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Hambone’s a comedy springboard for student comics

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Hambone’s a comedy springboard for student comics

Senior English writing major Lorenzo Disilvio performs at Pitt Program Council’s “So You Think You’re Funny” comedy competition Wednesday night.

Senior English writing major Lorenzo Disilvio performs at Pitt Program Council’s “So You Think You’re Funny” comedy competition Wednesday night.

Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior English writing major Lorenzo Disilvio performs at Pitt Program Council’s “So You Think You’re Funny” comedy competition Wednesday night.

Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Senior Staff Photographer

Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior English writing major Lorenzo Disilvio performs at Pitt Program Council’s “So You Think You’re Funny” comedy competition Wednesday night.

By Kieran McLean, Staff Writer

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Stand-up comedian Lorenzo Disilvio wasn’t always comfortable performing in front of crowds.

The Pitt senior English writing major is now co-head writer of “Pitt Tonight” and performs at stand-up venues across the City, but he started his stand-up career feeling uncomfortable around strangers. On a winter night at Lawrenceville’s Hambone’s Bar and Restaurant in 2014, Disilvio received a reality check from fellow Pittsburgh comedians.

“I was being quiet off in the corner. I said to them, ‘I’m sorry I don’t talk a lot. I get anxious,’” Disilvio said.

The comedians set him straight about their business’ terms.

“They told me, ‘That’s not an excuse. We’re all anxious,’” Disilvio said.

Disilvio committed to managing his anxiety, got up in front of crowds and got to work.

Since then, he’s opened for Comedy Central comedian Sam Tallent and performed his own shows at Pittsburgh’s Arcade Comedy Theater. He’s also involved with the newly founded Burning Bridges Comedy Club, which was formed on campus in October and connects Pitt stand-up comedians with nationally recognized professionals.

Stand-up comedy can be isolating. And it’s even harder to turn it into a career outside of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the majority of career stand-ups find full-time work.

But Pittsburgh comedians and Burning Bridges co-founders Derek Minto and John Dick Winters are trying to change that. Burning Bridges is consolidating Pittsburgh’s burgeoning comedy community by providing training to aspiring comedians, giving them performance opportunities and putting them in touch with traveling professionals who can connect them to national outlets. The club operates out of Hambone’s and has roughly 20 consistent performers, with others in and out semi-regularly.  

“When I started doing stand-up, there was no scene. The comics that were [in Pittsburgh] were not encouraging,” Minto said. “I wanted to provide an alternative to that.”

Minto used to host stand-up at Downtown’s PaPa J’s Ristorante, with restaurant night manager Jeff Holt. Holt bought Hambone’s in 2011 and Minto started hosting open-mic nights and stand-up shows there.

“Open mics are basically the equivalent of a gym for comics,” Minto said. “And [Pittsburgh] is a great place to start. You can get so much stage time.”

But the duo had trouble developing a consistent comedy audience at Hambone’s until the nearby Belvedere’s Ultra-Dive bar caught fire in 2014.

“We had these big windows where people could see you doing stand-up, and people started coming in,” Minto said.

The club subsequently grew from hosting 10 to 15 comics per open-mic night to a minimum of 30. Minto said the neighborhood’s lack of drinking spots at the time led to the audience uptick.

“I’ve hosted shows where I’ve spent hundreds of dollars promoting them, if not thousands. And I still haven’t gotten audiences like we get at Hambone’s,” Minto said.

Between a steady audience and Winters’ and Minto’s industry connections, Hambone’s comedy scene took off. Award-winning comedian Hannibal Buress stopped by the bar during his Hannibal Montanabal tour in 2016. Nationally recognized stand-up comedian Rich Ross came through another night. Winters then leveraged Hambone’s combination of talent and regular audience to start the Burning Bridges Comedy Festival in 2016 and gave Pitt students the opportunity to perform with nationally recognized headliners.

Ossia Dwyer, a senior chemical engineering major, started her comedy career at the now-closed Lava Lounge in Pittsburgh’s South Side. She performed at four open-mic nights across the City every week shortly after that. But Dwyer found it hard to break into the scene at first, and also discovered that being the only woman in a lineup could be isolating.  

“When you’re a 21-year-old girl and everyone else is a 30-year-old man … you can kind of feel like a zoo animal,” Dwyer said. “As a female comic, you’re often put into a box. People think you’re all the same.”

But she later found a community in the Hambone’s crowd.

“Comedy’s a job,” Dwyer said. “[Hambone’s] offers the feeling that you have somewhere to go every night, the same people to see.”

Winters helped Dwyer get booked for her own shows at the South Side’s Club Cafe. And in August 2016, he boosted her career again by promoting her as the opener for Comedy Central’s Shane Torres during his Pittsburgh tour.

Since then, she’s been booked in increasingly more shows across the City. And in 2017, she opened for Comedy Central comedian and Burning Bridges Festival headliner Aparna Nancherla.

“It was really nice getting to work with someone who has a similar comedy style,” Dwyer said.

Burning Bridges helps young comedians develop their own style in turn. Disilvio said the club is the only one that offers comedians notes on their performance.

“With Burning Bridges, people are trying to be inclusive,” Disilvio said, sharing a note John Dixon, a comedy touring veteran, gave him on a recent performance.

“You have a natural likability and vulnerability,” Dixon wrote. “I really think you need to work on your honing and polishing.”

Dixon also brings national comedians through Pittsburgh, giving local up-and-comers standards to look up to. He brought Comedy Central performer Kyle Kinane to the Rex Theater in August. Disilvio said Hambone’s comedians were inspired the following week.

“You could see [Kinane’s] influence the next week at Hambone’s,” Disilvio said. “Everyone was working on their speed and crowd-work.”

He also said seeing Kinane perform was more instructive than traditional mentorship.

“Mentorship doesn’t have to be be someone sitting you down and talking to you,” Disilvio said. “Sometimes it’s just seeing someone really good and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m trash. I want to do work like them.’”

Now, Disilvio looks to work in comedy professionally after graduation. But he’s taking what he’s learned about community at Hambone’s when he leaves.

“I want to do the same thing that these comedians did for me,” Disilvio said. “I’d like to be a comedian that makes other people want to be comedians.”

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Hambone’s a comedy springboard for student comics