“Sanctuary For Comedy”
Alex Frank Encinia and his promotion company, Rogue Company are turning Bryan, TX into a “sanctuary for comedy” following the coronavirus pandemic.
by Ronnie Mata
Alex Frank Encinia is at the cantina early. He is pushing tables, rearranging chairs, wrestling hundreds of feet of microphone cables on the small stage at the head of the space. The dimly lit interior of 3rd Floor Cantina echoes the prohibition era, art deco style. Chandeliers hang above the wooden tables, illuminating the jagged brick walls and the satin draped support beams that erupt from the hardwood floor. He shimmies between the grand piano and the drum set and doing it all in an infuriatingly stylish outfit, his red curls barely breaking a sweat. A few minutes later, the comics arrive. A decently sized crowd begins to fill the empty chairs. There’s chatter, there’s laughter, and there’s booze where just a year ago there was silence and uncertainty. The lights dim and the mic is on. They aren’t in New York City or Los Angeles, hell, they’re not even in Austin. They’re in Bryan, Texas; and they very well might be the new home of stand-up in Texas.
Unless you’re Jeff Bezos, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic was a garbage fire. As case numbers grew too large to contain, the United States began to lockdown, keeping people at home for months — some remain at home almost exactly a year later. During that time, many businesses that relied on large gatherings were hit hard. According to Fortune.com, 110,000 bars and restaurants were forced to close their doors in 2020.
While last year’s lockdown dragged on, the financial stress of having no patrons meant some of the hottest comedy spots across the country would never open their doors or place a comic sign-up list ever again. Yet, comedy has found solace in the unlikeliest of places when Encinia began a partnership between Rogue Comedy and 3rd Floor Cantina in Bryan, Texas, to host open-mics on Tuesdays, the fresh comedy scene also became one of the only ones.
Encinia, 23, has been running his promotion company Rogue Comedy since around the same time he started doing stand-up comedy two years ago. After he realized college was a drag and an unsuccessful stint selling realty with his father, Encinia found stand-up comedy and went all in. Comedy in Bryan had become synonymous with bad business before Rogue Comedy emerged. Many places no longer had any interest to host any sort of comedy nights after being burned financially several times. It wasn’t rare for Encinia to receive debt collection calls as his previous partner had put plenty of debts under Encinia’s name. When the previous promoter made off with more enemies than friends, the responsibility of organizing comedy shows fell on Encinia. Once in, the lack of a real scene for stand-up comedy in the College Station-Bryan area and the issues with live comedy were problems he set out to fix.
“I started feeling the disrespect it was having as an art form,” said Encinia about stand-up comedy. “How little people were getting paid … some people don’t look at comics as artists. I do.”
Encinia and a small group of comics decided they had to start over somehow. Thus, the idea for consistent, weekly open mics was born. Over the past two years, the group has been meeting at the LaSalle Hotel’s lounge known as “5 Knocks Speakeasy.” Just as a community began to form, the deadly COVID-19 outbreak changed plans for everyone. Bryan’s small, niche comedy scene had to close the doors.
For comic Ty Sallee, losing the audience was a huge hurdle to overcome.
“Stand-up is one of the only arts where you have to have an audience to do it, “ said Sallee. “You can paint, you can do any other thing by yourself essentially … But stand-up, that’s the only way to do it.”
“Nobody knew what move was going to be good for comedy.” said Encinia, sipping at his beer. “The only thing we could really harp on was continuing shows.”
The shows ceased for about two months before Encinia and Rogue Comedy began exploring ways to get the shows back on. Opting to maintain the spirit of stand-up, outdoor shows were thrown out in favor of a “prohibition style” show, invitation only, where the comics and the crowd planned to meet up at the speakeasy in secret — which wasn’t a secret to the Bryan Police Department, who shut down the show before it could even happen.
Eventually, around late April of 2020, Rogue Comedy and 3rd Floor Cantina partnered up and were met with success. The shows were filling out. Audiences from Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, everywhere, really were checking out what Bryan had to offer.
“This place was like a sanctuary for comedy for a little while,” said Sallee. “Everybody was coming from everywhere because it was the only place to do it.”
Rogue Comedy falls somewhere between a promotion company and a creative collective. Encinia brings those who helped him along for the ride as far as he can. Rogue Comedy allows local talent access to platforms they otherwise wouldn’t have. The relationship among the comics is a tight one. Via a group text, they chat, share criticism, plan shows, and of course, roast the crap out of each other. Comedian Lee Cross considers that the group’s strength. Overall, Cross believes they want both the Bryan comedy scene and each other to grow.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” said Cross. “… its really cool to see those guys who started a year ago and just to see how much they’ve grown.
Today, Comedy in Bryan has gone from having four comics at 5 Knocks two years ago to having nearly 20 comics every Tuesday night at 3rd Floor Cantina. Recently, Rogue Comedy had added a Thursday show to their weekly line up, finally returning to 5 Knocks Speakeasy
Victor Ramos, 27, is from Houston and is what the comics call a “towner” — meaning he travels to their open mics and some in Austin. After being laid off from his health care recruiter job due to the pandemic, Ramos began to pursue comedy. He is now a regular face at Encinia’s shows.
“Bryan is poppin’,” said Ramos. “I love it. There are a good amount of comics and rooms that are popping up. So that means everyone in Bryan gets stage time and that’s real important.”
Mikey Biggs, another open miker from Schulenberg, Texas, started comedy a week before the lockdown. Biggs hoped to get back into comedy as soon as possible, but struggled finding any spots in the mid-Texas area. After meeting Encinia in Austin, he decided to check out the Bryan scene Encinia told him about.
“The guys that live there and do comedy probably wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have a scene,” said Biggs. “I think guys come from out of town because it is a dope venue, good crowd, and Alex knows how to run it the right way.”
Steve Stuart, one of Encinia’s earliest partners, believes the open mics are beneficial for the community hosting them.
“The BCS area didn’t have a stand-up community two years ago. Now it’s got a healthy and growing one. I think it also provided laughter to the greater community which is needed in this unsure time,” said Stuart.
Encinia runs his shows to follow the steps of his idol, Mitzi Shore. Shore was the owner of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and is responsible for having some of the biggest names in comedy go through her club such as George Carlin, Robin Williams and Chris Rock. The way she ran things is exactly what he hopes to emulate. From the atmosphere to the quality of the shows, Encinia hopes that Rogue Comedy can be not just the first step for local talent, but maybe the only step they need to make a name for themselves.
“That’s the initial reason we created all this,” said Encinia to show ‘I’m not just funny, my friends are too.’”
Encinia sees a bright future for Rogue Comedy and his shows. While the shows are gaining popularity, they are ultimately free. Whatever money that does get donated to him by show goers has gone into ensuring proper conditions for his comics and booking big name talents to come to the area.
“If I do it the right way, as much as I can, then maybe money will come by eventually. It will even turn into, I don’t wanna say ‘a real thing’ but, bigger than Bryan.”
Most recently, Encinia managed to book comedian Mark Normand to perform at 3rd Floor. Normand has been featured on The Joe Rogan Experience, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Stephen Colbert.
Rogue Comedy’s Bryan scene is a blossoming one. As the pandemic eases its grip on the country and more comedy venues open back up, Encinia believes what he and his partners are doing in Bryan has what it takes to survive in a post-COVID world. Not just survive — but thrive.
“I want everybody here to go to Austin,” said Encinia. “I want everyone to go to Houston, but I also want everyone to realize, we have the potential here to be the funniest in Texas.”