College town comedy — Standup comedy bounces back in Iowa City

Standup comedy in Iowa City is back and better than ever with the establishment of open mic nights, theatrical showcases, and national tours.


Photo contributed by Logan Pratt.

Parker Jones and Stella Shipman

Whether it’s open mics, professional stand-up routines, or “Joke-E-Oke,” Iowa City makes room for laughs.

Although several locations host established comedians, comedy spots also host up-and-coming comics or anyone looking to share some one-liners at bars.

Joystick Comedy Arcade specializes as a venue for comedy. The bar’s Monday night open mic started at the Iowa City Yacht Club before moving to Joystick in September 2021.

The rebranded bar hosts open mic nights on Sunday and Thursday and brings in headline acts every Friday and Saturday.

Thursday’s open mic is titled “Joke-E-Oke”: A comedy open mic in the first half, and then karaoke the rest of the night. “Joke-E-Oke” is hosted by Travis Coltrain, the events coordinator for Joystick and an executive producer for the Floodwater Comedy Festival.

Coltrain wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that Joystick’s influence on the comedy scene has reached beyond Iowa City, growing the genre of stand-up for the entire state.

“It’s helped give comedians more stage time, a hub to congregate at, and a venue for others to learn about the art of stand-up,” Coltrain wrote. “Stand-up is all about practice. Comedy is a muscle that constantly needs motion, and having two open mics a week for comics to use that muscle is amazing.”

In addition to offering newcomers the opportunity to practice their material, Joystick also showcases professionals ranging from well-known comics in Iowa to a headliner touring the country. Coltrain wrote that comedy has always been a huge part of Iowa and noted that Joystick was instrumental in reviving that scene since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joystick will host a “Best of Iowa” showcase on March 31 and two weekends in April, where legendary Iowa comics Donny Townsend and AJ Grill will headline.

In addition to venues like Joystick, Iowa City’s comedy scene is furthered by theatrical takes on the genre from community theaters like Willow Creek Theatre Company.

“Secret Standup” is an independent student-based DIY comedy showcase, often hosted at venues like Willow Creek and arts organization Public Space One.

Logan Pratt, a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in marketing with a minor in theater, is the current host of Secret Standup. He will also serve as an executive producer for the upcoming Floodwater Comedy Festival.

Pratt said he was always interested in trying stand-up and got involved after taking the Standup Comedy Practicum class at the UI in 2021. He said the class, which was taught by UI professor and playwright Megan Gogerty, prepared him with the basics of how to perform stand-up.

“It really taught me what it means to be a comedian, a real comedian, like how to generate material more effectively,” Pratt said. “[The class] taught you how to be like a working stand-up comedian, and also how to do stand-up ethically … so that you’re doing it in a way that actually makes people laugh but doesn’t put anyone down while you’re doing it.”

Pratt’s current material usually focuses on self-deprecating humor, taking advice from Gogerty’s class that it is easier to point the finger at himself rather than someone else or another group. The student comic said that while he enjoys stand-up, he does not plan to pursue it as a career.

Pratt also said his goal as the host of Secret Standup is to get more students involved and to try stand-up for the first time.

He said the comedy scene has suffered post-pandemic, and he wants to recover the atmosphere that convinced him to give stand-up a try.

“It’s really been a challenge as someone who runs a lot of student stuff,” Pratt said. “The pre-pandemic vibe was really so different. And so, when I first entered it as a freshman, it was so magical.”

Renowned stand-up comedian, actor, director, and writer David Cross can also attest to how the stand-up industry suffered during the onset of COVID-19. Cross performed at The Englert on March 17.

Among Cross’s most notable appearances are his role as Tobias Fünke in “Arrested Development” and his recurring role in the second season of “Goliath.” His work on “The Ben Stiller Show” earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing in a Variety or Music Program in 1993.

But Cross is best known for comedy. His 1999 comedy special was also named one of the 25 best stand-up comedy specials and concert films of all time by Rolling Stone in July 2015.

The comedian had been preparing to kick off November 2021 with a national stand-up tour that was canceled because of COVID-related concerns. “That’s probably creatively one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Cross said in an interview with the DI. “I mean, I was ready to go. Theaters were booked. And then, yeah, we had to cancel it.”

To make up for the devastating cancellation, Cross recorded a comedy special in New York City titled “I’m From the Future.” He wanted to ensure the material he wrote did not go to waste and was shared with the world when it premiered on his official website in February 2022.

This year, Cross finally embarked on a national tour titled “Worst Daddy in the World,” which included his March 17 stop in Iowa City. He will continue touring into next month. His last performance is set for April 14.

Cross said the grueling travel of touring can be challenging, but it is a small price to pay for the joy of performing comedy routines and entertaining audiences.

“I want [audiences] to laugh, to enjoy themselves, to think it was worth their time and worth their money,” Cross said. “For new people or people who haven’t seen me before, I hope they remain new fans, and for people who have seen me before, I hope they’re satisfied with the new set.”