Laughing Matters

by Beth Weimer
Photography by Kate Lavin

A fixture of area entertainment, the Jukebox Comedy Club has cultivated comedy in Peoria for 27 years.

Creativity isn’t only found in studios, theaters, music venues or the other obvious places. Down on Farmington Road and often overlooked, the Jukebox Comedy Club keeps gritty company with auto body shops, a race track and a “gentlemen’s club,” but it remains a unique center of culture and community in Peoria.

On a typical Saturday night, comedy fans gather in the parking lot before the show, trading banter and laughs with familiar faces. Inside, the bar is bustling as people line up for tickets and drinks, while owner Dan Conlin gently ribs each guest as he checks them in. The buzzing energy is undeniable, and the anticipation builds as people move into the darkened showroom to be seated at tables clustered around the modest stage, its hand-painted jukebox adorning the front of the room.

The drinks are cheap and the ambiance is reminiscent of a comfortable dive; the accommodations don’t need to try any harder as the audience is focused on the comedians who light up the room with their hilarious observations of this thing called…. life (i.e. jokes).

The Business of Being Funny
The Jukebox is one of the oldest continuously-running comedy clubs in the country, a remarkable feat considering most of the others are located in substantially larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. “What we have here is already bucking the trend—to have a club run this long in this small of a city,” Conlin notes.

But with today’s instant access to on-demand content, many of these clubs are fighting to stay relevant. “Comedy is booming, but Netflix and Hulu are replacing clubs all over the country,” explains Trey Mowder, a Jukebox regular who started performing standup in 2008. “You can pay $10 and get all the comedy you want for a month on Netflix… but the experience of going to a comedy club—sitting in a packed room, and feeling the energy of a couple hundred people laughing—it's like nothing else.”

A small group of investors opened the Jukebox in 1990, selling it to local businessman Don Danley later that year. He and his family then steadily developed the business into a lively pillar of Peoria nightlife. Since buying it from Danley in 2000, Dan Conlin has devoted the last 17 years of his life to managing the club and fostering the local comedy scene.

Conlin is an intense but lovable oddball, who has had a definitive impact on Peoria’s community of comics. A lifelong connoisseur of comedy, he discovered the thrill of live standup in the late ‘80s at the short-lived Madison Avenue Comedy Club. He enjoyed a 15-year career in radio at WWCT (in many capacities, including morning show host and sales), and over the years, he interviewed comedians as they came through town, assisted the Jukebox with promotions, and attended shows often.

Somewhere along the way, a seed was planted, so when Conlin lost his job in 1999, he had a conversation with Danley about taking over the club. He worked hard to make it happen, shadowing at the club for months to learn how things operated and hustling to secure the necessary financing—and he hasn’t stopped working since.

The Jukebox hosts an open mic night every Wednesday, and weekend headliners generally commit to a Thursday show and two shows each on Friday and Saturday nights. The club has opened its doors every weekend since Conlin took over, meaning he’s hosted well over 4,000 performances. He seems a bit baffled when asked where he would go if he had time to take a proper vacation. “If I could go anywhere?” he repeats. “Maybe out to L.A. so I could see some of the famous clubs out there [and] how they run things.”

Stage Presence
When Conlin bought the club, he established a weekly open mic to provide area comics the opportunity to work their material on a regular basis. “It’s not a comedy club without a local scene,” he declares. “You have to promote at a beginning level.” Access to open mics and live audiences are essential to every comedian’s growth—and anyone with the guts to get on stage is welcome at the Jukebox.

“Just do it; don’t overthink it. Watch a couple of open mics before you go up, and then just get that first time out of the way,” advises local comic Michelle DeSutter. “The first time people laugh at your jokes is a feeling like no other—and you’ll be hooked.”

The open mic has steadily gained strength over the years, with at least 20 comics now showing up every Wednesday. “The Peoria scene is great,” says Joe Roderick, a regular host at the Jukebox. “We have more character comics than average, and they tend to be a little more fearless when trying more off-the-wall material.”

The Peoria scene is known for being somewhat experimental, something Conlin encourages. “The comics here have a reputation for telling the weirdest, darkest, dirtiest jokes,” DeSutter explains. “It’s almost like ‘anti-comedy,’ very creative. Sometimes it flies over people’s heads, but it’s fun.”

“Dan lets us do weird stuff that most clubs probably wouldn’t allow, and all the comics are real supportive of each other,” adds Jake Merch, another club fixture.

These comics spend a lot of time together, writing jokes and traveling out of town to perform. It’s not unusual for many of them to come by the Jukebox three or four nights a week, stopping in on the weekends to scope out the headliners and vie for a chance to host or do a guest spot. Such dedication garners the experience needed to succeed in a highly competitive realm. Brett Erickson, one of the more renowned comics to have come out of Peoria, hosted and performed at the Jukebox for years before making the leap to L.A. in 2015.

“After living a few different places, I now realize what a gem the Peoria scene really is,” notes Rishika Murthy. She started doing standup at the Jukebox four years ago, and still prefers it to many of the venues she’s performed at in Chicago and California. “It gave me a place to develop a healthy outlet.”

While cities like Champaign and Springfield have decent comedy scenes, the Jukebox’s stellar reputation allows beginners to regularly interact with professionals and perform for larger crowds. “That alone definitely contributes a ton to the community. A lot of scenes have to struggle really hard to try to get something going, and there’s already a hub down here for us to come to,” says Heath Thornton. “A couple times a year, there will be a cluster of really great performers coming—like last winter, there was Henry Rollins, Josh Blue, Doug Stanhope... that definitely legitimizes what we’re doing.”

