Brian Heffron is not a comedian.
“I was a big standup comedy fan,” explained the 50-year-old entrepreneur. “I had no aspirations of being a standup, but I loved being around it. I loved the freedom of speech, the open communication, the art. And I just found my way into it.”
And now Heffron is determined that the comedy-loving citizens of Montgomery County will find their way into standup comedy, too–not by watching the latest HBO or Netflix specials in their basements; not by catching YouTube videos on their cellphones and not by driving to New York City to pay a fortune at a comedy club. In a world where “kids are watching comedy now like we used to trade baseball cards,” he is making tomorrow’s household names available today—right on Rockville Pike.
“Strathmore never really did much comedy,” said Sam Brumbaugh, whose job as Strathmore’s director of programming includes bringing live music to AMP, the satellite venue just down the road in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose community. “We saw there was a vacuum for it.”
He noted that while comedy icons like Carol Burnett and Wanda Sykes have been known to take the Music Center stage, the more intimate space at AMP is an ideal venue for of-the-moment comics on the comedy club circuit. “The capacity at AMP is 230,” he said. “And there’s table seating, so it works really well for comedy. You can have your dinner, have a drink, and the show starts.”
The next show, on Thursday, May 17, features standup veteran Tom Simmons—previously seen on Comedy Central, Showtime, BET, Bounce TV and more— with opener Jamie Utley, who toured on “Monsters of Comedy” with the late Ralphie May and SNL alum Jim Breuer. The formula has been building momentum since AMP first started scheduling comedy less than two years ago.
“We try to have funny comedians,” Brumbaugh said. “There’s no overarching philosophical point to any of this; it’s basically ‘Is the comedian funny or not?’
“When we started, we were a little on the blue-collar side, but we’ve got a more ‘NPR crowd’ out here,” he added. “We don’t want X-rated; we don’t want super-crude. You gotta be funny.”
Because building a reputation is the prime objective — Brumbaugh believes that once the talent is in place, word-of-mouth will help Comedy Night at AMP gather momentum — enlisting Comedy Zone has been key. And Heffron sees AMP as a perfect pit stop for his standup army.
“I book about a hundred-plus shows a week, all over the country— primarily on the East Coast— and internationally,” he said. “Everybody we use, they’re the top, top standup comics in the country.”
Household names, regional favorites, up-and-coming superstars: Heffron has them, and these days, he is sending them on tours that go right down Rockville Pike. “The people coming to AMP now are right on the edge of breaking nationally,” he explained. “These are the top guys; guys with Comedy Central specials; they have fans, people who know who they are on the Internet and whatnot.
“They’re not sitcom-level people yet, but you’ll see,” he added.
So, what does Heffron, who loves the “silly” humor of Steve Martin— “one of the greatest comics to walk the planet,”— think the Montgomery County area audience wants to see? Someone silly, but with substance.
“I’m trying to book AMP with the sharper bunch,” he said. “The smarter comics seem to do better up there.” He’s not saying that “dumber” comedians do better elsewhere; it’s simply a matter of matching styles to demographics. Comedians who play AMP really need to “have something to say.
“They’re gonna have some depth. That doesn’t mean ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ (North) Bethesda just seems to respond better to comics with something to say that’s, you know, socially conscious.”
And yet, Brumbaugh thinks that when it comes to comedians, AMP is relatively easy to program. “Every other show we do is a very specific musical genre, where you market to a particular audience– Americana, bluegrass, jazz,” he explained. “Comedy is just comedy, you know? People want to see a comedy show. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m a jazz guy, I don’t want to see a rock show.”
He believes the important thing “is having a reputation for good comedy. At AMP, there are headliners, but we’re also showcasing new, interesting faces—some of which are just amazing, and out there for the first time. We’re unique and we have great comedians.”
They also have food and drink, which makes AMP a great place for groups as well as comedy connoisseurs and couples on a date night. The performers go on at 8 p.m., but doors open at 6:30 and the AMP menu offers tempting bites by Ridgewells. Heffron thinks an evening at AMP might be one of the best Saturday nights available at the price.
“It’s a risk-reward situation,” he said. “An awfully low financial risk for a great reward.” He compared the comedy club to a jazz or blues club: “You may not know the person performing, but if the club is doing a great job bringing in the best in the country, we would hope that you’d say every once in a while, ‘Let’s put that on the rotation. It’ll be a great night out because we trust that company to provide us with the best blues….and we had a great time…and it wasn’t $75 at the door.’”
No, in fact it’s from $15 to $25 at the door, which Heffron considers a bargain just for the (alleged) health benefits alone. “If you can laugh for an hour and a half,” he said, “physically, it releases endorphins, relieves anxiety. That’s just proven.
“But more important, if you can laugh for an hour and a half, you forget about your kids and your mortgage and everything like that.
“We want people to be blown away.”
AMP Comedy Night will feature Tom Simmons and Jamie Utley at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17, and Dusty Slay and Hannah Hogan at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 31, at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets are $14; doors open 90 minutes prior to the show. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.ampbystrathmore.com/comedy.