[PhotoPost] The Shell of a Laugh House: Side Splitters Comedy Club


When we found out Josh Blue was coming to Knoxville, we didn’t even have to think twice about whether or not we were going. Erin had been a fan of his since he appeared on Last Comic Standing and I would turn into a pretty big fan shortly after. It was also cool because we had only recently moved to Knoxville and while I was aware of the local comedy club, Side Splitters, the place looked a little shifty and I just sort-of assumed it played host to up and comers, nobodies, and local weirdos that thought they were funny – sort of an open-mic venue for guys telling jokes. After we got our tickets, we sucked it up and made our way to the tiny little building not far from where I currently work, parked in one of the worst-kept parking lots in town, and stood in line in Sid’s Lounge, the bar just outside of the main showroom, waiting to be let in.

The walls around Sid’s Lounge were red and covered in framed photographs of talent that had passed through the doors of the funny little place. Some were posters of talent I knew and were actual photographs taken with someone’s cheap camera after a show, others were professional headshots used to promote upcoming shows for Etta May and Tim “Booty” Wilson. I rarely ever saw anyone actually sitting at the bar, which may have been because the club had a two-item minimum purchase requirement in the show room and drinks at Sid’s didn’t count toward it.

The showroom was small and cramped with almost every available space filled with a table or chairs. Most tables sat four people and were already crowded with candles, advertisements, and menus. The beer selection was minimal and expensive, the mixed drinks list was extensive and expensive, the food was shit quality and expensive. Erin would often order the Designated Driver Special that included bottomless soft drink and popcorn and covered her two-item limit. I, on the other hand, was a sucker for the fried mozzarella sticks and would usually put away 2-4 Newcastles over the course of the evening.

I was always fascinated by the group of people that would come to each show. There’d always be several tables of guys that had been practicing their own comedy routines on the car ride over, likely fueled by some pre-show spirits. Bachelorette and birthday parties were common. I’d sort of look around before the show started to see if I could pick out who the heckler would be – because there always was one – but after the lights went out I couldn’t see them well enough to confirm my suspicion anyway.

Just as the show was about to start, the lights would go down and the screen that covered the stage and was previously displaying a slideshow of drink specials, upcoming show advertisements, and warnings to not drink and drive would go dark and then an intro video would kick in. The video was very poor quality and appeared to have at one point been on a VHS tape and had since been transferred to DVD. It gave the show’s main policies (don’t take pictures, tip your waitress, bathrooms are in the back, etc.) in between clips of history’s funniest movies set to Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Starting Something. It was cheesy and repetitive, but Erin and I always loved it and always laughed at the same parts.

Once the intro video was over, the screen would raise to reveal a claustrophobically small stage with the club’s logo fixed to the wall. There was almost always an opening act and there was always a club MC that would start each show with a string of jokes that you’d heard several times if you attended regularly.

And attend regularly we did. Shows we attended included Josh Bleu (twice), Lavel Crawford, Pauly Shore, Chris Tucker, Gilbert Gottfried, Brian Posehn, Mick Foley, Harland Williams, and Chris Kattan. Gilbert made me laugh until my face hurt, Pauly broke my heart, Chris Tucker disappointed me. Despite the emotion, however, each show was a great time.

So you can imagine how bummed out we were when we found out the place was closing. Rumor had it that the owners were assholes and were extremely difficult to work with over the years. No official reason was given for the closing but you could probably guess a few valid reasons for it with poor ownership.

But the comedy light hadn’t been turned out entirely. Shortly after the closing it was announced that another company had bought the business and planned on re-opening after UT Football season was over (try having Saturday night events during football season in Knoxville and you’d understand why) so we waited patiently for football to be over.

And then it ended. And still no Side Splitters. No word. No explanation. Just an old building, rotting on the side of a hill in west Knoxville. I drive by that building every day on my way to work and my heart hurts a little every time I see its current state. It’s been years now since anyone inhabited that building. Despite its terrible state and the giant bummer that is its continued closing, there’s something beautiful about the building in the morning sunlight.

So I set out to shoot it on Sunday morning. The grass around the building has grown up to almost knee-height, there are stacks of tires inexplicably stacked in front of the building, every door and window is boarded up and piles of garbage line the southern side of the building. A trucker had lost his license plate on the front porch and two bowls of untouched oatmeal were balanced on the railing. The marquee remains on the northern side, though no upcoming shows are listed. Every wire, cable, and pipe has been forcibly removed from the back side, the picket fence that once enclosed them has been destroyed in places.

I still have a bit of hope in my heart that Side Splitters will re-open one day, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we still have the laughs.

If for some reason you want to see these in high-res, head over to my Flickr account.

For what it’s worth, the day after shooting these I noticed the oatmeal was gone.

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