Cover Story - 10 years of comedy, booze, and f-bombs at Star Bar
How a free open mic night, on Mondays, in a Little Five Points rock 'n' roll dive, became the most respected and least predictable regular comedy gig in Atlanta
Rotknee's had a few whiskies. Motherfucker is downright jubilant. You can tell because he's using that word as a near-constant term of endearment. He's handing it out like candy, running all the syllables together so it sounds more like mothafuckahhh. He bestows it upon almost every comedian who steps onto the Star Community Bar stage to tell a few jokes, and the familiar faces that come up to say hello or shake his hand.
He's in his element right now, doing a job he's done nearly every Monday for the last 10 years. A job he begins around 9:30 p.m. by telling the people in the crowd to silence their phones and make some noise for the comics they're about to see. After all, those comics are performing for a single drink Rotknee is buying them. Of course, they're also performing because it's the best open mic night in town.
No one seems to know when the first Star Bar comedy night was held.
"That's indeed a mystery," New York-by-way-of-Atlanta comedian Shalewa Sharpe says. "I have no idea when it happened. I have a fuzzy recollection of a karaoke night, and the open mic just appearing as the pre-game. We didn't think to keep track of anything — those were primitive times."
"Not exactly sure, but yes, almost 10 years," former Beards of Comedy member and current Los Angeles comic Dave Stone says.
"I would come back sporadically, and the last time I did it, Rotknee thought it was the 10th anniversary," former Star Bar co-owner Jim Stacy says. "It wasn't. Somebody did the math backstage. It's hard to say, because we weren't paying attention because we were working and partying. It's about the work and the product and the art and the craft."
"I'm thinking it was in the early spring of 2004 or something like that," Rotknee says.
If Rotknee's memory serves, and many, including Rotknee, would argue that it's dubious at best, Star Bar's comedy night is currently celebrating 10 years. A lot has happened in that time. What was once a 15-minute show tacked onto a karaoke night has become a three-plus hour evening of free comedy widely regarded as the city's best.
"Holy shit, @StarBarAtlanta," comedian Kyle Kinane tweeted at 1:30 a.m. following a visit in late January. "If that's what 'amateur' comedy is according to Atlanta, the rest of the world needs to watch the hell out."
A decade ago, there were few local venues where comedians could experiment and work out new material. Atlanta's now a place where ambitious joke tellers can perform every night of the week. Star Bar abides, despite its newfound competition.
"When I started there were only a handful of rooms where you could go up, and certainly not every night," says Gilbert Lawand, a local comic performing since 2006. "Star Bar's comedy night survived because of Rotknee's dedication and it grew along with, and alongside, the Atlanta comedy scene in general."
On any given Monday at Star Bar, newbies will try a few jokes and a couple of Atlanta's veteran comedians will take the stage. Nationally touring acts often stop by while in town. Rory Scovel, Margaret Cho, Ron White, and Eric Andre all have gone up in the past. Star Bar owner Kahle Davis has spied David Cross and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the audience in recent months.
It's tough to get on the bill. Every Thursday, Rotknee finalizes the lineup. At this point, he's already chosen Monday's six regulars. Plucked from Atlanta's best comedians, they go up week after week to prepare for out-of-state gigs. It's a bit different for rookies who want a shot at the 10 other open spots. At 5 p.m., Rotknee puts his phone on silent and awaits the onslaught of calls.
"It takes one minute for me to get all the calls I need," Rotknee says. "I usually get 30-40 in that minute. I've had comics come to the show just to complain that they weren't able to get through. Every spot seems to be heavily coveted now."
Each comedian gets five or six minutes, sometimes more if Rotknee thinks he or she's killing it. He emcees the evening, telling jokes, and working the crowd. Countless drinks have been tilted skyward at Star Bar on Mondays. A few careers have been launched. Two albums have been recorded there. One time, a guy in the audience had a seizure. It hasn't always been pretty, but Star Bar's comedy night has become an institution, the most respected open mic night in town.
