Yardley’s Chris Rich has her say at Reactors Comedy Club in Glen Mills//Photos by Tessa Marie Images
Comedian Mark Matusof is killing it on this bitter December night. The audience at Reactors Comedy Club scarcely stops howling before the manic Matusof gets to his next bit.
Like any good comedian, he’s working his audience. A young woman is dressed for a comfortable evening—in pajama bottoms. So she’s become the evening’s running joke, for both Matusof and headliner Jimmy Carroll. She and her partner are staying at Glen Mills’ Wyndham Garden hotel, which Reactors calls home on Friday and Saturday nights.
The fact that this couple comprises about two-thirds of tonight’s audience, kept small by the threat of inclement weather, doesn’t seem to matter. Seated in the hotel’s moderately sized conference room rather than the auditorium next door, the feather-light crowd reveals the secret to being a truly talented comedian: It’s not about keeping 500 people engaged and laughing, but five.
Your favorite comedians are long past clubs. They now play concert halls—places with orchestra and mezzanine seating that host the likes of Bruno Mars and Panic! at the Disco. Steadicam operators roam the stage, filming their performances for pay-per-view specials that cost $25.
Maybe you’re fine with the venues, but you don’t want to schlep into Philly for a live show. Before Reactors, there weren’t many options along the Main Line. The comedy clubs that sprung up in the 1980s and ’90s flourished, then faded, done in by an aging audience, changing tastes, cable TV and, more recently, Netflix and YouTube.
Enter Reactors, which opened its doors at the crossroads of Routes 1 and 202 in late September 2016. It has since seen a steady stream of talent cross its stage. Started by Jimmy Carroll and his wife, Chris, Reactors’ main goal is to bring accessible live comedy back to the suburbs. And, at 20 bucks a head, they’re doing it for less than the price of that pay-per-view arena show.
The Carrolls ran a comedy show out of the hotel years ago, when it was owned by Ramada. But Jimmy says the club’s success ended up overshadowing the hotel’s other events. The last straw came when the comedy club sold out two New Year’s Eve performances and the hotel’s New Year’s Eve party in the larger ballroom attracted just a few dozen people.
Club manager and emcee John Ager says the Wyndham location is perfect, nearly equidistant from West Chester, Wilmington and Media. The club also maintains a more symbiotic relationship with hotel management, which understands that the comedy club’s success helps everyone in the building, says Ager. “Because Jimmy and Chris had previous experience here, they knew that this area was good for this kind of entertainment,” he says. “It’s not offered anywhere else.”
Reactors manager and emcee John Ager
The area’s potential was good enough for Ager, a working comedian himself, to move back to the western suburbs and assume management of Reactors. Formerly of Reno, Nev., he’s pleased with the change in scenery, plus the availability of both touring and local talent. “Chris has been in the business with Jimmy for over 30 years, and I’ve been in it for a long time, so we know a lot of the comics that are all around,” Ager says. “And there are newcomers that we allow and try so that they get a chance.”
In booking acts, Ager and the Carrolls put a premium on keeping things relatively clean. In Ager’s mind, gutter humor speaks to a lack of creativity, but smarter comics will try to stimulate the brain while tickling the funny bone. “Intelligent humor is getting better and better, and a lot of people respond to that,” he says. “A lot of younger people are working on shock and awe and not funny.”
Chris agrees. Having run Wise Crackers in Allentown for years, she relishes the opportunity to bring her professional philosophy to Delaware County. She’s especially thankful for the venue, where Reactors has the option of the conference room that holds about 90 people or the 175-seat auditorium next door. “Sometimes a small audience is fun because they’re interactive, but then the theater last week was explosive,” Chris says of a fundraiser for the Junior Woman’s Club of Springfield, which drew nearly 170 guests. “We really have the best of both worlds.”
The difference was also striking at a packed Saturday-night performance in January, during a fundraiser for the Penncrest High School marching band. While some attendees mingled around the full bar, others perused the silent auction. The mood was ebullient.
Headliner Andrew Kennedy kept the crowd going for almost an hour, telling tales of growing up around the world with a Colombian mom and a British dad. Even in the big room, he managed to connect with audience members and make what could’ve been a by-the-numbers set feel like a great house party. The show also featured comic Norm Klar, whose act combines observational comedy with what’s best described as “prop magic.”
For 33-year comedy veteran Jimmy Carroll, who spends his time touring the national club circuit and playing 25 weeks a year on cruise ships, having a great club near his home base that’s also run by his wife is a special opportunity. With the goal of transitioning off ships, his is a face that Reactors’ audiences will likely see much more of. In the interim, the comics on the bill will be as high caliber as anyone at a big city show. “There’s no real comedy in this area, and we thought, ‘You know what? There’s no competition in the area,’” Jimmy says. “We try to keep enough elbow room between us and the next guy anyway.”
The fact that the club is located in a spot with its own restaurant, lodging and liquor license makes things easier, too, Jimmy says. “This isn’t the ’80s. All you really need is a sound system and to throw a spotlight up and, congratulations, you’re a comedy club,” he says.
But the pop-up feel doesn’t detract from the talent that Reactors showcases. “Our headliners all have national credits, and most have been on TV,” Jimmy says.
Ager and the Carrolls understand all too well the cyclical nature of the entertainment business—and comedy clubs, in particular. Their goal is to keep things funny and let people know they’re there. “When you have great comics and do the kind of shows we’ve been doing, the word gets out rather fast,” Ager says. “The challenge is just like any other club—to make sure people are having a good time.”