Four years ago, Erin Terry was getting started as a stand-up comedian in Raleigh. Alarmed by her experiences booking gigs, she started polling other women on the local scene.
“I said, ‘Where do you get more than five minutes, and where can women be on more than one spot on a show?’ There’s always just one woman, and that person is never the opener or the closer, and they almost always just have five minutes, even though they might be the funniest person on the lineup,” Terry says. “There was no real answer, so I answered it by having a show where we’re the beginning, middle and end, and I can give [them] as much time as I want.”
Now in its third year, the Eyes Up Here comedy showcases, co-produced by Terry and Britt Spruill, have brought more than 50 all-women shows to Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Asheville. The duo is also making inroads in Wilmington and Winston-Salem. Terry has hosted all but two of the events and will again lead the way Thursday, March 22, at Fleetwood’s. That show features Asheville-based comedians Moira Goree and Kelly Morgan, plus fellow North Carolinians Mimi J Benfield (Charlotte), Aaron Cardwell (Hillsborough) and Kathleen McDonald (Chapel Hill). Also helping orchestrate the evening is local booker Melissa Hahn, owner of Modelface Comedy, which she created to bring more female and minority voices to Asheville and the Southeast.
“Because of this environment where you only put one woman on a show, it creates this intense competition between female comics, versus being supportive,” Hahn says. “You have 20 people fighting for one spot instead of 20 people fighting for six spots.”
She adds that as more women are booking rooms and being able to put together their own shows, it proves to others in the industry that comedy events composed of all or predominantly women have a wide appeal.
“The biggest thing that we hear as women is that the audience just won’t be able to relate to us — which is insane because 52 percent of your audience is still women,” Hahn says. “As you can see [of] women’s movements … we’ll ask nicely for our own space a few times, and then we’re just going to take it.”
Performers like Benfield appreciate the environment Eyes Up Here provides. She says that Terry consistently attracts welcoming, receptive crowds, which means the comics aren’t “worried about bombing.” The showcases also illuminate to Benfield, who is used to being the only woman on the lineup, the healthy number of female comics in North Carolina — though she feels there’s still plenty of room for improvement within the industry.
“Being a woman and being a gay woman, too, I can either not get booked for something or specifically get booked for something,” Benfield says. “Sometimes it’s not fair, but showtime’s showtime, and I’ll get onstage if I can. But there’s definitely a bit of prejudice in the community, for sure, against the ladies.”
Terry works full time on top of running Eyes Up Here and says she doesn’t have ambitions of moving to New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago to pursue a comedy career. Instead, the Charlotte native and 10-year Raleigh resident wants “to make our scene healthier and more inclusive,” not just for women but anyone who’s marginalized.
The group’s additional efforts include a monthly Fast & Loose Ladies Comedy Workshop at Durham’s Atomic Fern bar before the LadyBits Open Mic night at The Pinhook performance venue. The workshop gives women who’ve wanted to try stand-up some coaching on the mechanics of an open mic and allows Terry the chance to continue the legacy of the women who mentored her.
“[Female comics] hate being the only woman in the room at open mics. They don’t go anymore and they drop out and they transition out of comedy or they go into improv because it’s more familial,” Terry says. “What we’ve done with Eyes Up Here is try to capture those women and give them a supportive room.”
At Eyes Up Here’s debut show at Fleetwood’s last November — which Hahn says had “people packed all the way out the room, just listening from the bar” — Terry was impressed with the Asheville stand-up scene’s progressive nature. She says there’s still a lot of homophobia and racial jokes in the Triangle, subject matter she considers lazy. The intelligent vibe also emanated from the attendees.
“Jokes that I feel like have gotten really tired for me down here in the Triangle or even in Charlotte were getting laughs at different points and at the expected points, and it was raucous laughter,” Terry says. “We just had such a good time. It was a really warm and refreshing room.”
Based on pre-sales, Hahn added a late show at 10:30 p.m. And Eyes Up Here will keep moving forward with its showcases, workshops and open mic nights. Its organizers are also considering producing a festival or offering workshops for teenagers.
“I’ve been more devoted to this than any marriage I’ve been in, so I figure I’m going to keep doing it until nobody shows up or people show up and they don’t laugh,” Terry says. “That’s when we’ll stop, and that has not happened.”
WHAT: Eyes Up Here comedy showcase
WHERE: Fleetwood’s, 496 Haywood Road, fleetwoodsonhaywood.com
WHEN: Thursday, March 22, 8 & 10:30 p.m. $7 advance/$10 day of show