Isthmians on the Brink

by Dana Sitar
July 2012

Poster for the Isthmians on the Brink (top) the Isthmians of Comedy (bottom)

Poster for the Isthmians on the Brink (top) the Isthmians of Comedy (bottom)

On July 24, the Isthmians of Comedy come together to celebrate yet another milestone. The group’s founders, Nick Hart and Stefan Davis will share the spotlight at the Brink Lounge as Davis celebrates the release of his debut CD Of Course I’ll Choke You and Hart headlines to record his first album, The New N-Word. A few weeks later, they’ll both leave Madison behind.

Since their inaugural April Fool’s Day show in 2010, the Ishtmians have taken great strides, its original members beginning to stand out on their own in and outside of Madison. Last year, they saw Dave Pickett move with his family to Norway, where he’s taking the English-speaking comedy scene by storm. Davis is touring the Midwest after spending a year in San Francisco. He returns in September to compete in the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Hart is headed East in August, taking his career into the heart of stand-up comedy, New York City.

The Isthmians were born of Davis and Hart’s combined ambition, and has rapidly and organically became a catch-all and support group for aspiring comics in Madison. With their first showcase, along with flagship members David Leon and Ryan Casey, they showed local comedians and comedy fans what comedy in this city could be.

“The Isthmians have really been the dynamo behind Madison Comedy,” says filmmaker Andrew Butts, who is creating a documentary about the scene. “I think, seeing the camaraderie of the group really helps to bring all the comedians together, in an ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ sorta way.”

“They seem to bring a level of professionalism to the scene,” explains comedian Dan Borchardt. “They all seem like career guys … You can tell the focus is on their craft and building a career, versus just trying to get a few quick laughs to have one good night.”

The Madison comedians who would officially make up the Isthmians over the years – Hart, Davis, Pickett, Leon, Casey, plus Nate Bjork, Kevin Kunkel, and most recently Ian John – share an understanding that “there are no rules,” as Hart puts it, to being a comedian. While the Comedy Club on State offers a great hub as the only space in the city devoted to stand-up comedy, the scene is no longer restricted to its brick walls.

Since their official inception in April 2010, the ever-growing and morphing Isthmians have had a profound, if somewhat accidental, effect on the burgeoning Madison scene. Shortly after their first successful show, they started an open mic on Monday nights that “showed that other mics [outside of the Club] could be supported by comics and comedy fans,” according to comedian Jackson Jones.

“The inception of the Isthmians sparked, in local comedians, a sense of ownership of our own comedy careers,” says Bjork, who joined the lineup last year. “The Isthmians did something that was not happening previously,” and that sparked others to do the same, he adds. Now, including the Club’s Big Deuce Open Mic and the weekly showcase, local comics can nab stage time at least five nights a week in venues around the city, unheard of in a city of Madison’s size.

Because of the position the group has secured in the scene, new comedians look to the Isthmians for support, approval, stage time, and advice, with great respect to what the comedians have achieved. But Davis admits what he and Hart have said all along, “We gave it a name. That’s it.”

The power of “giving it a name” became clear early on. Producing under the Isthmians brand quickly drew attention to the comics, and gave the toddling local scene the boost to grow into a viable right-hand, or an alternative, to what many consider the best club in the country.

As the Isthmians’ flagship members leave behind the local scene, they have no doubt that the name will carry on without them. “I would love to come back in a few years and see the Isthmians name still doing shows with all new faces,” says Hart. “I’d like to leave it as a legacy with the other local guys and girls so they can use it as a calling card of sorts to book shows around the area.”

But, “Nick and Stefan and Dave Pickett are probably the more motivated of the Isthmians,” admits Bjork. “We all have great ideas but following through on them is something Stefan tends to spearhead.”

It appears that in the absence of its bedrock members, the Isthmian name will begin to flourish more as the catch-all that Hart originally envisioned. It is not an elite membership group, but rather a collective of comedians with the vision and dedication to pave their own paths – whether they wind by a club stage, through a bar basement, overseas, on the road, or to the Big Apple.

“It’s been three years of laughs, drugs, and having sex in public,” Hart reminisces of his stint as a Madison comedian. “[The Isthmians] was an unplanned baby but we kept it and gave it a name. What becomes of the Isthmians of Comedy is up to the future Isthmians, whoever they may be.”

Isthmians on the Brink July 24 at the Brink Lounge features Nick Hart, Stefan Davis, Ryan Casey, David Leon, and Nate Bjork, with special guests Eric Dersch and Frandu, hosted by Ian John.

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