Published on September 19th, 2014 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Jason Groce Looks Back at Five Frickin’ Years of TROM
There’s been a lot of funny stuff going down at the Tin Roof in West Ashley over the last five years — particular on every fourth Sunday during the monthly “TROM” (Tin Roof Open Mic) series.
Initially booked under the title “Little Caesar’s Palace,” the series was designed as a local stand-up comedy “open mic” session with free pizza and dozens of Charleston-based comics — both pro and amateur. Things kicked off in 2009 under the guidance of host Jason Groce and Tin Roof staffers Lesley Carroll and Nick Della Penna. They eventually changed the name to “TROM” after threats of legal action from Caesar’s Palace arrived in the mail.
Groce had plenty of previous improv experience at Theatre 99, but his stand-up chops were still developing. Within a few quick months, the open mic series started drawing a slew of zany stand-up comedians and dedicated comedy fans.
On Sunday. Sept. 21, TROM celebrates its fifth anniversary — the “Five Frickin’ Years Edition” — with a roster featuring veteran TROM performers. So far, the lineup includes Bill Davis, Rossi Brown, Andy Rider, Michael Clayton, Moey Conway, Deshawn Mason, Hunter Gardner, Stan Shelby, Vince Fabra, Tim Hoeckel, and Mike Brocki. There are more to come.
Metronome Charleston caught up with Jason Groce this week:
Metronome Charleston: Take us back five years to first TROM. Whose idea was it, and who was involved with organizing the first few TROM events at the Tin Roof?
Jason Groce: It was a random Sunday after I had gotten off work at 6 p.m. bartending, and my tradition had become to go to Tin Roof and hang out with Nick and Lesley [both currently of Jack of Cups on Folly Beach] when they were there. There was never anyone there, as on this particular Sunday, and stand-up was kind of taking off amongst my Theatre 99 friends, and I said, “You know I could maybe bring some people here on a Sunday night.”
Nick asked if I would host, and though I had considered stand up before, I had never done it, so, since no one was there, he turned on the sound equipment and I got on stage and did the worst comedy I could think of, just to entertain us. It was silly fun, but we decided it could work. We set a date two Sundays from that one, and I wrote a ton of horrible jokes to tell and host an open mic!
Metronome Charleston: We remember the series gradually taking off and quickly gaining momentum, with more and more comedians signing up to perform and more people in attendance. Why did TROM click and catch on whereas some other open mic comedy nights around town have had a tough time?
Jason Groce: I don’t know. I think a lot of it had to do with location and time, both venue and part of town… there was nothing else in West Ashley, and a couple have come and gone, so I think it is still the only open mic in West Ashley. Tin Roof is a perfect venue: a stage, the perfect size for focusing on a comedian, a bar that runs the length and you can lean on and watch the show, there aren’t windows, and a small TV is the only distraction. Tin Roof is always open to alternative programming; they’ve had and hope to continue bringing in top-flight national comics, too. And if a comedian is annoying you or you just need to get away, you can escape to the huge patio.
Doing it once a month is important, too. I couldn’t do it weekly. I can’t commit to buying a whole head of lettuce. Not sure why, but we have an audience. Sounds funny to say that, but some open mics are only comedians. TROM feels more like a “show.” Always has. I try to keep it early on a Sunday night, when free entertainment options are few. Free pizza helps, too.
Metronome Charleston: It was called “Little Caesar’s Palace” during the early days? We were there when you read that cease-and-desist letter from Las Vegas. Looking back, what was the funniest thing that strikes you about that controversy with the name?
Jason Groce: By far the funniest thing was that it was a hybrid name, a portmanteau, of Little Caesar’s, which is served for free still [at TROM] and Caesar’s Palace. But Caesar’s Palace sent the cease and desist. Apparently, Little Caesar’s didn’t give a crap. I would have loved to have had the Caesar’s Palace lawyer come to a show, look around, and go, “Oh, this is nothing to worry about.” It was the farthest thing from the glitz and glamour of a Vegas casino. The notoriety was awesome, though.
Metronome Charleston: What is it about the Tin Roof that enhances and works well for these open mic comedy events?
Jason Groce: A long, thin room, a laid-back atmosphere, and an open mind. Tin Roof draws such a varied crowd anyway, and a lot of newcomers walk in and really like it and, some say, “I didn’t know this was here,” or “I’ve seen this place but never stopped in.” Also, as I stated, I really think being able to wait on the patio while Bill Davis shoves a microphone in his mouth can’t be overstated.
Metronome Charleston: Does the size, set-up, or atmosphere of the venue present a challenge for the comedians who perform?
Jason Groce: I think it is very conducive to performance. We once had some people trying to play the pinball machine during a show, until we unplugged it after their game was over. I think the atmosphere can be very intimidating for the very reason I stated before: the audience. You’re not just cutting up with your friends; there are people here, strangers, who want you to be funny. We once had a group of 20 show up who all sat up front, aged anywhere from 25 to 55, and they were very skeptical of every comedian. Stand-up comedy is tough to do on its own.
