Marshall Chiles knew he wanted to be a comedian at the age of 7. But first he went to business school, started a tech company, and lived through the Dot-Com Boom—and bust. This series of events shaped Chiles into a comedian-turned-businessman who helped resuscitate Atlanta’s stand-up scene. Now, he owns the Laughing Skull Lounge, an 80-seat theater behind The Vortex restaurant featuring a rotating door of major headliners. With a booming comedy club, film studio and acclaimed festival under his name, Chiles’ success is nothing to laugh about.
Why get into comedy?
Let me tell you this, nobody’s on stage because they had a happy childhood. When I was 7 years old and I was able to make people laugh, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. But I grew up poor and I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I wanted to go out to the business world, make money, get business experience and then go into the comedy world and be successful knowing business and having some money in my pocket. And so that’s what I came up with...when I was 7.
I put myself through college and was part of the Dot-Com Boom—and bust—when I was 30 years old. I thought, “This is going to be great! I’m going to sell my company.” I had three people at the table, all at one million dollars each, to buy my company. And then the bust happened and I ended up selling my company for pennies on the dollar compared to what I was talking about. And I was like, “I’m 30 years old, I’m single, I have a little bit of cash. What do I want to do with my life?”
I had an employment contract with the deal [to sell my company], so I started doing open mics during that time. By the time that was over, I was doing road comedy in bars and pool halls around the Southeast. After doing that for a year, I found out the Funny Farm was looking for a new manager and got referred into [the job]. After about six months, I bought the Funny Farm and partnered with Startime Entertainment, which which is like a Dave & Buster’s if Dave was a crystal meth head.
At the time, Startime was doing very well so it supported the comedy club. Eventually, Funny Farm began supporting Startime, so the writing was on the wall. That’s when I opened Laughing Skull Lounge, which is now in its seventh year. Within six months of opening, Paul F. Tompkins shot his Comedy Central special here, which no comedy club in the city has ever had happen. Because of the friendships I formed with all these comedians during my time at the Funny Farm and the industry knowing me, I was able to get these big names to come in for cheaper because it was a cool space.
What makes Atlanta such a great city for comedy?
What makes Atlanta comedy blow up is a supportive system that let’s people practice. There’s so much stage time [in Atlanta] now. There’s like 30 open mic nights a week on different stages around the city. That’s happened in the past four or five years. It’s a supportive system. Headliners that come in and get involved with local comedians always say “Everybody’s so nice and helpful!” The comedians in Atlanta aren’t trying to get a sitcom, they’re just trying to do stand-up comedy better.
You’ve built an empire of sorts behind the laughter. How big of a role does business play in your everyday life?
It’s called “show business.” First you have to have a show and then you can have business. But what’s the bigger word? Business. The business side of it takes a lot. I’m putting together a festival right now. We also have a company called Laughing Skull Studios that’s out of an office downstairs [from Laughing Skull Lounge] with a studio area and prop department. We’re making a film that we’ve been working on since August 2014. We finished principle production in February. I’ve used a lot of cameos of the big names that come through the club—Donnell Rawlings, Jim Florentine, Jen Kirkman, Laurie Kilmartin, Amber Nash—and we’ve used tons of local comedians.
It’s a $100,000 film. It’s a full-length, 90-minute film called “American Dirtbags” and it has six stories about crime and depravity told by six lovable degenerates. And their stories intertwine at the very end as they’re rewarded for their bad choices. We’ve labeled it a murder comedy. We shot it in 4-K, we used 8 mm for flashbacks and also included animation.
It’s a lot of work and sometimes it’s too much work. But the overall objective is whatever’s best for comedy. That’s my guiding principle.
What I tell new comedians is don’t try to build a fan base, just work on your show. We have tons of guys in the Southeast that move to Atlanta. We built the scene, and now we’re the stepping stone for Jacksonville, Tampa, Charlotte and Tennessee comedians before they go to New York or Los Angeles.
The same goes for the music industry in Atlanta.
Yes. I’ve always said that comedy is the bastard stepbrother of music. Music is the golden child—he’s the one that has the parents in the marriage. Comedy is just part of the package.
What are your favorite comedy clubs in Atlanta?
I love going to shows at the Atlanta Improv. Star Bar on Monday nights is one of the best shows in the city. Another great show is called the 1AM Secret Show on Saturdays. I started it back when I owned the Funny Farm. Chris Hardwick was the first person to perform. It’s a show for all the comedians in town. It began packing out and we didn’t know the people in the audience. It was all word of mouth. Now it’s at Smith’s Olde Bar every Saturday at 1 am.
Have you heard about The Hangar yet? This dude lives in an airport hangar—half of it he lives in and the other half is event space. It might be illegal, but hey, Relapse Comedy Theatre started off as an illegal comedy club. They’re true speakeasies. Throughout the years, there have been several speakeasies that have done comedy. There’s even a couple people in town that do house shows. As they’re having a party, they open it up to comedians in town who go perform. That’s why there’s so much stage time. People get creative about it.
Where do comedians eat and hang out in Atlanta?
The two major ones are The Vortex, since it’s connected to the Laughing Skull Lounge. You come in any Thursday, Friday and Saturday and there’s just tons of local comedians there. Of course, Star Bar on Monday nights. As far as restaurants, I see a lot of comedians talk about Home Grown. When you go on the road, you look for diners and museums. Home Grown offers comfort food and so many comedians love it—they come in town and know to go there.