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Comic Graham Clark in Vancouver August 11, 2009.


It's Sunday night, and in the unlikely environment of a generic restaurant, there is evidence that a subculture movement is well underway.

A young comedy troupe holds a packed room enthralled with a two-hour improvisational routine. Young comics Ryan Beil, Taz Van Rassel, Aaron Reed and Kevin Lee perform weekly as stars of The Sunday Service, one of a growing multitude of underground comedy nights around the city. They aren't the comedy troupes of old - there are no middle-aged guys standing against a brick wall with a microphone and opening lines like, "Don't you hate it when…" Instead, the performers dive into long improv pieces and sketch comedy that capitalizes on the current trend toward absurdist humour (ever wonder what's it's like to be trapped inside a giant space worm?), and buzzes with pop culture references.

And while they might drop an f-bomb now and then, the joking never gets filthy. Bob Saget take note.

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The room isn't holding the usual comedy club audience of frat boys and stagette parties, either. Instead, it's packed each week with the kind of twentysomethings you might find at an indie-music show.

Their loyalty is why 26-year-old comedian Conor Holler and a handful of other promoters decided to launch the first Olio Festival this past week, which includes some of The Sunday Service comics on its program. After noticing a growing crossover audience for indie music and underground comedy, creating a festival that combined the two was a no-brainer. The festival, which ran Aug. 13 to 16, brought some of the brightest comics from around Vancouver, Seattle and other farther afield places together to share stages with indie bands such as Bend Sinister, Jaws and the Defektors.

The alliance of music and comedy isn't a new one - comics played in jazz clubs in the fifties and sixties, and Bobcat Goldthwait opened for Nirvana (Kurt Cobain was a fan of his act.) A few years later, David Cross and Janeane Garofalo appeared in a Superchunk video. But the commingling of comics and indie music artists has never been in such full swing as it is now. Blame it on kids being bored with television and karaoke nights - whatever the reason, it's a movement that's spawning fresh young comics in North American cities everywhere.

"People going to indie music shows are the same types of people that we're targeting," says Holler, who is curator for the comedy portion of Olio. "The big comedy club environment is still popular, but there's a new movement that is going against that vein of comedy."

To the irritation of some, the trend is often referred to as "alternative comedy" or "indie comedy." Comics often open for popular indie bands, or play music festivals such as Austin, Texas's South by Southwest or Vancouver's Music Waste. In other words, comedy has become cool. Even Seattle's Sub Pop Records - the label made famous by Nirvana - has signed comedians such as Cross, Eugene Mirman and Patton Oswalt. Last year, one of the label's biggest-selling releases was the Flight of the Conchords' debut album. The New Zealand indie music-comedy duo is best known for its hit HBO comedy series about a pair of Kiwi musicians struggling to make it in New York.

Kevin Maher, front man for Fake Shark - Real Zombie!, a Vancouver-based alternative band (self-described as "today's answer to Faith No More") that also played the Olio Festival, counts himself as a musician influenced by a lot of comedians.

"I am more inclined to be excited to see a comedian than a band," he says. "I think that there's been a revival of alternative comedians that is similar to the boom of the punk bands in the late 70s, early 80s. … comedians Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt and David Cross [are like]what it was when the Ramones happened back then."

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Comics say the strength of the underground scene is that it attracts the pure of heart - artists not just looking to make a fast buck, and audiences looking for more than cheap jokes. It means the most creative and different get a chance to thrive.

Graham Clark, who grew up idolizing Pee-wee Herman, ran a live comedy show in Vancouver for five years called the Laugh Gallery. For a time, the show featured Zach Galifianakis, star of the current hit movie The Hangover . Clark has opened for comedians such as Brent Butt, and is a regular on the CityNews List, a daily TV news panel show that features other young Vancouver comedians.

The 28-year-old has been doing professional comedy for more than a decade, and is one of the better-known names to play the Olio Festival. Until the TV show, he was working in a warehouse. He sees the current underground comedy boom as a rebuilding of an art form that lost its way.

"There are a lot more comics now," says Clark, seated in a Gastown bar. "I know in the eighties [comedy]took a huge hit because there were so many people doing it and it became mass produced. Everybody was doing impressions. There were [Jerry]Seinfeld copycats. I think that's why people thought comedy was stupid and lame," he explains.

"Then the whole industry died because it was too overblown and mass produced, which drove it underground a bit. But I always thought comedy was the best thing a person could do."

Maher concurs that unlike the 1980s, when it might cost $60 to see a comedian at a "pretentious club," ticket prices for alternative comedy run anywhere from $5 to $20. "It's more of a grassroots thing."

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