Comedy Workers Are Sounding the Alarm about New Orleans’ New Comedy ClubPhotos from Unsplash Comedy Features comedy house new orleans
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When Comedy House New Orleans opened early last month, it claimed a rare title: New Orleans’ only dedicated stand-up and improv comedy venue. In a city of bar stages and music halls, only the Comedy House offered a one-stop destination for comedians and comedy fans. Located in the trendy Warehouse District—close to hotels, restaurants, and a convention center—it offers a lineup of local comics and touring headliners, with America’s Got Talent star Alex Hooper booked at the end of July. It’s been a long time coming. The club’s owners planned for a spring 2020 opening, but Covid-19 had other plans. Now the comedy scene that incubated Sean Patton, Punkie Johnson, and Mark Normand is finally getting back into swing, and the Comedy House is ready to take it to new heights.
There’s just one thing. What you won’t find on the Comedy House’s website is any mention of its co-owner’s last comedy venue. Tami Nelson, along with her former business partner Chris Trew, co-owned and ran The New Movement, a comedy theater and training center in New Orleans and Austin. As Splitsider and the Times-Picayune reported in 2018, The New Movement imploded over allegations that Nelson and Trew mishandled a performer’s complaint about a sexual assault that occurred in their home. (Trew and Nelson were married at the time; sources tell me they’re currently separated.) Over the course of several contentious town hall meetings at both theaters, Trew and Nelson both admitted to mishandling the complaint and to having had relationships with members of the TNM community—in Trew’s case, one of its employees. At one point during the six-hour New Orleans town hall, one performer alleged that Trew had promised performers “show time or production of shows for hanging out with him socially or possibly in exchange for sex,” according to the meeting’s minutes. At another point, TNM’s human resources staffer acknowledged that she received a sexual misconduct complaint against Trew. (An attorney hired by TNM to investigate these events said in a May 2018 report that she did not “uncover any verifiable complaints regarding sexual misconduct by Chris,” and that she found no evidence either owner abused their position to obtain a relationship. She also said in a July 2018 statement that people anonymously posting “false information” about TNM online were engaged in potentially criminal harassment.)
Here’s how former TNM Austin Artistic Director Micheal Foulk described what happened in an emotional 2019 essay:
Over the next several weeks, as more information about Chris & Tami was shared throughout the community, a disgusting picture was revealed of harassment, sexual manipulation, embezzlement, suppression of information regarding sexual assaults, smear campaigns against survivors, and a metric ton of shady business dealings. It was clear, The New Movement was founded and built on lies and deceit. We had all been used from day one. These people didn’t care about any of us, they had never cared about us. We were just marks. Suddenly, we all began to reexamine the circumstances surrounding every former performer’s exit from the community. More and more dots were connected and unsurprisingly we discovered that Chris and Tami would freeze out anyone they couldn’t manipulate.
When this all boiled over, much of TNM’s talent walked out the door. Many New Orleans-based staff and performers simply went elsewhere, while the Austin community transferred the theater’s ownership and lease from Nelson and Trew, rebranding as the Fallout Theatre. But TNM did not die; its owners did not retire from comedy. Nelson and Trew continued producing and teaching improv under the theater’s banner in New Orleans. When the pandemic hit and Nelson had to postpone her new club’s opening, Trew taught online classes, released a book called How to Build a Comedy Scene from Scratch (Nelson wrote the foreword and helped promote it), and marketed improv training for corporate clients. (A friend working at an e-commerce brand recently asked if I recognized the guy pitching them a workshop; it was Trew.) Right now, TNM’s website says its classes “are held at Comedy House New Orleans.” Trew’s Instagram bio currently includes a link to the Comedy House’s Instagram; earlier this week, he posted several images of himself on the club’s stage.
“It’s another manipulative play.”
Comedy workers who lived through TNM’s downfall are less than thrilled with Nelson’s new venture. “I was super excited that a new theater was opening up until I found out who was involved,” said Bryan Wooldridge, who worked for TNM’s annual festival, Hell Yes Fest. Brian Fairbanks, TNM’s marketing director until he was fired after the New Orleans town hall, believes Comedy House is an attempt to “outsmart Google searches.” Laura Sanders, who performed at TNM, shares the sentiment. “I think it’s another manipulative play,” she said. “I think that they’ve put a lot of energy forth to be a new venue and a different venue. I think certainly they’ve worked as hard as they could to make sure anyone could plead ignorance who wanted to, and I think certainly audiences have no idea.”
In a phone call last week, Nelson said Trew is not involved with the Comedy House’s business and that the club has nothing to do with TNM. Whereas TNM was a theater that cultivated talent from its own conservatory, she said, the Comedy House is a venue that books talent through agents. She said the two businesses have no connection other than her, and that what happened at TNM was painful for many people in a community that’s now trying to heal and rebuild. She said she did not approve of being asked about TNM after being approached for an interview about the Comedy House.
