Tulin Waters and giving Madison comedians a bigger platform

Waters is an unheralded force in the city’s small but dedicated comedy scene.

Photo by James Pederson

Photo by James Pederson

As someone who spent a few years on the inside of Madison’s comedy scene, I can tell you that the one commodity that’s at a premium around town is venues in which to perform. In larger midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, you can find multiple open mics and showcases pretty much every night of the week, but here you have The Big Deuce on Wednesday nights at the Comedy Club On State (where you’re under pressure to look your best to get hosting work on the weekends), and a smattering of smaller opportunities to test out new material in three and four minute bursts. Opportunities to stretch out in 10- and 15-minute chunks—with a paying audience—are incredibly valuable to creative growth, but difficult to come by. One Madisonian trying to fill that void is performer and show promoter Tulin Waters, whose work here has spanned stand-up and burlesque, and she’ll combine those things in her latest project, the Mad Men of Comedy show taking place Friday, April 1 at the Cardinal Bar.

“I want to, outside of the Comedy Club, give comics a room that makes them feel like professionals,” Waters told me when we met up recently at a local tattoo shop, where she and her fiance were getting Dia de los Muertos versions of each others’ faces inked onto their forearms.

A self-described “Embassy brat” whose father was the director of cultural affairs for various US embassies, Waters spent her childhood moving every couple of years with stints in Egypt, Equador, Guatemala, Spain, and Barbados among others. Given her father’s well-to-do diplomatic position, it’s maybe understandable that Waters’ own comedy material is unapologetically raunchy, but in a playful way, like that one kinda crazy aunt in the family who gives zero fucks and makes Thanksgiving memorably awkward every year, in a good way.

Waters’ experience in Madison comedy began over a decade ago, as she tried open mics at an earlier incarnation of the Comedy Club On State. She went on to run a weekly open mic out of the basement of Tutto Pasta on State Street, where she was working as a manager, then spent a few years away, which she spent running a sport fishing company in Mexico, of all things.

When she came back to Madison, she tried to get back into doing stand-up but it didn’t feel the same as before. She still wanted to stay involved, so she started booking shows around town for comics, first at the King Club, and then later at the Inferno, which was where I met her a few years back as local comic hungry for any and all stage-time. The one theme that has been central to Waters’ ethic as a booker and promoter had been in giving local comics new and bigger stages to play around on. Waters doesn’t make money off these shows and, as someone who’s performed on her stages more than a handful of times, I can attest that she’s passionate about making sure performers get paid as much as possible, and promptly—which isn’t necessarily a given in the world of small-stakes comedy shows.

Waters has also played around outside the typical format of comedy shows. Her “Rated HAR” showcase at the Inferno, which brought musicians and comedians together on one vaudeville inspired bill, was the first time comedy had ever been performed the North Side industrial music mecca. Though it took a while to catch on, the show ended up attracting a dedicated crowd by the time the venue was demolished a year or so back.

In 2013, sensing a lack of female presence in the comedy showcases she was seeing around town, Waters started up a Rated HAR spinoff to highlight female comics and female musicians, christening it with the very on-brand title Rated HER. Waters embraces the more overt feminist angle of the show, but undercuts the political aspect of if by giving out toasters to audience members on occasion. “Not many shows get free Black & Decker appliances handed out,” she proudly told me.

Waters’ Valentine’s Day 2014 show saw the debut of her burlesque variety troupe Les Cougars. While not Madison’s first burlesque troupe, Les Cougars aims to empower older women (Waters recently turned 40) who are looking to stay vibrant on stage. A recent Les Cougars Facebook post proclaims, “We’re in the business of Aging with pride and being fierce about it.” Waters tells me that even though she might paint herself into the occasional corner with such a busy work schedule, including gigs as promoter, performer, writer, and property manager, all on top of her nine-to-five day job, the hustle and bustle of things keep her energetic.

Friday’s show at the Cardinal will pair local comedians Charlie Kojis, Esteban Touma, and Deon Green (who were the top three finalists in the Comedy Club On State’s recent Madison’s Funniest Comedian Competition) with local burlesque performers Ruby Devine, Marina Mars, and Veronica Smash. Waters might oversimplify things when she tells me “Having a 25 year old guy in ripped jeans talking about his mom, and then a super hot burlesque dancer after that—it’s so JACKED, it shouldn't be together, but it should SO be together,” but she’s stumbled onto an unusual formula that brings together a diverse audience.