comedy, and you have to push it because if you don’t, it’s not going to happen,” Minch states.
The promoting duo are a little unconventional, for example, during ‘Just the Tips’ they start off with a headliner, and then follow with the local comedians. Minch and Apkarian come up with different themes, and they even include “clean shows” once a month where cussing isn’t allowed. They once held a roast once where Danny was the willing recipient of his fellow comedians’ insults. Whatever they can do to draw in a crowd, they’ll try it at least once. Usually, about 70-80% of their shows are people that are brand new, and they’ve adopted a business strategy to book shows so that every three months they get some of their past patrons back. And it has since grown into an established place for date nights among couples, and some even bring the family along.
They’ve brought in some fairly well-known names that have received good buzz in the comedic and entertainment landscape. Samuel J. Comroe, the comedian with Tourette’s who stole the country’s heart with his top 5 finish on America’s Got Talent this past season, was booked right here in the Valley months before his AGT debut. Insult comic, Alex Hopper, who brought his brand of humor to make fun of the AGT judges this year has visited frequently. Jen Murphy, who’s been on Last Comic Standing has caused the room to erupt several times. British export, Eric Lampaert, who appeared in the blockbuster “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” has made this area one of his favorites amongst his American travels. And that’s just to name a few.
For up-and-comers that are trying out their stand-up legs, Danny Minch and Dave Apkarian are giving them their first experiences of having the top slot that can help blossom them into a headliner in demand. Because of this kind of exposure among these national touring headliners the scene here has grown quite a reputation amongst the comedy community that the area is on people’s radar for comedy entertainment, and according to Danny and Dave it’s from the cities previously mentioned. “We started hanging out with our buddies in LA, and they were talking about our shows, and I get people from there and in San Francisco hitting us up saying ‘what a scene you have down there,’ and it’s great” elaborates Minch. And that kind of buzz has generated a good word-of-mouth campaign for Minch and Apkarian to continuously book talent they don’t have to search for, it’s the talent coming to them.
“A lot of times it’s not just the comics hitting us up, but the headliners love this room so much that they want their friends to see how much fun it is. Now, we have a Rolodex so full of people that we can’t even keep up with the talent we’re getting,” Minch says with pride.
Being around those humorists have inspired a crop of homegrown talent to show people what they’re made of. Minch and Apkarian have allowed a platform in which these locals are able to develop a name for themselves not just here but up and down the state as well. The number of people they recommend is pretty staggering, such as Heath Reedy, Tosh Donovan Martin, Trevor Richardson, Liam Womack, Ali O’Leary, Dana Turner, DeeDee Carbajal, Karmen Geffken, Greg ‘G’ Williams, Tanya Salzer, Jenn Felix, and the list goes on.
Minch and Apkarian’s influence have rubbed off on some comics to pursue the promotional side of things. Andre Covington, AKA Dre, who serves as an on-air personality for The Greg and Dre Morning Show on Q97.1, hosts shows and comedy competitions at Chukchansi Resort & Casino and Frank’s Place as well as performing all around the area. Karmen Geffken has been hosting a slew of comedy showcases and open mics around Fresno at Full Circle Brewing Co., Fresno City Vapor, and at Bitwise Industries. Ali O’Leary has hosted some female comic inspired shows at Strummer’s throughout the year. All of which brought opportunities for local talent to open for some popular comedians that have achieved mainstream success, like when Jim Breuer came to Fulton 55 on December 8th where Ali and Dana Turner warmed up the crowd.
Darren Carter, AKA “The Party Starter,” who is from the Central Valley, has been one of the few breakout stars from the area. He’s appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in the film “Be Cool” with John Travolta. Known for his impressions, especially his most famous ‘Snoop Dogg’ impression, before the scene established itself here. Carter’s been to just about every big city for comedy across the country, and he still finds himself coming back to perform for his hometown audience thanks to his appreciation for what Minch and Apkarian have accomplished for local talent.
Danny Minch and Dave Apkarian are not in this business for the money, but for providing laughs during a time when it’s really needed – and that is all the gratification they need. “Fifty years from now if I’m still living the life I have right now, doing exactly what I’m doing full-time, I can die a happy man,” declares Minch.