"In my personal opinion," comedian Andy Sandford wrote in a 2013 blog post, "if you are a comic in Atlanta and you don't even try to do Star Bar, then you ain't really doin' it."
Before Stacy was Atlanta's corn dog king, he was, well, a lot of things. From 2001-2007, he co-owned Star Bar with Dave Parker and Gary Yoxen. Currently, the 47-year-old looms over the bar of his Avondale Estates establishment, Pallookaville Fine Foods, and orders a mug of cider. An intimidating figure, he stands around six and half feet tall, sporting an impressive ginger beard, thick strawberry-blond locks, and countless tattoos. He's sung in bands, inked up people, owned or managed other businesses, including the Starlight Drive-In, and hosted a TV show. He's currently a judge on Destination America's "Deep Fried Masters."
"I had been around since it opened," Stacy says of the Little Five Points fixture that was founded in 1991. He lived in Athens at the time. "It was a home away from home. I was kind of a regular from out of town, just ran tight with everyone that was there. When I moved to Atlanta in '99, I started working there, and a couple years later, we bought it."
Stacy met Rotknee, who'd been friends with Yoxen for years, at Star Bar one night.
"Atlanta's the biggest small town," Stacy says. "It's kinda the cliché where everybody's like, 'Oh, the world's so small.' No, there's only so many assholes that are into the same thing you're into. You're gonna keep bumping into the same people. The world's huge! There's only so many people who want to deal with your shit."
Shortly after Stacy and his partners bought the bar, Rotknee took over its karaoke night. The two immediately hit it off. Rotknee, who had been doing a comedy night at the now-defunct Midtown location of Twisted Taco, wanted to get Stacy involved.
"I'm not setting foot in a place called Twisted Taco," Stacy recalls telling Rotknee. "I was saying that kind of half-joking, but that just sounds terrible to me. I'm sure it's a great place. There's just way too many men wearing shoes with exposed toes."
Instead, they decided to add 15 minutes of comedy onto Star Bar's karaoke night. Admission would be free. Stacy would have a microphone behind the bar so he could chime in whenever he felt like it.
"We joked about it being the Vietnam of comedy," he says, his eyes lighting up as he uses the phrase. "Because there were some comedians who quit doing it because it was too brutal. But then there were some comedians who got really, really good, really, really quick because of it. I didn't have anything to lose, so I could say whatever I wanted. It wasn't heckling. It was like, 'That joke wasn't intellectually strong enough, so let's kick it in the butthole a couple times and see if maybe it'll get up and walk on its own feet.' It's like slapping a newborn baby. Some comedians didn't get it. It was always funny when one tried to cuss me out, because I have a better command of English cursing than most people on the planet."
Stacy eventually left after deciding he'd had enough of the cursing at comedians, the metaphorical butthole kicking, the excessive beer drinking. He's proud of his time spent at the Star Bar forging an important show that's helped start some careers and made a bunch of people laugh. But he's not one to take credit.
"It will always be Rotknee," he says. "I was just an associate. It was always his baby. He's always done the work. That's very important to recognize."
Rodney Leete, 44, was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., and moved to Atlanta in 1985 when his father's fiber optic cabling job brought the family here. Leete was a military medic for a time and, following an accident, was discharged. He started getting into computers and tattooing. Eventually, he began hosting Star Bar's karaoke nights, and then the comedy nights.
"I write my name the way black folks in Atlanta pronounce it," Leete says of his "Rotknee" moniker. "Besides, I've been run over a few times and it's messed up my knee. The fact that you can add 'Rot' to it just makes it more punk!"
Rotknee's arms are covered from the elbows up with colorful tattoo sleeves. He has a long, bifurcated beard, and once owned a head shop on Cheshire Bridge Road.
