Driving up Route 81 you might miss these towns if you blink. They seem like any other quiet upstate villages nestled between off-ramps and cornfields, but right now a war is raging between Tully and Preble, and the casualties are mounting. The weapons are insults and heckles instead of guns and knives, but the carnage is just as grisly. The comedy scene in these two towns has descended into chaos, and hardly anyone is laughing anymore.
Ask any comic from Preble about the comedians in Tully and they’ll give the same answer: they’re all hacks and joke thieves. Ask any comic in Tully about the comics in Preble and you’ll also get the same universal response: they’re not funny!
Of course, it didn’t start out this way. “A year ago, those guys would come to our shows and we would go to theirs,” Preble resident and comic Randy Mumfell recounts. “Then Chucks opened up, and those Tully assholes all got full of themselves.” Randy refers to Uncle Chucks Chuckle Hut, the national comedy club chain that moved into the old Tully feed mill. “Uncle Chucks opening up was a game changer," Tully comic Brad Anderson told us. “Finally, we have headliners coming in from Auburn, from Cazanovia, from everywhere. It made all of the guys in Tully really up our game. Then the Preble comics started showing up and trying to get on. It was embarrassing, they just weren’t ready.” Since then, the tension and resentment has been ratcheting up with every tagline.
"I was booking the open mic at the 81 Bowl in Preble”, Tommy Sapwell recounts. “That is, until Fleezatonio told the owner he could get better comics. Now he’s bringing in guys from Lafayette and Homer and it really sucks." The Preble comics started icing the comics Tully native Brad Fleezatonio (or “the Fleeze” as he calls himself), started booking. “Whenever a Tully guy goes on, the Preble guys go outside to talk. It’s fucking rude,” Chad Vertles, a beefy comic who daylights as a forklift driver, adds. His friend Mitch McMacley interjects, “I was trying out this new bit about how you know you’re really comfortable in a relationship when you cut a big fart in bed and don’t care. I got nothing from those jagoffs. Not even anything when I added the tag about blaming it on the dog. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth driving up here from Truxton.”
Everyone seems to have a gripe. Mostly, the bickering involves the perceived lifting of material. “This guy from Tully is doing my bit about Tinder,” Steve Farkman chimes in. “Sure, he changed it around, but you can still tell it’s my bit.” When asked, Brad Fleezatonio offers up a defense of sorts. “Everything is influenced by everything else. That’s why comedy is funny because it’s so familiar. People in the audience say to themselves, 'that sounds like something I heard before,' and then they laugh their asses off.”
The worry is apparent on the manager of Uncle Chuck’s, Bart Streefer’s, face. “These comics aren’t kidding around any more. So far, there haven’t been any serious injuries, but unless something gives, somebody is going to get pushed down or poked or something. We tried to diffuse some of the competition by holding a funniest person contest, but it just made things worse.”
It’s a sweltering night outside of Uncle Chuck's Chuckle Hut. Several comics are hanging out smoking cigarettes. The conversation ranges from who’s not as funny as they think they are, to… who’s not funny. A diminutive young woman in her 20’s walks up to me. “It’s just not any fun anymore. I thought comedy was supposed to be fun. This might as well be a tragedy club.”
Inside, the comedy team, “Little York and Lake” are on. One of them is from Preble, the other from Tully. Little York delivers the setup and leaves the stage. Lake walks up to the mic and delivers the punchline. The audience responds politely but there is an awkwardness in the air. “They were funnier when they used to finish each others' sentences,” I overhear a patron say. “How can they call themselves a comedy team if the aren’t finishing each others' sentences?”
In the back of the room Bart Streefer confesses under his breath, “it’s just too bad. Everybody is so worked up. I don’t have the heart to tell them that we are closing down next month. They’re converting the place into a laser tag parlor.”
As I drive out of the parking lot, I notice some graffiti scrawled on a rusty storage unit. “You’re so funny I forgot to laugh”, it reads. In a way it’s prophetic. Around here it seems like everybody’s forgotten to laugh.