Meet the three women who help run NC's comedy scene
Posted July 17, 2018 9:00 a.m. EDT
Updated July 17, 2018 9:19 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Three women — one each in Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington — have provided a welcomed boost for the comedy scene in North Carolina in recent years.
Even though they each run their own clubs, Brandy Brown, Jennie Stencel and Aimee Elfers don’t compete for headline acts. In fact, comedians who perform in their clubs often are told by these women how great the other two comedy rooms, and the people who run them, are.
“It’s nice because all three of the clubs get along. I don’t know that it’s like that everywhere,” said Stencel, who co-owns Idiot Box in Greensboro with her husband, Steve Lesser. “If somebody comes in and asks me about other places in North Carolina, I’m like, ‘Well, this is Aimee and this is Brandy and these are the people you’re gonna want to talk to.’ Then, of course, they’re super responsive and helpful.
“I don’t necessarily think about the fact that they’re women ever. It actually never really crossed my mind until somebody asked, ‘All women run those clubs?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ They’re just very good at their jobs.”
Elfers, the general manager at Wilmington’s Dead Crow Comedy, added: “I’ve never felt competition with them or between the clubs. We’re all in close enough proximity that that could happen. I’ve felt only support.”
Brown has been the general manager at Goodnight's Comedy Club/The Grille at Goodnight's in Raleigh for almost four years; Elfers has held the GM title at Dead Crow since 2014; and Stencel and Lesser opened The Idiot Box in 2003.
While she was working as a server at Goodnights, Brown, who also does stand-up and works in movies, said she was offered the management position for years before accepting the job.
She found the steadier monthly income a welcome change and was happy to not have to depend on tips to help pay her bills. Adjusting to being a manager presented challenges, but maybe not the kind most people would expect.
“I had years watching close friends manage, so I kind of knew what I was getting myself into, which is why I was like, ‘Maybe we pushed this off as long as possible,’” said Brown, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Raleigh. “There’s some things you have to get used to. In my case, I had been working at the club for so many years and there are people who work with me so the weird part was adjusting to being my friends’ boss.”
Elfers, a Nebraska native who moved to Wilmington in 2007, was not much of a comedy fan when she took a job at Nutt Street Comedy Room, Dead Crow’s precursor that closed in 2013.
Following Nutt Street’s unexpected shutdown, co-owners Timmy Sherrill and Cole Craven opened Dead Crow in 2014 next door to the Nutt Street room on the other side of a brick wall the buildings share.
Lessons learned by Sherrill, a veteran stand-up, about the comedy club business also made the move from Nutt Street to Dead Crow, and Elfers wasted no time learning them and then making her imprint on the Wilmington comedy scene.
“When I started bartending at Nutt Street, that’s when I realized that I did enjoy stand-up comedy. It’s a specific kind of talent,” said Elfers, who describes herself as bossy and an occasional bad cop. “(Sherrill) instilled in anyone who worked down there the idea that the minute we open the doors, that’s the start of the show. … Moving from that point to running the shows on the weekends (at Dead Crow) and understanding what I need not only from the staff but also from the people on stage, I think it all goes hand in hand.”
Stencel started doing stand-up in 1996 and has been running a club for almost all of her comedy career.
After the original Idiot Box lasted for 13 years on Elm Street, Stencel and Lesser moved in 2016 to a building they shared with Geeksboro Coffee and Beverage Company for almost two years. The third version of The Idiot Box is returning to downtown Greensboro and should open in August when Stencel and Lesser hope to start having live comedy on stage five nights a week, which Goodnights and Dead Crow have been doing for years.
A Wisconsin native who moved to Chapel Hill at age 3, Stencel worked in television in Winston-Salem and Texas, but her focus on comedy and family never wavered.
“I wanted to raise kids, and I wanted to do comedy,” said Stencel, the founder of the North Carolina Comedy Festival, which made its debut in Greensboro in February. “It went from doing comedy for about a year and a half to doing our own thing (laying the groundwork for the first Idiot Box). It went pretty fast for me.”
Brown and Stencel said watching local comedians go from being nervous, first-time open mic performers to being featured comics for weekend headliners and eventually doing their own shows is their favorite part of the job. Elfers said providing an experience that encourages people to shake off the stresses of their lives is the most rewarding aspect of her work at Dead Crow.
Conversely, having to occasionally flex her bad cop muscles is Elfers’ least favorite job requirement, and Brown said she loathes having to deal with overconfident comedians doing hacky material and thinking it’s good.
“I hate having to make sure the bathrooms are clean,” Stencel said when asked what the most stressful part of her job is before adding, “You have those nights where things go wrong. … A difficult headliner wasn’t happy or a difficult crowd, but those things really aren’t super common.”
Indeed, most nights in Goodnights, Dead Crow and The Idiot Box are stress-free and fun, and Brown, Stencel and Elfers deserve credit for that.
Additionally, these three women have repeatedly helped me get interview access to comedians, provided media passes and guidance at comedy festivals in their cities and never been more than a text message or phone call away when I’ve had questions about anything related to their clubs.
North Carolina’s comedy scene is lucky to have Brown, Stencel and Elfers, in much the same way they’re benefiting from each other’s support.
“I’m a huge fan of both Aimee and Jennie,” Brown said. “It’s nice to have a couple people that are serious about this. We are women and we are working in the same industry so when things come up comedy community-wise in North Carolina, it’s like, ‘Hey, are we touching this or is it better for us not to touch this?’ Things can get kind of messy and you have to decide because if it happens at your club, your name will be thrown out there and you don’t want backlash some troll is starting just because they’re having a bad Tuesday.”