Metronome Charleston: What are some of the funniest memories you have about TROM shows, and what are some of the most embarrassing or uncomfortable?
Jason Groce: We have had people fighting over their tab once during a show. We have hecklers. Note to hecklers: you’re not funny, and you may run into a comic who will make you look like even more of an idiot. Charleston is a polite city, so we don’t boo; if we don’t enjoy your set, we just start talking louder. I have had shows where I am constantly shushing the crowd. We once had a lady get upset during one comic’s set, then blow up at a different comic and walk out. We had one older guy at the bar, the only successful heckler I’ve seen, who yelled three things at a comic who was really struggling for way too long, and each of those three statements, peppered throughout the comic’s set, brought the room down.
Metronome Charleston: Have you ever had to get a heavy with some of the more obnoxious or unruly (or unknown) comics who sign up for these open mics? As the emcee, you’re also kind of the main cop and babysitter, too, right?
Jason Groce: Right, I have had to do some of that. Tin Roof regulars and staff are good at curbing 99 percent of that. We’ve had to have some pretty serious confrontations over that, but maybe two in five years? We now leave the mic on after the show is over so that anyone can go up and do some time, if they missed the sign-up or whatever. It is actually extremely gratifying when some obnoxious dude who has scoffed at every comic going up there and completely bombs. It isn’t easy at all, even if you are the funniest person in your group of friends. The audience is already against these kinds of people from the start, so they really have no chance.
Metronome Charleston: It’s safe to say that events like the TROM nights at the Tin Roof are extremely valuable and important to the local comedy scene; they provide a solid and unique opportunity for independent/underground performers to regularly do their thing. How do you think TROM has most enhanced and supported the local comedy scene?
Jason Groce: By building some camaraderie, I think. In the first three years, we were collaborating and talking about jokes we were going to tell. I tried to foster that by occasionally doing some crazy, experimental set, so that no matter what other comics did, it wouldn’t be as strange as my bit. Including myself, a lot of comics have performed for the very first time on Tin Roof’s stage. I’m proud of that, but I am more proud for the comic who is sincere about doing it, that I might have helped foster a dream in some way. Plus, like I said, it’s the only thing going in West Ashley right now. I think it’s important to expose every area of town to our scene and having a consistent place to, even if you’re not sure it will be funny all the time, is at least a place to have a good experience and remember that aspect of it.
Metronome Charleston: Can hosting TROM be a pain in the ass. If so, why?
Jason Groce: Because I’m slack. I only promote and invite the shows via Facebook. Facebook is a pain to invite a thousand people to a show. You have to click on them individually to invite people. Sorry to all those I invited who didn’t want to be. It becomes a clicking blur. On the other hand, it is amazing that one tool can be used to bring all these people together. Open mics are tough, because some nights are amazing, some are “eh,” and some are god-awful. Comics are notoriously selfish, and some act like a five-minute spot on a Sunday night at Tin Roof is going to make or break their comedy careers. It won’t, because it can’t, so the tension of “Can I get a spot, please?” wears on me. The randomness of who is going up and how it’s going to go is a pain in a different way.
I take hosting personally because I take everything personally, so if it’s not a good show, I obsess about what I did wrong. I have my own personal limit to the amount of “show” I can take, so a few years ago I came up with having a house team. It was originally 10 people of totally different comedic styles who pretty much all showed up every month and I knew the crowd enjoyed hearing. Then I added on five or six sign ups and went with that. 23 people signing up didn’t make for a fun show. People kind of stop caring after an hour or so, no matter how good it is. I got the sage advice from the Tin Roof staff, “It’s your show. Do whatever you want.” Oh yeah… there is that…
Metronome Charleston: Back in the day, did you ever think TROM would still be going on at the Tin Roof every month?
Jason Groce: No way. It was my very first time doing stand-up, and I thought it’d be fun for a few shows. I had no idea it would or could go on for a few years — much less five! It’s unbelievable. We missed a couple months here and there, and I haven’t hosted all of them, but I remember a particular Easter Sunday maybe three years ago where we had about 12 people show and about seven of the comics had back out and I thought, “Welp, this is it. We’re done here.” But nope!
Metronome Charleston: When are you going to release a live album like Dusty Slay’s [Makin’ That Fudge]?
Jason Groce: Soon. I wanted to do one back in August but couldn’t work out the timing. I really have been planning it. Just want to get a date and some good recording equipment to borrow and see what happens. It’s my five-year anniversary too, so I’d like to record what I have and then expand from there.
Metronome Charleston: What are some of the special events and extras planned for the fifth anniversary show on Sunday night?
Jason Groce: Surprises, mayhem, and loose collaborations, I imagine. I just want it to be fun. I asked several comics to be on board, and I don’t know what they are going to do. As with our other TROMs, they can do whatever they want. I’m probably going to reflect on some moments on stage for the show. But who knows what we’ll do?
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