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A Battle of Jokes in Southern Illinois

Reece "Coach" Alexander performs at a local comedy competition in Marion, Illinois
Ethan Holder
Reece "Coach" Alexander performs at a local comedy competition in Marion, Illinois

Southern Illinois is home to many artists in fields like music, painting, and photography. However, there has been a growing art in the area over the last few years, comedy.

The Celebrations Event Center in Marion Illinois has been hosting two comedy events a month for the last few years, an open mic night for local comedians and a show featuring a seasoned comic. Some of the open mic nights double as stand up contests where amateur comedians get 5 minutes to prove themselves to be the funniest in the room. The three finalists each night also win a small amount of money. Jonathan Hiltz, co-owner of the center, says his goal is for the events to boost the creativity in his community.

“We have a passion for stand up comedy and the small town aspect. We love our city and this is just another way to get people in our community to do something relatively cheap and creative” Hiltz said.

While the goal is to help the entire community at large, he says the local comedians gain a lot from these shows. Hiltz hopes these shows can push some of the comic’s careers forward.

“Last month was our first time but going forward, whoever wins the open mic, they will get to open for the touring comedian. It gives them the opportunity, being a local comedian, to start working their way up, open for bigger name people, begin networking, and gets them in front of a couple hundred people” Hiltz said.

The winner of the open mic night on February 2nd was Reece Alexander going by the stage name “Coach”. Coach was not just the only black comedian competing that night but was one of the only black people in the room. Coach says this fact lowered his confidence in winning.

“I’ve done dozens of comedy competitions but I didn’t think I was gonna win tonight. As you can see I am the only black guy in here so I didn’t think I was going to win a majority of the votes but, you know, talent prevailed in this one. It is what it is but I appreciate the love” Coach said.

Coach has been doing stand up comedy for a little over ten years. He says like most comedians, he was going through a dark time in his life which drove him to start doing stand up.

“Comics probably have the darkest internal feelings ever. My comedy was basically to mask a lot of pain I was dealing with at the time. My dad had died the third of September and my first time getting on stage was September 13th. Literally ten days after I got on stage and for the first time told jokes about my dead father and have been doing comedy ever since” Coach said.

Coach says his skills have constantly grown over the last decade due to repetition. Not only have his skills evolved, but he says the jokes he has been using since the beginning have changed along with him.

“That one joke you can be working on for the last few years can grow every time you do it gets better and better and better. Then you perfect it and now it’s a whole bit. I started off doing seven minute sets, went to 14, from 14 to half-hours now. Now I can do a half-hour, easy” Coach said.

Coach is not the only recurring comedian at the open mic competitions. Jonathan Hiltz, the owner of the Celebrations Event Center, says he has seen many amateur comics at his open mics get better over time.

“I’ve seen how much people have changed and gotten better and how their acts have changed. A lot of times they will do the same jokes or a variation or they will work on their timing. You can see how the joke evolves from where it was to how it's gotten funnier over time. Sometimes things happen in their life and then they bring more jokes. I have really noticed how much people can improve” Hiltz said.

While a lot of local comedians put in enough work to improve over time, many of them struggle to make a living off of their jokes. Most of them, including Coach, need to work a day job to support them while they pursue comedy. Coach says his day job tends to shock people.

“I’m a behavioral analyst. It don’t look like it, do it? He like ‘you a what?’ I’m a behavioral analyst for Trinity services. I actually just came off of work and came here to do comedy” Coach said.

Coach says finances are not the only thing holding him back from going full time. He says the stress of the job is a daunting obstacle to overcome.

“I wanna do it full time but it’s very stressful and I know my anxiety won’t allow me to do it full time but I would love to though if I could get my anxiety under control” Coach said.

Local comics may struggle to turn their passions into careers, but that does not stop them from gaining local support. Carol Conley, a guest at the open mic night, says Coach’s jokes were some of the best from the competition.

“I thought he was great. I thought he engaged with everybody really well and he had a diverse set, relating to everyone in the audience” Conley said.

Even with only five minutes, Coach was able to win over much of the crowd with his jokes. However, he says he could have easily gone on for much longer.

“That five minutes wasn’t enough. I got so much material I been wanting to do and those ones I just did was just some new ones I’ve been trying to work out. I’m just trying to work on new material. I got hours and hours of material, I got so much time. That was not even the surface” Coach said.

The crowd did not get to hear these jokes during the competition but they will have another chance. Coach will be opening up for Stewart Huff, a touring comedian, on February 16th at the Celebrations Event Center in Marion. He will get the chance to do a 10 to 15 minute set prior to the 1 hour set of Huff. Tickets are on sale now at the center's website.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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