Phil Davidson has moved around. Being the supportive husband of a news anchor, the Illinois native has lived in Boise, St. Louis, and most recently spent more than three years in Burlington, Vermont. While in the Green Mountain State, Davidson took advantage of the dearth of stand-up comedy happening in the nation’s second-to-least populated state and very quickly became a respected performer and producer in Vermont’s largest city, which awarded him the opportunity to open for Hannibal Buress, Todd Barry, Mike Lawrence, and more.
Last September, Davidson was on the move again, as his wife accepted an anchor position in Milwaukee. Just months after essentially starting over in an unfamiliar scene, Milwaukee Record spoke to the New England ex-pat about the differences between the Milwaukee and Vermont scenes, his impressive credits, and his new Hot Room Comedy Showcase (a free show at Hybrid Lounge tonight).
Milwaukee Record: You moved here in September from Vermont. Where in Vermont, Montpelier?
Phil Davidson: Burlington. Burlington is the biggest city in Vermont and it’s only like 40,000 people. It’s a college town, where the University Of Vermont is. I would compare it to Madison. It’s a very liberal, progressive college town.
MR: What’s the comedy scene like there?
PD: When I moved there it was pretty much non-existent for the most part. Right around 2011, it just started building. You can pinpoint back to like January or February of 2011, comics just started popping up everywhere. Obviously, it’s a byproduct of YouTube, Twitter, and podcasts, and there are just more opportunities now. When I started, there was one open mic a month at a Vietnamese coffee shop in Burlington. When I was living in St. Louis, I was starting to look at open mics and writing out jokes, but I just never had the balls to get up on stage. Then I moved to Vermont and I was like, “Fuck it. I’m in Vermont. There’s no pressure, so it’s seems like a safe place to do comedy.” We had a patron come in, a guy who was a lawyer in New York who had done some comedy who moved to Vermont. He liked going to the open mics and he had some money and was like, “You know what, I’m going to buy this place and turn it into a coffee shop-slash-comedy club.” It went from one open mic a month to weekly open mics and shows every Friday and Saturday. A good friend of mine managed it and it was like our clubhouse. It was pretty interesting doing comedy for paying crowds when I was only six months to a year into comedy.
MR: And as one of the state’s early comics, you got a lot of awesome opportunities. You opened for Hannibal Buress? Who were some other notables on your credits?
PD: There was Hannibal, Erik Griffin. He’s on Workaholics. He plays “Montez.” Both of those were at the UVM student center. I opened for Todd Barry. That was a big highlight. It was at a festival in Vermont. Then I opened for a bunch of guys via shows that I produced. The great thing about being in Vermont is it’s so close to New York. I mean, it’s a six-hour drive, but close enough where [comedians] could drive out there. We had world class talent not too far away, so [I booked] guys who are sort of making bigger names for themselves now, like Mike Lawrence, Dan St. Germain, Jared Logan, Ben Kronberg. I got to work with a lot of guys and make connections with a lot of New York comics that way, and when I was [in New York], they’d help me out there.
MR: That’s awesome. But you moved here in September and it was almost like you had to completely restart. What was the process of reintroducing yourself into a new scene like?
PD: You do have to start from scratch and just show up at open mics. I didn’t want to show up at open mics and be like, “Hey, guys! I’m in town now!” You have to earn it. I would do my material on stage and was getting pretty good response, I would say. After a month of doing my sets and hanging out in the background, people felt a little more comfortable and we started to network. From there, it didn’t take long. You get more comfortable with people and you start to make friends.
MR: Who were some of the early allies who reached out to you and made the transition easier?
PD: A lot of the guys that runs the shows, like Chris Schmidt, who runs the Frank’s Power Plant open mic. Jake [Kornely] has been real nice…Josh Ballew, who does Art Bar, and Jason [Hillman] and Steve Breese.
MR: What are the differences between Milwaukee’s comedy scene and Vermont’s? What have you noticed in terms of the interplay between the comics and with the audiences? Are there jokes that worked out there that just don’t here?
PD: I did a lot of Vermont jokes when I was living out there because I was such a fish out of water. I was like, “What is this place?” It’s a fairytale fantasy land. It’s uber-progressive there. I’d like to make fun of the hippy-dippy-ness of Vermont and the farm-to-table stuff. But the audiences in Vermont, because they tend to be pretty liberal and P.C., they tend to be a little more uptight about stuff. For the most part, though, I think the scenes are pretty similar. I just had to bag my regional jokes. Here’s a big difference: I like in Milwaukee, people are much more open to talk about race. At open mics, there will be black guys making really fun jokes about white people, white people making really funny jokes about black guys and everyone’s laughing and there’s nothing uncomfortable about it because Milwaukee is a much more metropolitan area.
MR: Onto the Hybrid showcase, with all the other shows and mics already happening, why did you want to start it?
PD: I used to host a weekly show in Vermont that had a premature demise. So me and a girl started a show on Church Street—which is pedestrian-only and there’s a lot of foot traffic—on Thursday nights that was successful. It was a good way to learn because I’d host it and get to do 10 minutes every week. It really keeps you on your toes because you got to keep on pumping out new material. Then when I moved here, I realized in terms of showcases, it’s pretty much monthly and on weekends, so I just felt like there was a really good opportunity to do one during the week, opposed to everyone just having to do open mics Monday to Thursday. I was impressed when I first moved here, but I feel like there’s room for improvement in terms of more shows in Milwaukee. The entire state of Vermont is the same size as just the city of Milwaukee. And this is a city where people like to drink, which is usually very conducive to comedy.
Phil Davidson co-hosts tonight’s Hot Room Comedy Showcase at Hybrid Lounge. Chrsitopher Schmidt will co-host, and Liz Ziner, J.J. Harris, Josh Ballew, Steve Breese, and Jake Kornely will perform. The show begins at 8 p.m. and it’s free.