Nelson’s co-owner, Jackie Sutherlin, said in a phone call this week that she had no comment about what happened at The New Movement. She said she felt it would be “weird” to comment on a business that she didn’t own. She acknowledged that The New Movement is teaching classes at The Comedy House, but said anyone can rent the club’s space for whatever purpose they want. (She doesn’t know who’s teaching the classes, she said.) Asked whether it concerned her that many comics left TNM in part because of her business partner, she responded that TNM is “a completely separate business that no longer exists.” Asked how she reconciled this with TNM’s presence in her club, she clarified that she meant the physical theater no longer exists. “I’m just trying to make a comedy club for New Orleans that emphasizes just how talented the city is,” she said, adding that she wants to transform the city into a comedy hub.
Attempts to reach Trew were unsuccessful.
“She has been lying from the beginning.”
Some former TNM workers believe Nelson played an active role in the pain TNM caused. They’re also skeptical that she’s changed in the three years since TNM workers asked her (and she refused) to step down from her leadership role. “She had years of opportunity to disown [Trew], to distance herself in any way, instead at every instance she would at least double down, if not go far above and beyond what a normal person would do to cover for somebody who is toxic at best and a menace at worst,” said Fairbanks. “The fact that she has taken on this new venture changes absolutely nothing for me. In fact, it just shows that she’s incapable of making real strides in the community toward reconciliation, apology, looking inward at her past mistakes and other behavior and coming to some sort of path that we could all take together.”
“She has been lying from the beginning,” said a former TNM performer who still works in the scene and spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “During the town hall, afterwards, they said ‘Chris has been removed, he’s no longer a part of the theater.’ And that was a bald-faced lie.” (Splitsider reported 10 days after the meeting that Trew still had an ownership interest in TNM and continued handling some operational matters.) This person likened the Comedy House to big companies that cynically adopt progressive branding to paper over deeper issues. “They’re a great example of… corporations being like, ‘Pride month!’ And you’re like, ‘You don’t care a goddamn thing about Pride, you’re just doing that for face value.’”
This performer also described an informal second town hall Nelson held in 2018 where TNM workers asked about allegations, raised during the first town hall, that Trew embezzled funds from the theater. “She pretty much said, ‘Oh, you know, he took money because he needed it for travel or for some out-of-town event, and then he just forgot to put it back,’” they recalled. “We were like, so that’s actually stealing. From what I remember, her take on it was like, ‘There was an accident, he didn’t intend to do that.’ That was what I heard straight from her mouth.” Another source present at the meeting, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, confirmed this account.
“There’s a difference between exposure and absolutely aiding and abetting horrible behavior for that exposure.”
“I’m not going to rule out people can change, but history is there,” said Wooldridge. Like others I spoke with, he advised comics to take caution as they consider whether to work with the Comedy House. “There’s a clear history, there’s information out there on what these people have done multiple times,” he said. “And I just don’t want to see that happen to you. If you think you can protect yourself and keep your wits about you and lock in guaranteed cash deals and you want to perform there, go for it. But I would not recommend working with Chris and Tami.”
Others were less generous. “I am quite honestly sickened that so many comedians are putting aside their alleged integrity to go perform there,” said comedian and podcaster Dante Hale, who’s considering moving to a different city because he doesn’t know how he’ll coexist with Comedy House performers when he sees them at other shows and mics. “As long as there are people who are willing to put aside their scruples to aid and abet these people’s behavior, then nothing’s going to change,” he said. “People will go, ‘Well, I need exposure.’ Exposure is fine, but there’s a difference between exposure and absolutely aiding and abetting horrible behavior for that exposure.”
“It’s a venue I’ll never be performing at,” said Laura Sanders. “Comics that I know that are performing there, I will have conversations about why they shouldn’t.” She said she doesn’t blame comedy workers who take gigs at the Comedy House and doesn’t want to cause drama in the scene. Instead, she thinks the task for comics like her is to produce better shows. “You can’t stop someone who’s doing these shows,” she said. “I think all you can do is create safer spaces and more enjoyable spaces for comics and audiences, and focus on that.”
Brian Fairbanks, who suggested Trew and Nelson resign during the town hall and was fired days later, sees a single ray of hope for the Comedy House. “The only way that it could help the city is if it actually does not come to fruition because of Tami’s involvement,” he said. “If people refuse to perform there, if they refuse to patronize the venue, and if Tami leaves the company and if somebody else takes over her share of the business and makes real change in the scene…”
Fairbanks paused. “Which of course is not going to happen,” he said. “If she didn’t do it for three years at The New Movement, she’s not gonna do it now with the new venture. She’s gonna sweep everything under the rug. And that’s why we cannot support it.”
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons. Subscribe to Humorism to get articles like this in your inbox.