Although it does not get as much attention as music, Memphis has its own thriving comedy scene. One fruitful strand of local comedy started about five years ago at the P&H Cafe, when Brandon Sams organized an open mic night. "It was weird, but it was very fun," he says. "Those were wild times. It attracted a certain sort of person. An enthusiast."
"The first night, a whole bunch of us went who had never done comedy before but had always wanted to," Michael Kline says. Among those trying out their comedy chops was Randall Holcomb. "As far as my memory works, Randall was there from the beginning," Sams says. "He was very, very funny. He had a darker sense of comedy."
Word soon spread. "We were putting on a good enough show that we were attracting a crowd," Sams says. "We became close, as friends and co-entertainers," Sams says of the group of comedians that included Kline, Katrina Coleman, and Andy Fleming. "Memphis is a city that tends to bind people together. That's something unique to Memphis. A lot of cities don't have that."
"I used to live next door to the P&H, and Randall lived across the street," Kline says. "We both had slacker jobs, so we would both be at the P&H at like 3 in the afternoon drinking beer and writing. He was really into Brian Eno, and I'm really into Brian Wilson, so we would have these big debates on who was the better Brian."
Holcomb became one of the standout stars of the scene.
"His stuff was very esoteric," Kline says. "It was very dark, but it had an element of fun attached to it. It was silly but disturbing. He would bomb sometimes, but you still couldn't take your eyes off of him. He was riveting."
Sams recalls a typical Holcomb joke: "I put a banana peel in front of my bean bag chair, because I want to slip into something more comfortable."
Like many in the scene, Holcomb was also a musician, playing with the band Community Bubble as well as on Beale Street and dabbling in noise experiments. Coleman says he was also a friendly, open person who attracted talented and strange people. "He was the kind of guy that you never knew who was going to get out of his car," Sams says.
But like many good things, the P&H open mic night couldn't last. "I think we were doing it for so long, week after week, just punching it out, that it couldn't sustain itself," Sams says. "The closing show was amazing. It was standing room only. I cried four times."
For his part, Holcomb struggled with his demons, eventually moving to Nashville and seeking a fresh start. Then, on December 30, 2011, he was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. "Did he do it on purpose? Who knows?" Sams says. "He was alone there. Nashville can be a very isolating city, especially when coming from the camaraderie of Memphis."
His friends in the comedy scene were crushed. "Losing someone like that, someone so close to you... there's just no comparison," Sams says.
With the comedy scene looking for a way to honor their friend, Kline hit upon the idea of throwing a comedy and music show at the New Daisy Theater, where the two friends worked.
"Mike Glenn, the owner, is really supportive of local talent, so I knew I could get the room and have his full support," Kline says.
The evening will begin with music from Holcomb's former band Community Bubble, along with Oracle and the Mountain, Hi Electric's Neal Bartlett, and the Near Reaches' Jason Pulley and J.D. Reager. Then, for the second half of the show, the comedy scene will be out in force, including performances by Sams, Kline, Josh McLane, Jane Haze, the Running Gag improv group, and many others.
"All of the Memphis comics will be there," Kline says.
Proceeds from the show will benefit the Church Health Center, an institution close to Holcomb's heart. Sams says it's the least they can do. "We are all poor. We don't have a lot of discretionary income, but we have talent."
Coleman says it's a fitting tribute to her friend: "I know he touched a lot of people — more than I realized."
A Special Tribute to Randall Holcomb, featuring multiple local bands and comedians, is at the New Daisy Theater on Friday, August 24th, 7 p.m., $10.