It’s a Saturday night at the Asheville Beauty Academy—that’s a nightclub, not a salon—and host Marlene Thompson has warmed up a full house as a standup comedy duo from Chattanooga called Good Cop, Rad Cop takes the stage.
Normally, a DJ would spin records here and, indeed, there will be once the evening’s comedy is over. But the reason there’s comedy here at all is a woman toward the back of the room made it happen.
Melissa Hahn isn’t a comedian but, without a dedicated comedy club in Western North Carolina, nobody is more responsible than Hahn for the current landscape for local standup.
Before the pandemic, she built up regular evenings at a handful of Asheville locales and occasional specials. One featured Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould at the former Mothlight to tape a comedy special a month before the pandemic. Under the brand Modelface Comedy, Hahn finally brought in enough money to drop the service jobs she has held since graduating Warren Wilson College.
“I paid a month and a half’s worth of rent from one comedy show, which has never happened,” Hahn said. “I had almost the entire year booked out. I had huge shows coming through. Then the world shut down.”
Hahn is talking from the patio of her Montford neighborhood apartment while, sniffing about, are her two dogs—one is blind and the other has three legs and a name drawn from Sam Malone of the 1980s sitcom “Cheers.” That patio was one of the few outdoor venues where Hahn was able to stage comedy during the shutdown. Finding a job at a grocery store was a lifeline.
“I think I had a low-level year-and-a-half long panic attack, like everyone else,” she said. “For my mental health, it’s been very hard. I went from the biggest show I’d ever done to, essentially, losing everything I’d built in a couple weeks. It was a really steep fall. I had to drain my business account so I could eat .”
Hahn, who is 34, grew up in Cincinnati and emerged from Warren Wilson College as too many graduates do—with a degree, a foggy picture of her professional future and one terrifying thought: “That I will die with this debt.”
So, as Hahn puts it, she followed the path of too many graduates and bar-tended her way through early adulthood. After losing a job, about 10 years ago, a friend invited her to volunteer for the Asheville Comedy Festival, and that led to a job with the festival.
“I’ve done comedy. I’ve performed from time to time. It’s just not my favorite thing,” she said. “I get a lot more joy out of booking and organizing events and seeing it go well than writing.”
Ryan Darling is half the musical comedy duo Good Cop Rad Cop and also books comedy shows in his hometown of Chattanooga.
“Melissa is who I look up to as a producer. She does the absolute best in independent comedy,” he said. “I think a lot of clubs are more about selling nachos and drinks where Melissa really actually cares about putting on the best possible show.”
Hahn said she’s working to feature more women and queer comics. Modelface Comedy is producing comedy shows June 24 and 26 at the Magnetic Theatre and June 30 at Asheville Beauty Academy.
But while most venues have re-opened their doors, Hahn said not all have yet welcomed in comedy, and she added that some venues she previously had relationships with aren’t returning her calls post-pandemic.
“The comics are very ready. The audience is very ready. Venues are not ready,” she said. “Places are so desperate for money because they’ve been closed for so long that having a set number of people for a few hours will make less money than just turning tourists and just pouring drinks down faces.”
Not surprisingly, Hahn has a dream of opening an Asheville club dedicated to comedy.
“I don’t have $5 million to buy a building downtown. I have $12, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon,” she said. “I’ve definitely been living that classic Asheville lifestyle of having three or four jobs and the goal is to get it down to one. I want to do what I do.”