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When the Funny Farm fizzled out a couple years ago, it erased the local comedy scene’s highest temple —and the only room in the area devoted solely to making people laugh.
It also made the path less clear for budding comics.
But comedy in the Mahoning Valley is doing better these days, thanks to a grass-roots effort led by Matt Liller.
Liller used to emcee shows at the Funny Farm and was a regular on open-mic nights there. When the Niles club closed, he moved over to the Oakland Center for the Arts to co-host open-mic shows and comedy showcases.
The Oakland shows were successful and kept the fractured comedy scene alive. Still, Liller and other local funnymen sensed they needed to organize to raise their profile and keep the gigs coming.
Liller gathered his cohorts for a meeting, and the Youngstown Comedy Syndicate was born.
“We knew there was an untapped audience for comedy in this area that we hadn’t reached,” said Liller. “In August, I organized a summit of local comedians, not unlike the United Nations after World War II. However, instead of meeting in New York, we met at BW3s in downtown Youngstown. That was the start of the Youngstown Comedy Syndicate.”
The first Syndicate show was Sept. 22 at University Pizzeria and Italian Eatery (U-PIE). Subsequent shows took place Oct. 7, Oct. 20 and Nov. 11 at both U-PIE and The Lemon Grove, downtown. Plans call for keeping up that pace, said Liller, noting that other venues have expressed interest in playing host.
The atmosphere at YCS shows is different than at a comedy club. “Performing in bars will keep you on your toes,” said Liller. The crowds have been good-natured — and large. They had some difficulty finding room for everyone at the Oct. 20 show at U-PIE. The next scheduled YCS shows are Dec. 8 at U-PIE and Dec. 9 at Lemon Grove.
Syndicate regulars include Liller, Adam Blair, Erik Cribley, Jason Delfosse, Shane Herman and Jason Howell, who primarily do stand-up. Liller also works with Reverse Cowboy, a sketch-comedy group he started a couple years ago with Ric Panning, Dave Biscella and Jim Cibella.
YCS admittedly doesn’t have any grand ambitions — except to keep Youngstowners laughing.
“We are providing an essential service,” said Liller. “And now that those Chilean miners are rescued, that smoking Indonesian toddler on YouTube kicked the habit, and Oprah is leaving us to go back to her home planet, the Youngstown Comedy Syndicate will be there to fill the comedic void. The world needs to laugh.”
Liller said comics are always welcome to take the stage at YCS shows, but because interest is so high, he advises them to sign up in advance by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Boardman resident, Liller works as a technical writer by day. He has a master’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and has taught at both YSU and Arizona State University.