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'Comedy right in their own backyard': Varsity Theatre to host monthly stand-up shows

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As a kid, comedian Maddie Wiener remembers celebrating friends’ birthdays by watching movies at Franklin Street’s Varsity Theatre

In April, though, the Chapel Hill native will have the stage all to herself when she performs her hour of stand-up in the theater. 

Her upcoming show is part of the Varsity Theatre’s recent partnership with Asheville’s Funny Business Agency to bring national comics to the venue. 

Stand-up shows in October and November of last year at the theater sold out, but this is the first time the Varsity Theatre itself will be hosting the events instead of renting out the venue.

Now, said its owner Paul Shareshian, the theater will run the show. 

Shareshian said that while other local comedy spots like bars are equipped with tables and seats, the Varsity Theatre stand-up comics will have the full stage and lighting, with 216 guests seated in its larger theater. He described it as something like a Netflix comedy special. 

While only two acts have been confirmed — Matthew Broussard on Feb. 23 and 24 and Maddie Wiener on Apr. 12 and 13 — the plan, at least initially, is to host a full weekend of comedians once a month, Shareshian said

Greg Hardin, an agent at Funny Business Agency who worked with Shareshian, said that inconsistent availability at venues in Chapel Hill has made it hard to bring regular live comedy to the area before now, despite previous efforts. 

With such a diverse crowd of students, tech workers and university affiliates — “A smart, educated audience,” he called them — Hardin said he is intrigued by how it will go.

“I'm excited to be a part of the weekend nights when Franklin Street is just crowded, and there's lots of people and all the action,” he said. “I mean, half the battle is getting people to know where the theater is and to be physically close to it before they go to a show. I think the Varsity's got that part down. I mean, everybody in town knows where it is. So that's a great start.”

And while there are comedy venues in neighboring cities, both Hardin and Shareshian said it can be difficult for audiences to travel to those spots. Having the Varsity Theatre stage will hopefully draw more comedians to perform in Chapel Hill, as well as be more accessible for attendees, Shareshian said. 

“We wanna see how people will respond to having comedy right in their own backyard,” Hardin said. 

Wiener described this backyard, her hometown of Chapel Hill, as being a great place to grow up. 

The comedian started her career in high school at open mics, in Chapel Hill and beyond. The N.C. comedy scene, she said, is really special, and she has a tight-knit community with local comics.

After moving to Chicago and then New York City with her close group of fellow comedians, Wiener said she loves coming back to Chapel Hill to perform. The crowds are great and the experience is surreal, she said.

The upcoming performance in April, though, will be a special one. Wiener will be celebrating nine years of doing stand-up in March, and said she will hopefully be recording an hour-long special in a year. This Varsity Theatre performance is one of the first stops on her pre-special tour, where she will work out the material she plans to record. 

“There's stuff in there about gender, there's stuff in there about body image, there's stuff in there that's just kind of goofy and silly and doesn't really have an overarching theme,” Wiener said. “But I would say the theme of the whole hour is very me, early 20s, trying to figure stuff out.”

And while she is only 26 — and joked that she was not trying to sound like an old man — she said she thinks bringing live comedy to college campuses could be a nice way to break Gen Z phone addictions. 

“I think one of the really cool things about stand-up comedy that separates it from a lot of other art forms is that it literally can't exist without an audience,” Wiener said. “It's not like music or acting — you can't even practice it without an audience."

Audiences being physically present and in the moment at a performance is inseparable from what stand-up is, she said.

She even described it as a primal, old human tradition, like telling stories around the campfire. 

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“Not to sound too up my own ass about it," she said.

Tickets for Matthew Broussard's shows on Feb. 23 and 24 at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m. can be purchased on the Varsity Theatre website.

@jacksonfromm29

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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