Technically, Star Bar Mondays are called "Rotknee Presents." The show's Facebook page, perhaps in an attempt at being SEO friendly, is called "Atlanta's Best Amateur Comedy." But most people just refer to it with some combination of the words "Star Bar open mic comedy show Monday." Of the 500-plus times it's been held at Star Bar, Rotknee estimates he's hosted at least 400. (His film and television production work causes him to miss a Monday now and then, in which case he picks a regular comedian to host in his stead.)
He gets "like a hundred bucks" for each gig, most of which "goes right back to the tab," he says. Rotknee's confident that there hasn't been a week without comedy since he started the show.
"If we've missed a Monday, it was a natural disaster," he says. "Someone was killed outside the bar one night and we kept the comedy going."
Rotknee is the face of Star Bar's long-running comedy show, but he's also the soul of it, the principled backbone, the punk-rock patron saint, the absurd court jester. "The first night we met he kept yelling at me and feeding me whiskey," Kinane says. "I called him Fat Pantera and Nickelbag Darryl, and we've been pals ever since."
Sharpe says Rotknee was "terrifying" the first time she met him. "Much scarier than actually doing comedy," she says. "That gruff demeanor? That beard? The way he calls hands 'dick-skinners'? Yikes. The mic is his baby, and he's very careful about his baby. If you violate his call-in rules, you're out. If you keep telling the same old four-to-five minutes of jokes, you're out. But then you realize that he's that way because he honestly cares. He wants comics to be funny."
What started as a no-bullshit room run by two grade-A bullshitters quickly earned its reputation as a first-rate open mic for comedians who care about improving. The more quality comedians took to Star Bar, the more Star Bar became known for quality comedians. With each year, each Atlanta expat that got started there, each album recorded there, each celebrity drop-in, the venue's reputation has solidified further. Kinane's clearly a big fan, and regularly visits Star Bar when he's in Atlanta. Compared to other open mic rooms around the country, he says it has "lots more troublemakers and rabble-rousers and criminals, for sure. It's like a prison yard: If you can hold your own there, you'll be fine."
Jake Head moved to Atlanta from Florida in 2011 when he decided the comedy scene here would help him improve his craft. These days, he performs at Star Bar as much or more than anyone, going up every week, often to close. Like many before him, the Little Five Points dive taught him how to be a comedian.
"Star Bar is honest with you," he says. "You realize quickly which jokes are shit. It's a dark room with a person on stage saying funny things. There isn't any pretense, no drink minimum, no goofy opening tune, no formal seating. It's become a ritual for a lot of folks, and it drives you as a comic to develop new material. You need that fire under you each week."
Sandford was one of Atlanta's Beards of Comedy until the group amicably split last year so its members could pursue solo work in New York and Los Angeles. Now in Brooklyn, Sandford did his first set at Star Bar in 2007, and wrote a love letter of a blog post to it in May 2013. He counts Star Bar as the reason he's still performing today, even if that first night was rough. Rotknee introduced him, saying, "This first motherfucker is our sacrificial lamb for the evening. It's his first time here, so who knows how this'll be!"
The rest of his set was a haze, but he got some laughs.
"From that night on, I did every single open mic that I could do," Sandford says. "There's a reason the Star Bar is a great show, and why comics from out of town will extend their trips an extra day to do it, and it's because of Rotknee."
Sandford's recently released debut solo album, Me the Whole Time, opens with a growling intro from Rotknee. Recorded at Star Bar in October, Sandford starts off with kind words about the venue. "There's no other place I'd rather do an album than Star Bar," he says. "It's the best, isn't it?"
On the recording, Sandford performs to a packed, rowdy house. The audience laughs the kind of hearty laughs made by those aware that they're being recorded for posterity. The crowd seems to agree that Star Bar really is the best. Sandford runs with it.
"I am in a good mood, guys. Things are going well for me, career-wise, right now," he says. "Last week, I shot a pilot, which is nothing to brag about. But! I also landed the plane. Again, not trying to brag, but I killed a man and took his job. That's not easy to do."