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NOTHING TO LAUGH AT: Wilmington’s comics long for Dead Crow’s reopening as COVID-19 puts a pause on local stand-up

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Comic Wesley McGehee local stand-up and waiting for Dead Crow Comedy to reopen. Courtesy photo

Dead Crow Comedy Room (formerly Nutt Street Comedy Room) has been the only full-time comedy club in Eastern North Carolina since they officially relaunched under their new moniker in 2014. Dead Crow has had a home on Front Street in the old Firebelly Lounge space ever since with owners Timmy Sherrill and Cole Craven at the helm.

Throughout the different phases of COVID-19, local businesses have worked tirelessly to survive. Unfortunately, while walking down the riverwalk the array of closed-down shops is apparent and haunting. The lack of business has affected Dead Crow particularly, as it is home to many local, up-and-coming comedians.

Dead Crow Comedy Room was forced to close in March 2020 by Governor Cooper’s orders and has yet to reopen. While there was once hope to reopen their iconic underground Front Street locale, the club has decided to permanently close down its current venue.

“The temporary closing of Dead Crow put a halt to official bookings or behind the scenes work,” details Aimee Elfers, Dead Crow’s general manager. “We thought it was a better idea to hold off [on opening] until we felt we could safely, and legally. . . . We are in the construction process [of a new space] and hope to open sooner than later.”

Local comedy exists within a small circle and at its center is Dead Crow, being that it is the only consistent open-mic location in town. The club steadily welcomes well-known comedians, such as SNL alums Julia Sweeney and Tim Meadows, as well as Comedy Central’s Maria Bamford, just to name a few.

Elfers and company have made Dead Crow a safe haven and space for newbies to work on their craft for years.

“The dark side of stand-up is that it can be pretty cut-throat, especially in larger areas like New York and LA. We like to give everyone a chance to grow and hone their craft,” Elfers notes. “I always want anyone who steps through our doors, and on our stage, to feel safe to be their true selves.”

Local comedian and UNCW creative writing student Wesley McGehee accredits his own rise in comedy to Dead Crow. “Dead Crow is the only reason I have a foothold in comedy,” McGehee explains. “Out of every club I’ve been to Dead Crow seems to be the only one which gives ample, free opportunities for local comedians to develop and hone their craft.

During a normal week of operation, Dead Crow sees as many as 30-plus comics between open-mic nights and weekend headlining acts and openers. With the club’s hiatus, local aspiring comics like McGehee have hit a formidable roadblock in their careers.

“COVID put everyone in a rough place,” McGehee says. “We can’t work without an audience—and we can’t really have an audience if there’s a pandemic. I was constantly crossing off my goals in comedy until the pandemic hit.”

With Dead Crow closed and the unlikelihood of hosting stand-up open-mic nights elsewhere due to COVID precautions, local comedians are looking for new platforms. Like many comedians nationwide, JD Roberson has had to find ways to adapt without a live audience. With his comedy duo, Two Tree Hill, with his best friend Ryan Wentz, they have found alternatives in social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram.

Roberson, who has since moved to New York since his early days at Dead Crow, often used the club’s stage to try material and get feedback. Though Roberson misses the thrill of testing their jokes—and yes, potentially bombing—he admits, there are perks to virtual performances.

“Dead crow was where I tried stand-up in front of an audience who didn’t know me for the first time,” he reminisces. “[But] without the panic of writing new material for live open-mics every week, we’re able to really play around with ideas and experiment now.”

While some comedians have embraced virtual platforms as a way to reach new audiences in other cities, states and possibly countries, others struggle with the concept of remote stand-up.

“I haven’t tried any virtual shows or mics—I just know it wouldn’t be the same,” McGehee says. “Without the laughter and the immediate audience reaction, the whole thing seems more sad than admirable.”

“I do think they [virtual shows] take away from the full experience,” Elfers agrees. “Comedians play off of the energy in the room, and are able to connect with a live audience, that’s much more difficult to do during a Zoom call.”

Nevertheless, Roberson and McGehee both agree comedy and space for comedy is essential to Wilmington. They are counting the days until clubs can reopen again, and so is Elfers. Dead Crow, comics and Wilmington audiences alike thrive on laughter.

“We want everyone to leave in a better mood than they were in when they arrived,” Elfers adds. “Having a place to shake off the bad stuff is exactly why comedy should be accessible in Wilmington.”

Once Dead Crow Comedy Room completes construction and settles into their new home, they will announce this and other “big changes” on their Facebook page, Instagram and website.

Folks can find some chuckles by following Wesley McGehee and JD Roberson on socials.

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