WILMINGTON — Karon Richardson-Tunis comes from the world of standup comedy, so she knows the challenges of living on the road, working for a laugh. It’s only apropos that her latest project, Port City Comedy Jam, gives a boost to comedians — hopefully, into the global realm.
Having launched two months ago, the jam has produced four live shows to date — two sets offered in one night, one Saturday every month. The fifth and sixth performances will take place this weekend, June 19.
The idea to launch the open-mic night came a few months ago after Tunis moved to downtown Wilmington from Topsail Beach. “I had a young comedian named Ellie Coleman reach out to me concerning how to grow and expand her comedy career,” Tunis explained.
Tunis toured doing standup from 1991 to 1995 before retiring the mic. “I was a mom and life on the road was hard. So I made the choice to stop,” she said.
She remained in the performance and entertainment industry, still. Tunis has her hands in numerous projects as a content producer for NBC Universal, plus she represents global talent, when she’s not running her own company Anything the Weddings LLC.
“As I spoke to [Ellie], I realized, although there were comedy shows going on in the Port City, none of those shows actually put an open-mic comedian on a global platform,” Tunis said.
So Tunis decided to put her connections to work.
She reached out to one of her clients and friends, actor and comedian Orlando Jones — now a Wilmingtonian who ended up staying in town after coming in to film “Sleepy Hollow” from 2013 to 2015. Tunis envisioned Jones hosting the open-mic nights — introducing the comedians, keeping the crowd engaged.
“I was frankly surprised at the number of comedians really excited to get on the set,” Jones explained of the jam’s startup. “And there is some amazing talent here in the Port City and surrounding areas . . .The females that have come out have absolutely killed it every time.”
To date, Tunis has accepted submissions from comedians locally, regionally, even as far as Virginia. She books six or seven acts who reach out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so there’s a level playing field. The only role Tunis curates is the headliner.
“They need to have the ability to handle an audience with a quick response and delivery,” she explained.
Comedians get around 10 minutes a set, though Tunis said there have been a few instances where she loosened restrictions. But it has to be because the audience shows its demand by “completely laughing and cracking up.”
“This has happened at least four times and it has been amazing,” she explained of the sold-out crowds, tracking 100 deep each performance.
And the joy doesn’t stay contained within the four walls of Front Street Market and Produce, where the jams are set up monthly. It carries into the ether as Tunis’ film crew tapes every production. After editing, it then streams on Roku and Amazon on the King TV Network — a platform focused on celebrities and entertainers in film, TV, sports, music, fashion, and other industries.
Tunis said the first batch of shows received 150 million streams each on Roku and Amazon in a 36-hour time span. The shows then go on-demand for viewers to continue to stream whenever they choose. Tunis said comedians have been utilizing the streams as a bargaining tool to get more work.
“Saying you’re on a television show and stage with Orlando Jones, and directing them to a streaming platform that is connected with Amazon and Roku is major for anyone but especially an upcoming comedian,” she explained. “We hope it gives them another way to get their name out there.”
The project will be even sweeter by the end of the year, according to Tunis: “We will be entering into a contract with Google TV and Apple TV.”
For the community that gets to participate in the live show, it’s an all-day affair and production. After the film crew pulls permits to host the event each month, they transform Front Street Produce and Market to look like a city bodega — often known as neighborhood beacons for people to gather, share stories and laugh. In fact, those are the best kinds of jokes, according to Jones: the ones that have a narrative.
“You must develop a story that gets the attention of the audience right from the beginning,” the standup comedian said. “[S]torytelling is essential when setting up a joke. And finishing strong with that story and committing to it is even more important.”
Tunis has planned Saturday’s show as a Juneteenth celebration — the longest-celebrated African-American holiday that honors slaves’ freedom, based on when Union troops announced June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, the Civil War was over and the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years prior. Tunis said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to embrace it.
“Black historically owned grocery store, Black host, Black female creator and producer, Black-owned television station: There is no way I was not going to provide a platform for such a wonderful and historic day, and especially connecting it to Port City Comedy Jam with the history of Wilmington,” Tunis noted.
Every Port City Comedy Jam is an all-day event, with a free community fair, featuring vendors and live music set up in the market’s parking lot from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. ahead of the open mic. Saturday’s event will have up to six vendors, as well as live music from Premium Sound Band, spoken word from Mahlaynee Cooper, a community drum circle, and dancer/entertainer Deshoan White.
Support the Port founder Cedric Harrison’s newest project, Wilmington N Color Heritage Tour, will be parked on site too. He will be handing out information about the shuttle, which will provide an educational experience about the coup d’état of 1898.
Though Juneteenth centers around the celebration of Black Americans’ freedoms, Tunis is clear there will be vendors and comedians of all races, genders, creeds, and ethnicities.
Next month on July 3, however, she will be curating a special performance highlighting only Black comedians. It will be the first of its kind for Port City Comedy Jam. “I feel that giving all Black comedians a voice right now is unique, different, and long overdue,” Tunis siad.
She also has more to come from the series but for now her lips are sealed: “Trust me. Keep your eyes on Port City Comedy Jam; we’re just getting started.”
Tickets for Saturday’s jam are $25-$30 for each open-mic. The 8 p.m. show features Natasha Locklear, Lex Hunt, Harrison Friedman, Dustin Martin, Charles Ozuna, Steph Sigma, and Cody Finch, with headliner Hunter Sutton.
The 10:15 p.m. show features Cal “Kool Guy” Thompson, Addell From “KingStree” Gordon, Travis Steward, Marlon Jackson, Renora Mallory, Tre Thomas, and Julias Scobar, with headliner Dallas Brown Jr.
The vendor fair ahead of the show is free to attend. Maya’s Crab Shack food truck also will be parked beginning at 6 p.m. and drinks will be served at Front Street Market and Produce, located at 604 South Front St.
To secure tickets, email PortCityComedyJam@gmail.com.
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