Roll Call! Is everyone present at SOMA’s comedy lab?

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange and Maplewood residents no longer have to travel to the comedy clubs of New York City for a good laugh, thanks to three funny Maplewood women.

Molly Reisner, Elizabeth Trundle and Abby Sher have been producing the Roll Call Comedy Lab every month for the past year at Ricalton’s in South Orange with the purpose of bringing the best experimental comedians to the SOMA community. Their show, on the final Wednesday of each month, features everything from comedic storytelling to stand-up, improv and even musical comedy. And the price of admission cannot be beat — it is absolutely free.

Simply put, Reisner said, the show is a great opportunity for a night out without straying too far from home. And she guaranteed that attendees will enjoy themselves.

“You are promised a quality night of comedy,” Reisner told the News-Record in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “We definitely seek performers who are intelligent and have something fun and funny and new to say. And (you can) have a laugh. Who doesn’t need to laugh?”

As Trundle recalled, the Comedy Lab came about after its producers performed in the same show at Scotty’s Pub and Comedy Cove in Millburn. The three agreed they should continue working together, eventually devising the concept of a free monthly show in the SOMA area. That way, they could regularly work on their material in front of a live audience without dealing with the high stakes involved in a major comedy club.

But attendees should not mistake Roll Call events for amateur open mic nights, based on their laid-back vibe. Trundle said the trio puts a lot of effort into curating each show, always striving to find a balance between talented local performers and veterans of the New York comedy circuit. As a result, the Comedy Lab has featured comedians who have appeared in such iconic establishments as Caroline’s on Broadway and the Gotham Comedy Club as well as Comedy Central and VH1.

“We do have a pretty high bar,” Trundle told the News-Record in a Jan. 12 phone interview. “We don’t accept just anyone.”

Trundle herself has performed routinely in storytelling group The Moth’s StorySLAM events, even winning one to advance to the larger GrandSLAM stage. Still, she said having to write and perform new material every month for Roll Call has taught her a lot about streamlining her stories and about what works comically. She added that telling personal stories in front of friends and neighbors is beneficial to any comedian.

“There’s a level of honesty and exposure that a performer has to experience in order to be funny,” Trundle said. “Taking those risks with people who know you outside of the performing venue forces honesty and, in that way, kind of builds trust and openness. I just think it encourages people to be who they are and to feel OK about that.”

For Reisner, participating in the shows has reignited her passion for comedy. The Maplewood resident spent years making a name for herself in the New York comedy scene before deciding that the pressures involved with climbing the ranks of success were not for her. But seven years later, she said, she missed the satisfaction she felt whenever she took the stage. Performing regularly again has thus been a “wonderful” experience, she said.

And it is one Reisner hopes to continue for as long as possible.

“It’s exciting,” Reisner said. “It’s a real adrenaline rush — it’s a real release.”

Reisner, who often uses personal experiences and observations in her set, added that she enjoys connecting with the audience about things they may have in common. For instance, she said she has bonded with more than one fellow suburban mom over the pleasures of shopping at Target.

Sher is also no stranger to the comedy world, having worked with the likes of Amy Poehler, Keegan-Michael Key and Jack McBrayer as a member of the Second City Chicago improv troupe. Yet improv is very different from stand-up, which she performs at the Comedy Lab along with her foul-mouthed puppet Sloopy Ben Patriah. Taking the stage with a puppet takes some pressure off herself, she said, because she is able to voice her opinions and worldviews through someone else without sounding like a complainer. Still, stand-up comedy is not easy.

“It’s crazy,” Sher told the News-Record in a Jan. 16 phone interview. “At the same time it’s so vulnerable and yet so empowering.”

What makes things easier for Sher is not having to spend so much time promoting the events as they are so well-attended. Roll Call shows typically pack The Snug, Ricalton’s bar area, and Sher said this shows just how willing the SOMA community is to embrace creativity. And that is a great help to Sher and her fellow producers and performers.

“That’s kind of a performer’s dream,” Sher said of the Roll Call events, explaining that “90 percent of your work as a performer sometimes becomes doing PR and getting butts in seats. That doesn’t seem to be the issue here, which is really fun because then you have more time to actually work on your material.”

The Roll Call Comedy Lab has attracted a devoted following as well, with many attendees returning to Ricalton’s every month for the show. Michelle Brock has been to at least four shows, enjoying each one as much as the last. She told the News-Record she has found all of the comedians both “hysterical” and extremely relatable. She said she especially enjoys jokes about life in the suburbs, having gone from being a city dweller to a suburban stay-at-home mother herself.

And Brock urged anyone who has not yet seen the show to make sure to do so.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for people like me to go out with their friends, to laugh hysterically until they cry and not think about everything that’s going on in their world,” Brock said in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “You go, you buy a couple drinks, you’ve escaped into this world that’s not your own and that just gives you the feel-goods. It’s affordable, it’s local, it’s local people and I think everybody can relate to something.”

Joy Peskin enjoyed the show so much that she became part of it, making her stage debut at the November 2016 event. Peskin had participated in a few essay readings and often would tell funny stories to her friends, but she said she had never actually performed one of her works prior to taking part in the Comedy Lab. So she worked with Trundle to fine-tune her material. In the end, though her humor is dark, she said she was thrilled to hear the audience laugh at all her jokes right from the start.

Peskin said she would love to perform in another Roll Call show though she has no set plans to do so. Until her second set, she hopes other residents will join her in The Snug to see future Comedy Lab shows. After all, she said, laughter is an excellent way to bring a community together.

“Having a performance like this month after month gives you the chance to get out and meet other people you might not have met,” Peskin told the News-Record in a Jan. 13 phone interview. “If you’re sitting in the audience or you’re sitting at the bar, you might start talking to someone you wouldn’t know, or you might go up to one of the performers.

“There’s nothing quite like experiencing art in a collective way with your neighbors. It’s a great service to the community. It makes the community more vibrant if we can enjoy things together.”

As for the future of Roll Call Comedy Lab, the three producers said they would be interested in expanding to include more shows and larger venues. But in the meantime they just want to continue making South Orange and Maplewood laugh in Ricalton’s for as long as possible.

Photos Courtesy of Brent Humphreys and Franck Goldberg

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