Laura Witkowski and Raymond Hollifield might seem like unlikely best friends. In fact, Witkowski says some people have mistaken the pair for a lady and "a guy she hired to do work for her." But, perhaps that's what makes them so funny; put a petite woman with a tidy crop of short hair and a hulking man with an unruly beard side-by-side, and the jokes just write themselves.
The pair met after Hollifield moved next door to Witkowski. They had mutual friends and a mutual interest — Hollifield had loved stand-up comedy since he was in high school, and Witkowski had a budding interest, but was too shy to get up on stage alone.
So they started going to open mic nights together, immersing themselves in the local comedy scene. That's when they began to notice that Detroit's scene was unlike those in other cities. They said the area didn't have the type of comedy clubs that allow fellow comics to hang out after shows, drinking and getting to know one another.
Out of that need was born an idea: Ray & Laura's comedy showcase. The monthly night of standup started at Small's three years ago and has attracted a growing base of followers who get a whole lot of bang for just five bucks.
"The reason why we started it was because we felt there were a lot of funny comics that were at the same level we were, and we weren't getting work at the regular clubs," Hollifield says. "There weren't a lot of indie showcases. We were both in bands when we were younger and put on our own shows. We thought we should do it with comedy."
Over the course of three years, the basic tenets of the show have remained the same. Hollifield and Witkowski begin the show with an opening skit. Sometimes it's a bit, sometimes it's a game they play with the audience. Then, a lineup of local comedians take the stage. It's a simple concept, one that other local music venues are beginning to mimic.
But Witkowski says part of the series' popularity comes from its sensitivity. No subject is off limits to comics, but the pair look for performers who know how to frame a joke without making it offensive.
"I used to go to comedy shows when I was in my teens and 20s, and there were certainly times when I felt like I was the butt of some terribly offensive joke," says Witkowski, and she doesn't want anyone to feel that way when coming to the showcase.
Neither do they allow comics to make unprovoked jabs at audience members. "I'm not into cheap, easy laughs or shock humor," Witkowski says.
But if you taunt a comic during his set, you're fair game.
"We've had hecklers get shredded by a comedian, but you've brought that on yourself," Hollifield says.
The show's built on that mutual respect between comics and audience members, but there is also an element of surprise that keeps things interesting.
Hollifield and Witkowski are sometimes able to book bigger name comedians to perform at the show, but they aren't able to advertise it.
If a nationally touring comic comes through town to perform at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, they're occasionally able to arrange a secret set during their Thursday night showcase. These comedians — the likes of whom include Myq Kaplan and Stewart Huff — will often perform new or edgier material that they aren't ready to try in front of a larger audience.
With a special third anniversary showcase scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 7, Hollifield says no unnamed special guests are currently scheduled to perform, but he has something special lined up for their October event.
So while it's unlikely any quasi-celebrities will show up to the September edition of Ray & Laura's comedy showcase, the third anniversary event will be special in a different way.
Just a few weeks ago, Hollifield's daughter lost everything she owned when her house, where she lived with her mother, stepfather, and two step-siblings, burned down. The family was not home at the time, but all of their pets, including two dogs, a bearded dragon, and some birds, were killed during the fire.
Proceeds from the show, as well as donations collected at the door, will be given to the family to help them get on their feet.
Witkowski hopes the laughs will help catalyze healing for the family, as well as people affected by the current political hellscape.
"It's really nice to be able to do something we love to raise money for a good cause," she says. "Ray and I have found comedy to be an extremely helpful outlet for when terrible things happen."
Ray & Laura's Comedy Showcase third anniversary show starts at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7. Small's is located at 10339 Conant St., Hamtramck; 313-873-1117; smallsbardetroit.com; cover is $5 and additional donations for Hollifield's family are welcome.