Kansas City Comedians Face Tough Crowds And Empty Seats

Mar 11, 2015

Stand-up comedians AJ Finney, Mike Smith and Dustin Kaufman got their start on the Kansas City comedy circuit.
Credit Patrick Quick / KCUR

When Kansas City comedians tour nationally, it almost feels like cheating. Used to small crowds and tough audiences in KC, they’re surprised by the raucous applause and packed houses on the road.

“All around the country, Kansas City comics have a reputation of just coming in and shattering the crowd. They’re like, man, you guys are really good,” according to Mike Smith, a Kansas City-based stand-up comedian. “And we’re like, could you email our city and tell them that?”

Three comedians spoke with Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann on Wednesday. They said most people living in Kansas City aren’t even aware there's a comedy scene in town — and are missing out on some top-rate talent. Smith has toured nationally with Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle and Larry the Cable Guy. AJ Finney cut his teeth on the Kansas City stand-up circuit for seven years before moving on. He said that’s when Kansas City started to notice him.

“The audience here is like that girl from high school or college that you chased," Finney said, referring to the mythical girl who doesn't care about a guy until he quits caring about her. “But as soon as you leave and do something else, they’re like, we’re behind you now.”

These stand-up comedians wish that Kansas City would recognize the talent in town and support local comedy shows. But starting in such a tough environment has helped in at least one way: Kansas City is a testing ground for jokes, a chance to refine one's act in front of a tough crowd.

“They make you earn it," said Dustin Kaufman. "If you’re not funny, they’re not going to get it.”

But, Smith added, comedians still need “more people to make us earn it out at the shows. We don’t mind rough crowds. Put 400 rough-crowd people in there, and we’d be fine.”

That tough-love mentality doesn’t come just from audiences. When Kaufman was working the Kansas City stand-up scene in the early 2000s, he found older comedians held newcomers to high standards.   

“You didn’t just show up and get respect,” said Kaufman. “It made you work harder. We were out there doing as many shows as we could seven nights a week. And if we weren’t working the club that week, we were at the club supporting our friends.”

That community is smaller now, with older comedians taking their success to bigger audiences elsewhere. But Finney maintains that Kansas City is a great place to get started. A comic can spend a few years doing open mics, learning the craft and messing up without worrying about his or her reputation. There’s no industry machine watching his or her early work.

The downside is when there is no one watching.

“They should be ashamed of themselves here in Kansas City,” Smith said. “I just came from the Richmond Funny Bone in Richmond, Va., and Sunday night there were 400 reservations. When you’re here in town, you have to give away tickets.”

For Finney, Kaufman and Smith, small, tough Kansas City crowds have given way to national tours and sold-out venues. But they still remember the struggle of trying to attract and entertain Kansas Citians, who may be missing the chance to see future stars before they make it big.