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Leading Off: Zoolarious commemorates eight years of Sunday-night comedy in Lincoln this week

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February marked the 10-year anniversary that Brad Stewart packed up his stuff and moved from Los Angeles back to Lincoln to take care of his ailing father, who had been stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease.

At that point, Stewart's career in comedy was just starting to take off. He was opening for Joan Rivers and making a name for himself.

But family always takes precedence. You're gifted only one father so his choice was simple. They had three months together before he died.

And that left Stewart to look after his mother and figure out how to somehow find a way to make people laugh — one of his fortes, truth be known — from Middle America.

"There just wasn’t a lot going on in comedy in Lincoln," he said, pointing to an open-mic night at Duffy's and "maybe a few other things, but that’s about it."

And then he approached Zoo Bar owner Pete Watters and made a pitch for a comedy show on Sunday, one of the few nights when the downtown club doesn't host live music.

In May 2014, Zoolarious took to the stage for the first time and — with the exception of those two godforsaken years that we no longer need to revisit — has become a Sunday-night staple in Lincoln. After about 300 shows, it's fair to say it's here to stay.

The weekly show, which doesn't begin until Stewart high-fives everyone in the room — a homage to comic Ed Salazar, who raised the curtain on the first Zoolarious show by doing just that — will celebrate its eighth anniversary on Sunday at 8 p.m.

Kansas City comedian Brittany Tilander will headline the eighth-anniversary show.

"She has a star quality," said Stewart, who brought her to Lincoln in February and watched her crush it. "I like her point of view as a young progressive woman. She’s forward-thinking and she is hilarious.

"Her voice is needed in our industry."

Stewart has developed a keen sense for identifying talented comics and then finding a way to get them here. And that throw-away Sunday has proven to be a blessing in Middle America because a lot of comedians will stop off for a night on their home to one of the coasts after playing weekend shows.

"It wasn't intended, but it turned out to be good for everyone," he said. "It is the perfect setup because they could stop here for one more show on the way home."

He has brought in a lot of up-and-comers, and every now and then, he brings in someone who has already arrived. That was the case earlier this month when Adam Cayton-Holland stopped off at the Zoo Bar on his way back to Denver.

Those are the shows Stewart remembers from the last eight years. There were also the sold-out shows by Kyle Kinane and that time Alonzo Bodden came from Los Angeles and wouldn't believe there is a town near Lincoln called Wahoo.

"We've had some great shows here," said Stewart, who keeps a wish list of comedians he wants to bring to the Zoo Bar. He's able to get many of them. For the rest -- like Margaret Cho, for example -- he keeps trying.

"I don’t know if I can get her here," he said. "If they are going to need $10,000 to come here, then no. But if she wants to work with us, we can sell out the place immediately."

There was a time when Stewart worried about the number of people who will go to a Sunday-night comedy show. And then he remembered that it's Lincoln, where most — but not all — people are gearing up for the workweek. 

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That said, any crowd, be it 20, 30 or 40 people is more than most clubs are getting on a Sunday night.

"I used to get frustrated about it and then I had to change my way of thinking," he said. "The people who are there have a good time."

And that's important. America is in a weird place right now. A little laughter might be the best remedy for what divides us.

Sunday night will be special, Stewart said. He's going to buy a cake to commemorate eight years of Zoolarious. He might have some balloons, too -- maybe some glow sticks and silly party favors that let people know it's not an ordinary night.

"We're definitely celebrating," he said. "Eight years  validates why I do this. I have always believed in this. If you believe in what you’re doing, it will eventually catch on with others. Right before the pandemic, I felt like we were starting to catch on. And then we had to stop for a couple of years.

"It’s starting to catch on again."

That's definitely worth at least a high-five, isn't it?

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or

On Twitter @psangimino


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