The Dead Crow Duo
Timmy Sherrill and Cole Craven share laughs at their comedy club in downtown Wilmington.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lindsey A. Miller
It’s Thursday night in downtown Wilmington and I just walked in on someone’s set at Dead Crow Comedy Room. It’s the weekly open mic, with upwards of 40 performers taking their turn on the modest stage. It’s a packed house. Packed. I make my way through the crowd, pass the bar and head out the back door in search of Dead Crow co-owners Timmy Sherrill and Cole Craven.
Boisterous belly laughs resonate down to the back lot where I stand. Passersby, patrons and comedians coming from their three-minute sets continuously make certain to greet Sherrill and Craven.
“Have a safe night!” Sherrill responds back to one young lady.
“‘Family’ is a good word to describe this place,” Sherrill says to me. “It’s way more important than just owning a business. My main goal is to just make people happy when they come here.”
Sherrill and Craven opened Dead Crow Comedy Room in what used to be Firebelly’s Lounge almost two years ago. Their club sits right next to the old Nutt Street comedy venue, which Sherrill operated for about four years as Wilmington’s only comedy club.
Both Sherrill and Craven are born and bred North Carolinians. Sherrill is from Reidsville, a small tobacco town outside of Greensboro, and Craven mostly grew up down the road in Southern Pines. Sherrill’s interest in comedy stems from his own passion for the stage.
It’s been seven solid years of laughs for these guys, and it all started with an open mic night. “Timmy started a local Thursday open mic in the Soapbox Laundro Lounge basement before there was ever a Nutt Street or Dead Crow,” Craven says.
The open mics in the Soapbox basement started as an informal gathering of a handful of funny folks and comic enthusiasts and grew organically into something completely unexpected. In fact, there was no premise or certainty that there were funny people in Wilmington in need of a place to express their talents. “There were five of us, and I when I say five of us, it was five of us who wanted to ‘try’ comedy,” Sherrill says. “We weren’t working, we weren’t paid [comics], there was just nowhere to do it.”
“I think a lot of people [at that time] didn’t realize they aspired or thought they could be comedians until there was a place for them to try it,” Craven adds.
Once audiences and performers grew so did the idea that having more than a weekly open-mic night of comedy would work. Enter Dead Crow, which not only offers a friendly stage for local and regional performers, but also brings national acts to town on a regular basis. “I feel like we’ve been able to get a lot of the bigger names that would typically pass on a club and market this small,” Craven says. “But they hear this is great club to come play, the staff is great and the local comics are supportive and interactive. It comes back to the support structure that’s built into what we are.”
Craven and Sherrill perfectly balance one another in the business.
“Cole is probably everything I’m not,” Sherrill admits. “I do the booking, I shake hands, I kiss babies, I make sure the comics and agents are happy; but if he wasn’t here this place wouldn’t exist because he operates the staff, scheduling and everything I don’t have to deal with. I’m the field guy, he’s the brains.”
“The same goes for Timmy,” Craven adds. “This place wouldn’t exist without him.”
Sherrill clocks a lot of hours negotiating and booking performers. The process of bringing these acts in starts with knowing who’s out there, watching and learning about circulating comedy. The formula for securing major and returning performers, such as Tim Meadows and Pauly Shore, is one part convincing comedians they’ll reach a new market in the Port City and one part relying on the club’s reputation and integrity. “It’s trust,” Sherrill says. “They trust us to do what we’re supposed to do. They trust us to put beautiful people in front of them and it works out.”
This year Sherrill is particularly focused on bringing in Craig Robinson (“The Office,” “Hot Tub Time Machine”). “That would be a big piece of the pie,” he says. “But we’re super limited on our 100-seater right now.”
The size of the club is often restrictive in booking larger acts. There are only so many tickets to sell at Dead Crow and those sales don’t add up to what big-name comedians have come to expect. “And we’re not going to sell $100 tickets,” Craven assures.
Nevertheless, this is also the first year Sherrill has ever had to turn down comedians who want to come back. “It hurts me to do it, but at the same time we have so many new people trying to come in that we have to open it up to new faces and new jokes,” he says.
Sherrill and Craven have entertained the idea of growth. The two have looked at spaces, but it’s not a step they want to force or rush into. If they did move to a larger space, they say staying in downtown Wilmington would be ideal. “In any nice, old city I love the idea of ‘downtown,’” Sherrill says.
“The beaches are lovely, but they do seem to be a more seasonal affair and outside of that, downtown to me is the real heartbeat of Wilmington,” Craven adds. “I feel like it’s a special place and it’s where I want to be.”
The essence of Dead Crow and its purpose is to provide a safe place to escape for an hour or two. It’s a refuge, a watering hole and even a spot to grab dinner with the chuckles. It is in many ways a lifeline. “Literally, we’ve had people say it’s saved their lives,” Craven says. “The power of laughter can heal a lot of wounds, and even on your worst day if someone makes you laugh it can turn it around.”
“It’s an experience, and everyone has a different experience when they come down,” Sherrill adds.
Sherrill says he likes working with comics who are under the radar. He likes “smart comedy”—simple ideas with an intellectual twist that stimulate the thought process and make it relatable.
“I often find myself liking the comic in a room full of people who are clearly not enjoying the comedy …” Craven starts.
“So, I’m his favorite comic obviously,” Sherrill quips.
Sherrill had been onstage earlier in the evening of my visit, but admits he’s not up there as much as others encourage him to be.
“I try to tell him he should only get onstage whenever we have big names … you gotta take advantage, you know, throw your weight around a little bit,” Craven teases his partner.
While the two ride the current wave of comedy, they continue to put forth the best series of shows as possible. And no matter how good, bad or ugly, the laughs start all over again on Sunday.
“Sometimes I think I could make more money doing something else, I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels really good to know that what I do matters,” Craven says. “I feel like what we do here matters and that feels good.”