Battle of Wits
Another feature Conlin initiated early on was the club’s Amateur Comedy Tournament. What started small has become a huge success, with 56 comics competing in the 16th annual event held this past summer. They come from all over the Midwest, paying a modest entry fee for the chance to win bragging rights, cash prizes and a guest spot opening for a headliner. Comics perform their sets in a series of rounds spanning several weeks, and the elimination component adds another layer of excitement. They are evaluated by the judges (seasoned comics and a few Jukebox regulars) over four categories: audience response, originality, overall material and stage presence.

The level of talent involved this year was impressive, with Jason Jenkins (St. Louis) taking first place, followed by Max Babcock (Galva), Bryan Fawley (Peoria) and Donny Townsend (Quad Cities). This was Jenkins’ third year competing in the contest, and he considers it one of his favorite moments doing standup. “This experience was great... and about gave me a nervous breakdown at the same time. Drawing names out of a hat as we go? That’s bananas! I almost needed a bedpan,” he jokes. “I had a lot of fun, though—it felt great to finally win.”

Jenkins enjoys the tight-knit scene centered around the Jukebox, and watching his fellow comics progress. “Comedians are brilliant beings and the creativity is crazy... They all keep me on my toes.”

Conlin appreciates the different styles of comedy represented by the local talent; he believes comedy doesn’t receive the respect it deserves as an art form. “Comics don’t get enough credit. They do it all: writing original material from their own experiences, creating a physical presence on stage. It takes courage and vulnerability to get on stage—and then there’s the unscripted moments, where anything can happen! They have to be able to respond to the audience, good or bad.”

It’s those authentic, raw moments that make a live show so exhilarating; a comic might perform a set repeatedly, but no performance can ever truly be replicated.

Balancing Acts
Conlin loves talking shop, discussing nuances of style and all the great comedians who have appeared at the Jukebox, from Louis CK, Maria Bamford and David Alan Grier, to an exciting week in 2008 when he booked Norm Macdonald and Robert Klein back to back. Many of the best nights don’t come from the biggest names, though, and Conlin counts Auggie Smith, Heywood Banks and Nick Griffin among his personal favorites. When asked for his dream pick to have on stage, dead or alive, he rattles off a list: “Richard Pryor, of course... Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, George Carlin… It’s too hard to choose.”

He puts a lot of thought into the performers he brings in, considering many factors and striving for quality and balance. Big celebrities may draw the crowds, but Conlin also loves to introduce indie comics to Peoria before they become famous, like Reena Calm, Hannibal Buress, Fortune Feimster and Janelle James. “These are comedians who are often just about to blow up,” notes Mowder, “and you get to see them 10 feet away, hang out and talk to them after the show, and feel like you really connected before they become a household name.”

Conlin is constantly looking out for new talent and tries to encourage diversity by booking acts that appeal to all audiences. “They have to be funny first, but I want headliners who are young, female, minorities, whatever, so we can provide something for the entire community to enjoy. It’s easy to just book comics who are 50-year-old white males, but it’s not interesting.”

Mainstream comedy has historically been dominated by white males, and it can still be tough for women and minorities to get stage time. Local comic Whitney Chitwood values the opportunities and challenges that come with doing standup: “It's invigorating to be on stage and be queer and prove that it's okay, and force them to deal with any of their homophobia, implicit or otherwise, by saying ‘I'm a lesbian. We're gonna talk about it, or we're not, but it's up to me how we have the conversation.’”

Conlin wants audiences to come with an open mind, since no topic is off-limits in comedy. Humor is always subjective, but he hopes anyone who leaves offended by a joke would be willing to give the club another chance. “Politics can be so divisive these days... It’s important to stay connected, keep laughing as much as we can.”

Community Central
But the club’s existence can’t be taken for granted. The building needs extensive repairs, the bills keep rolling in, and Conlin often forgoes his own personal needs in order to cover operational costs. His stress had grown bad enough last July that his girlfriend, Holly Usrey-Roos, who helps him run the club, secretly started a GoFundMe campaign to alleviate some of the mounting expenses. Thanks to an outpouring of support, she was able to surprise Conlin on his birthday with a check for $8,000. He was shocked and humbled by the support, but the club isn’t out of the woods yet (the campaign has raised over $12,000 to date).

Conlin lives and breathes comedy, and the community he’s created around the Jukebox functions a lot like a family. His loyal staff of bartenders and waitresses includes a few who’ve worked there for over 20 years, and even a friend from grade school. When Conlin lost three family members several years ago, it was this community that helped him deal with the grief. “I really don’t know what I’d do without this place,” he admits. He hates to ask for help, and insists the best way to support the club is to keep coming out to the shows.

The comedians know the local scene would suffer were the club to close, but they also worry that its loss would impact the greater community. “The Jukebox is an irreplaceable creative haven where people can go to learn how to cope and exist and engage in life,” Chitwood declares. “I would hope it keeps going strong... plus there’s a club kitten named Shirley!”

Roderick hopes people start packing the house for lesser-known comics. “When you’re famous, you really don’t have to be funny anymore, but when you’re nobody, you have to be great. In an age of instant gratification, standup is in danger of fading away, and people could miss out on the cathartic, communal experience of live comedy.”

There’s something special about standup—and about the Jukebox in particular, Mowder agrees. “I just want the club to be another beloved feature of Peoria that causes people to visit, move here or stay. Nothing, to me, beats the experience of just being up there, and making everyone have a positive, emotional experience through laughter.” a&s

Visit jukeboxcomedy.com for upcoming shows, to make a reservation or for more information.

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Comments

The Jukebox has been there for as long as I can remember and I've never had a bad time there. When you go there, you realize how thankful you are that something like that exists in Peoria. Thanks for this article on one of our city's best features.

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