Featured photo: Jennie Stencel has been running the Idiot Box for the past two decades. At this point, she says she’s got maybe five more years in her. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Jennie Stencel is the unofficial mom of Triad comedy.
Sure, many in the community might recognize as the goofy traffic rapper from her TV news stint in the mid aughts, but these days, she’s just trying to keep the funny shit going. Not literal shit, although sometimes that’s part of her job.
“I’m the only full-time employee here,” Stencel says. “I clean the toilets. I don’t even do that in my own house.”
For the last two decades Stencel has given countless hours of her time and energy into building up the local comedy scene. After moving to Greensboro from Chapel Hill, she opened Idiot Box to create a place for comedians to find their footing.
“This comedy club, the intention is to grow local and regional talent,” she says. “We do bring in big acts, but that’s not really the focus. The focus is to help people that want to be creative have a place. So, we feature a lot of locals or North Carolina comics every week so you don’t have to move to a major city to get on stage.”
And so far, it’s worked.
Since 2018, Stencel has run the North Carolina Comedy Festival, which will celebrate its fourth year starting Friday. The festival brings in about 300 acts from all over North America to Greensboro for 10 days; about 80 of the acts are local.
“When I first came here there wasn’t much,” Stencel says of the local scene. “There was just one comedy club, the Comedy Zone, and they were bringing in bigger acts but they didn’t use locals as much.”
Stencel quickly got to work holding auditions for comedy troupes at the Cultural Arts Center downtown and the city’s first comedy group was born. Cut to two decades later, there’s three troupes and more than 100 local stand-up comics that are active in the area. And Stencel thinks that the Idiot Box has a lot to do with that.
“In the last five to 10 years, we went from doing an open mic here and there to, ‘How do we make comedians out of who lives here? Who wants to do this as a hobby or a career or who wants to learn everything they can and go to New York or whatever?’” she says. “So that became a huge focus.”
In addition to hosting regular shows every week, the Idiot Box puts on workshops for those looking to get into the industry including ones for improv, stand-up and sketch. Plus, the club also helps up-and-comers figure out how to get headshots, reach out to bookers and market themselves. And that’s put the Triad on the comedy map.
In the last decade, the club has helped bolster the careers of many comedians including Jourdain Fisher, Evan Williams, Julie Marchiano, Sayjal Joshi and Maddie Wiener.
“The club is like a mom figure, I think,” she says. “I’m not going to say that I am, but I’ll say the club is. It sort of creates this feeling of, ‘Hey, we can all come to this home and do this thing.’”
But the last couple of years have been tough.
After all of the years of running the business, Stencel admits that 2020 was the first year that the club was set to make a profit. And then, well, you know.
“From January to March was the best we had ever done and I was just about to start taking a paycheck,” she says.
Plus, there’s also been a marked shift in comedy in the last several years, particularly after the polarizing effects of the 2016 election. More people have become sensitive to language use and the acceptability of topics that people can talk about has narrowed, and that heavily affects comedy, Stencel says. She says she didn’t have people walk out of shows until the last four years.
“Before our open mics, I give a speech and explain what free speech is because I don’t think people understand it anymore,” Stencel says. “I just say, ‘We’re going to make the assumption that we’re all good people; we’re gonna start from there. And then we’re gonna try to find the funny in things that we want to find the funny in.’”
That of course doesn’t mean that Stencel allows derogatory or hateful speech in the club. Recently, she kicked a comic off the stage during an open mic after they made some offensive jokes. But for the most part, she wants audiences to understand that comedy is a form of storytelling; it’s going to resonate differently for each person because our lived experiences vary.
“Our audience is super diverse; Greensboro is super diverse,” she says. “It’s an amazing place to do comedy because you become such a better comedian so fast. You don’t walk in the room and everybody’s exactly from where you grew up and exactly the same thought process. You have to think about what you’re saying. You have no idea the background we all have, so it does help you think through your concepts more clearly.”
As she looks forward to this year’s comedy festival and beyond, Stencel says she probably has about five solid years left in her. After that, who knows?
“It’s honestly a really hard labor of love,” she says about running the club. “This type of design isn’t really a huge money maker….I like helping the comics. We really like seeing people from start to finish. From too scared to get on stage to where they’re a main player; it’s pretty cool.”
Still, she’s not sure anyone is crazy enough to keep doing what she’s been doing.
“But if you’re wanting to buy it, I will sell it to you,” she laughs.
This year’s North Carolina Comedy Festival kicks off Friday and runs through Sept. 11. Find tickets and more info at idiotboxers.com.
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