Funny Ha-Ha 

Stand-up comedy club opens in Bartlett.

Under its former name, South Beach, the building at 6102 Macon Road housed summer bikini contests, a neon pink flamingo, and plenty of bikers getting down to Britney Spears. These days, it serves as a haven for laughter and a few dirty jokes.

At the new Comedy, Tennessee club, which opened last month, local and national comics perform seven shows a week. It's currently the only club in Memphis catering strictly to stand-up comedy.

"If you watch a lot of Comedy Central and keep up with what's going on, that's who we're bringing in," says John Marks, who co-owns the club with partner Sammy Marten.

The club may be new, but Marks and Marten have been hosting weekly comedy nights around town for more than a year. They started with a "Comedy, Tennessee" event every Thursday night at a local Holiday Inn in 2005. Then they moved to Neil's in Midtown last June and stayed there through May.

"It's tiring now," Marks jokes. "We have so many more shows."

They've graduated to one show on Thursdays and Sundays, two on Fridays and Saturdays, and an open-mic night on Wednesdays.

Gone are the sea-foam green and lipstick-pink walls that once gave South Beach its Miami Vice-like ambience. In their place are mustard yellow and red in the bar area. In an adjacent room, carpet replaces the wooden dance floor. About 60 small round tables face a stage with a faux-brick wall boasting the club's logo: an interstate road sign with a "TN" in the center.

On a recent Friday night, about 60 people are seated facing the stage. The tables are accented with white votive candles, adding a romantic glow to the otherwise dark room. The crowd waits expectantly as New York-based comedian Ross Bennett takes the stage.

He begins his routine with a line about how ugly he is (think Garry Shandling meets Al Franken), and the crowd bursts into infectious laughter. One woman even snorts. From that moment on, Bennett wins the audience. Laughter continues through his hour-long set, which deals with everything from late-night shopping at Wal-Mart to smuggling pot in body cavities.

Bennett's considered a comedy veteran, but his opener is newbie Michael Danziger, a local man who won the club's recent "Funniest Man in Memphis" contest.

"We support the Memphis comedy community by giving them stage time," says Marks. "As a comic, you've got to have a good stage to work out new material."

"You've got to be able to go somewhere at least once a week and get on stage and try out new stuff," adds Marten, citing their weekly open-mic night.

Though many comedy clubs around the country are strictly for ages 18 or 21 and up, Comedy, Tennessee hosts a special PG night for families. On the last Saturday of each month, local preacher/teacher/comedian Daniel Hooper takes the stage, delivering lines that are safe for toddlers and grandmas. Though the club usually offers a full bar, there is no alcohol or smoking allowed at the Hooper show.

Once a month, the club also hosts "Comedy for a Cause," and the bulk of the money made on ticket sales goes to a local charity. Marks and Marten began "Comedy for a Cause" during their weekly nights at Neil's. They've raised money for the Food Bank, the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, and the Exotic Animal Rescue League.

The club's in-house restaurant, Creole Café, serves Cajun-inspired cuisine before the show, and they're even open for lunch. From fried oyster and roast beef po' boys to popcorn and cheeseburgers, the menu offers a little of everything.

"Most comedy clubs don't have good food, but we use a lot of fresh ingredients. We have homemade gumbo," says Marks.

Creole Café isn't new to Memphis. Marten, who hails from Louisiana, opened the original Creole Café on Claybrook next to Methodist Hospital in Midtown in 2000. He and a business partner ran the restaurant for several years yet failed to turn a profit.

"After Katrina wiped out part of the culture of New Orleans, we felt it was our part to bring back the Creole Café," says Marten.

"We were really running after the FEMA dollar," jokes Marks.

Both Marks and Marten are comic vets. Marten got his start after his sister entered his name in a hat at the Improv in Santa Monica. His name was one of 18 drawn, and he managed to draw laughs on his first try. From then, he was hooked, and he began attending weekly open-mic nights in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Marks entered a "funniest man" contest in Dallas and landed a spot in the finals. He began working clubs in Dallas and then moved to the Washington, D.C., area before settling in Memphis.

These days, the two use their comedy connections to book professional comics from around the country.

"Nothing replaces a live show," says Marks. "You can laugh at home, but it's different when you're sitting with a crowd of 100 people. There's a sea of laughter. It has a different effect."

Touring comic the Midnight Swinger and Memphian Nick Cobb perform at Comedy, Tennessee from July 27th to August 2nd. Call 384-HAAA or go to the Web site www.ComedyTennessee.com.

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