McGarvey’s Bar has been a longtime focal point of Altoona’s music scene, hosting rock, blues and punk bands. Now Jason Imler’s Polished Comedy Promotions has expanded the bar’s regular lineup with monthly shows featuring a rotating cast of up-and-coming comedians from across the state.
Although Imler, 43, is not a comedian by trade, he jumped at the chance to try his hand at a comedy competition at the Altoona Grand Hotel in 2018.
“As soon as I got on stage, I knew I wanted to do it again” said Imler.
Soon after, Imler began hosting an informal open-mic night at Nardo’s Cafe, before booking a one-off show at McGarvey’s, 623 N. Fourth Ave., to accommodate a larger crowd.
“The thing is, with comedy in Altoona, there’s no comedy scene – you have to do it yourself,” said Imler.
According to Imler, her first show at McGarvey’s was a success, drawing a crowd of around 60 people.
“After the show, (Richard McGarvey) came up to us and asked if we wanted to do more shows there every month, and of course I was interested.” said Imler.
For the next show, McGarvey contacted a Detroit comedy promoter, who introduced Imler to professional comics Joe Bates and Michael Harrison.
The Next Show with Bates and Harrison “packed the place” with a crowd of more than 110, nearly doubling their last attendance, Imler said.
When Harrison returned to the area a month later for a show at Wisecrackers at State College, he contacted Imler, who helped him organize a small show for a fundraiser in Altoona the next day.
Afterwards, Imler and Harrison discussed booking another show at McGarvey’s.
“We discussed how we could take over the show ourselves, instead of using (the Detroit promoter), so we asked (McGarvey) if we could book the talent ourselves,” said Imler.
This deal led to Imler and Harrison establishing Polished Comedy, their official comedy promotion business.
Early on, Imler and Harrison decided to go their own way and cut out the promoter and use the extra funds to support more up-and-coming comedians.
“We’re focusing on people who haven’t reached that massive level of success, but have moved on to big clubs like The Comedy Cellar, big comics… but who aren’t big names yet,” he said. he adds. said Imler.
Since then, Imler and Harrison have been scouting talent at clubs in New York, Philadelphia and their extended circle of comedic friends.
And though Imler moved to Philadelphia in February 2021, he’s still determined to nurture Altoona’s comedy scene.
“I’m still connected to the region, connected to the region, and I keep coming back pretty much every month to have these shows,” said Imler. “We would like to continue growing them.”
For Altoona comedian Jordan Treese, 39, getting into comedy can be a “slow grind”.
After he lost his job in 2016, a former colleague and part-time comedian offered him the opening slot of an upcoming show he was playing at the Altoona Grand Hotel to vent his frustrations.
“I had never done anything like this, and I thought it was a good opportunity to bring out some of that emotion,” said Treese.
As a theater major at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, Treese knew that getting on stage could be cathartic.
“I used to be in front of people, but never completely ‘naked’ so to speak,” said Treese.
According to Treese, the team of stagehands, directors, and actors who come together to produce a theatrical production helps ease performance anxiety and minimize any individual’s missteps.
“But when you’re on stage in the arena of comedy, all of those roles are rolled into one,” said Treese. “You are your own supporting cast and the star.”
The Treese Set “absolutely bombarded” but it ignited his passion for comedy and sent him seeking stage time wherever he could.
This led to Treese meeting Imler at one of his first open-mic events at Nardo’s Cafe, and quickly becoming a regular performer at Imler’s shows.
However, those early shows with Imler got off to a rocky start, Treese said.
Since Altoona is not as large a city as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the main contingent of patrons attending shows is much smaller, which can make it difficult to draw regular crowds.
“You have to share, any night it’s going to be rock ‘n’ roll, one night it’s comedy…you share the time with a lot of different genres of live entertainment.” said Treese.
This division creates additional challenges for performers, as well as venue owners.
“It’s very different booking comedy acts as opposed to band bookings,” McGarvey said.
For bands, McGarvey makes his assessment of who he books based on footage from their previous gigs to see if they have the quality to draw a crowd.
“There are not many videos of these young actors” McGarvey, 55, said: “you don’t know how they’re going to react or attract your audience.”
The comedy numbers attract a different audience than the typical McGarvey audience for rock shows.
“Comedy shows appeal to older audiences, they want to have a good night out, have dinner, laugh and leave after the shows are over to reunite with their kids,” McGarvey said.
On June 25, Polished Comedy at McGarvey’s featured Michael Harrison and Rail City Improv, celebrating the bar’s 10th anniversary. For updates on shows, check out McGarvey’s Facebook page.
“It’s really cool to see someone from the area like Jason, even though he’s moved recently…practicing and honing his craft, and I really hope people can come out and support someone like that,” McGarvey said.