Standup Strong: At Funny Bone, comedy marathon aids Virginia Beach mass shooting victims

Mike Easmeil, among the comics to perform during last month’s VB Strong Comedy Marathon, said he hopes the event will become an annual one to support the families of the mass shooting in Virginias Beach. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

TOWN CENTER —  A massive roster of standup, improv and sketch comedy talent took the stage over the course of a dozen hours at the Virginia Beach Funny Bone last month. It was all jokes and heart, a show of force to help a wounded community recovering from the recent worst mass shooting in Virginia Beach. 

The VB Strong Comedy Marathon raised more than $20,500 for the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fund, which helps families of victims of the Friday, May 31, mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. 

Twelve people died that day at Building 2 within the government complex in the Courthouse area. Weeks later at the comedy club in Town Center, working from the stage between a brick background and an appreciative crowd, the comedy community delivered 12 hours of humor from noon to midnight. 

There was an hour of comedy on Sunday, July 14, representing each person who died on May 31.  The event also recognized those wounded, the loved ones and people connected to the tragedy and the public safety professionals who responded.

“It’s all about the people,” said Rick Bruner, general manager of the Funny Bone. 

He said comics contacted him after the tragedy, and a group held a meeting at the comedy club to figure out what they might do before reaching out to the wider community. The response was overwhelming, from both the comedy community and the public.

“I’m blown away,” Bruner said during the marathon.

“They’ve all come out to make this show,” he said.

Brian Shelsby of Chesapeake performs during the VB Strong Comedy Marathon, a 12-hour event featuring local standup, improvisational and sketch comedy talent on Sunday, July 14, at the Virginia Beach Funny Bone at Town Center. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Brad McMurran, artistic director of the Push Comedy Theater, a home for sketch and improv comedy in Norfolk, was among those who performed. Push Comedy Theater presented the marathon with the Funny Bone and The Hampton Roads Show. McMurran’s family had a close family friend among the victims of the mass shooting.

“We’re coming together with our brothers and sisters in our darkest hour,” he said.

He noted that a wide range of people with different talents and different experiences were addressing their community’s tragedy together.

McMurran also spoke a moment about friendship, how it says something about the people who are there by a friend’s side when things have gone wrong. “The people who always mean the most to me are the ones who are there on the dark days,” he said.

Travis Carl, a comic from Portsmouth, said the event meant to gather talent, put their skills to work and raise needed funds. 

“It’s just one of the coolest events in comedy I’ve been involved in,” Carl said. “Everybody knows somebody who was affected by it.”

Actor Terry O’Quinn surprises Stephanie Cooke during her set — while she was telling a joke about how she always almost meets him. Cooke is wearing a shirt referencing a line associated the character O’Quinn played on the hit TV show Lost. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Virginia Beach comedian Dan Ellison, among a number of people who helped organize the event, put out a call on social media. The response was overwhelming.

“They came out of the woodwork,” he said. “We had to narrow it down. … As soon as we put it out there, we had people offer to come out and volunteer even if they didn’t get stage time.

“We like to make people feel good, and laughter is probably one of the best ways to make people feel good,” he added. 

Comedian Sid Bridge, photographed outside the Funny Bone. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Comedian Sid Bridge of Virginia Beach said he was glad to see the variety of talent on stage together.

“It’s people you never see sharing the stage sharing the stage,” he said. 

Bridge was among the people who reached out to Bruner after news of the shooting in Virginia Beach broke. 

“It’s unbelievable how quickly this came together,” Bridge said.

And then there’s the scope of the event – dozens and dozens of performers volunteering their time and, in many cases, helping out with the Funny Bone personnel to keep the show running.

“This is pretty unprecedented in our comedy community,” Bridge said. “This is a nonstop, 12 hour marathon. It’s never been done before. …

“I live in Virginia Beach. I have friends who work in that complex. You see something like this, it shakes you to your core. If there’s any tiny thing we can do to help them, it’s not even a question.”

Among those who took the stage was Stephanie Cooke, executive producer of The Hampton Roads Show on WAVY-TV and a comic.

“We’ve all been touched by what happened on May 31, and some don’t know what to do,” she said.

This was something people in comedy could do, and they extended an invitation to the public to come and laugh and help.

Comedian Ed Phillips is seen onstage during the 12-hour marathon at the Virginia Beach Funny Bone. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Cooke, among those who organized the event, said she had constructed her set in the wee hours of the marathon morning after finishing some work for the event. 

“I just want to get up and make one person laugh,” she said.

Her set did more than that, and it even packed a surprise. 

Cooke set up a joke about the actor Terry O’Quinn, who lives around here. She is a fan, she said, and she has had several close calls with almost meeting him. 

He was at the Funny Bone on Sunday — and he popped onto the stage in the middle of her set to laughs and applause.

The VB Strong Comedy Marathon raised more than $20,500. And, given the expenses ahead for families and survivors of the tragedy, there is some hope the massive expression of humor and heart might be repeated and do some more good.

Comedian Mike Easmeil of Norfolk noted that the event featured a range of local talent, and some comics who were on the road sent messages of support. 

Some comics traveled to be here, too. Comedian and radio personality Josh O’Brien, who used to live here, flew from Hollywood, Calif., for the show.

“People want to help,” Easmeil said. “They just don’t know how. Maybe laughing at some jokes gets people out.”

Easmeil said the victims of the tragedy will need a great deal of help in the years to come.

“I really think it could get bigger,” he said of the marathon. “Think of how their lives are affected. … They have a lot of challenges that aren’t going to go away in six months or a year.”

He said he’s in for more if the marathon becomes an annual event.

“Hopefully, we could do something again that brings hope and healing,” he said.

Josh O’Brien traveled from Hollywood, Calif., to perform. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Sean Devereux, Courtney Grilli and Brad McMurran perform “Date Night with Brad and Courtney,” in which members of the audience are brought on stage and the roots of their relationship presented by the performers through improvisation. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Kerry Kruk and Kate Baldwin perform an improvised musical. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

You can provide funds for the families of victims through a city-approved fund, the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fund, established in coordination with the United Way of South Hampton Roads via or by texting VABEACH to 41444. All funds go to the victims, according to the city. 

© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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