From punk to punchlines: Omaha’s homegrown comedy scene finds a home

May 25, 2024, 7 a.m. ·

The Backline’s owner Dylan Rohde
The Backline’s owner Dylan Rohde introduces the last act of a comedy showcase in late February. After starting The Backline in the basement of an art studio, Rohde moved The Backline to its current home on Harney Street. (Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press)

On a still-bright Wednesday evening, a smattering of people step off of a sidewalk on Harney Street in Omaha and into a small space that one might easily miss, if not for a circle of people smoking outside.

Through the large front windows, The Backline looks like your typical watering hole. The main attraction hides beyond the bar: a large room with black walls, bright lights and red-cushioned metal chairs.

Here in this room, aspiring local comedians and touring stand-ups alike work for laughs. Improv acts hone their craft. And students learn the basics of being funny.

Omaha isn’t New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, and The Backline isn’t the legendary comedy haunts in those cities. But for those in Omaha’s comedy community – a small band of DIYers eager to perform and make something original – The Backline is the closest thing to a home that they have. 

Its founder, Dylan Rohde, started The Backline to teach improv a little over a decade ago. 

Since then, live comedy has exploded in popularity. Ticket sales grossed $909.6 million nationally in 2023, more than three times the total a decade earlier, Bloomberg recently reported. A seemingly countless number of comedians are selling out large venues once reserved for a select few acts. 

During that time, The Backline has survived a pandemic, ownership changes and rifts in the local comedy scene. It’s evolved into a safe and decidedly non-corporate place for all types of comedians to experiment.

Some Backline alums have gone on to write for Netflix’s “Big Mouth” and star in HBO’s “Rap Sh!t” (Aida Osman). Some have become TikTok stars (Cameron Logsdon). Still others have run for political office (Sara Howard and Liz Renner).

“It’s really important for a comedy community to have a hub … I would say Backline is that for Omaha, maybe even Nebraska,” said Zach Peterson, an influential comedian in the city’s homegrown comedy scene.


Though he grew up less than an hour away in Hooper, Rohde rarely clocked Omaha. His eyes locked on Los Angeles.

“In high school, my goal was to become a famous comedy movie star,” said Rohde, a 41-year-old with a graying beard and forearm tattoo of his adopted hometown.

After graduating from Wayne State College in 2005, he headed to southern California.

When his acting career failed to take off, he turned to film editing and started working alongside fellow Wayne State graduate Ryan Tweedy. 

Seeking to grow their business, the pair reached out to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the now-famed improv and sketch company co-founded by Amy Poehler. 

It gave Rohde his first exposure to long-form improv.

“Improv kept me in LA for as long as I was there,” Rohde said.

But by 2011, Rohde felt his time in LA had run its course.

He considered jumping to another improv hotbed like Chicago, but he didn’t want to start all over again. Then Gian Molina, a well-known improviser in LA, changed his thinking.

“He said teaching is what made him a really good improviser,” Rohde said.

Dylan Rohde
The Backline comedy theater owner, Dylan Rohde, jots down jokes backstage before a February showcase. Rohde grew up in Hooper and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He moved to Omaha to teach improv in 2011 and started The Backline in the basement of an art studio. (Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press)

While researching his next move, Rohde repeatedly found Omaha on the various “best places” lists.

“I didn’t know Omaha at all,” Rohde said. “I’d never lived here.”

But with Molina’s advice in mind, he made the move.

Rohde taught his first class in 2011, operating out of the basement of Studio Gallery, an art gallery on Dodge Street. His first class consisted largely of fellow Wayne State theater grads, friends and people he found on Craigslist.

He charged $50, much less than similar classes elsewhere and barely enough to cover rent and gas in the basement. He tentatively named it The Backline, choosing the name based on where improvisers stand when they are not in a scene.

“I didn’t really plan on making enough money from teaching necessarily,” Rohde said. “I always assumed I’d just have to have another job.”

Rohde’s second class included another former Wayne State theater student, Rachel Ware. Rohde had taught a one-off class for a former professor and immediately spotted the talent in Ware.

“I hated it so much,” Ware said of her initial impressions of improv. “I can’t even explain how much I hated it.”

That didn’t stop Rohde from recruiting her to his efforts to form an improv scene.

“I ended up taking his level one because at that time I had stopped going to school and started working at Party City and I thought, ‘Well, this couldn’t get worse, so I’ll give something new a try,’” said Ware, now 32.

Ware graduated from Rohde’s improv program. The two eventually started dating. 

That original iteration of The Backline wasn’t a place for people to appreciate comedy, she said.

“It was the place where comedians started a community.”


As Rohde was attempting to introduce long-form improv to Omaha, a restless stand-up scene was attempting to rise from the dirt.

Peterson, the now 42-year-old stand-up comedian, was among a group of 20-somethings who found themselves at the city’s lone regular comedy-only open mic. He had spent the better part of his young adulthood attending punk concerts at the now-legendary local music venue Cog Factory before deciding to give comedy a shot.

“Coming from the Cog Factory, there was always that DIY aspect of it,” Peterson said. “If you want something, you don’t want to have to rely on other people to do it for you.”

Stand-up comedian Zach Peterson
Stand-up comedian Zach Peterson performs during the “One Night Stand Up Comedy Club” show at Secret Park, a bar in Omaha, in late February. Peterson was one of a handful of people who emerged from Omaha’s punk scene to form a DIY local comedy community. (Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press)

Peterson and virtually every other young comedian in the state, including Ware, found themselves at the Barley Street Tavern in Benson on Wednesday nights for an open mic run by Dusty Stehl.

“One of the roughest mics you could go to,” Ware said. “There’s not a soul in the audience listening to you, but about 100 people packed into the bar talking full volume while you’re just like really, really excited to get out this joke that you wrote.”

While other open mics existed in Omaha, none were comedy-specific.

“You could be a comedian going up after a slam poem about someone’s dog dying and right before a really great musician blew everyone out of the water,” Ware said.

Peterson and other Nebraska comedians, including Ian Douglas Terry, began producing shows in various non-traditional venues across the city under the banner “OK Party.”

“It was just a lot of people who basically wanted to create something,” said Terry, who has since moved to Colorado and retired from comedy. “We were all in bands at some point or involved in the music scene and then kind of gravitated to comedy. I think the comedy club system is kind of goofy. … I preferred venues where bands played.”

Terry simultaneously tried to grow the home-cooked comedy scene while inviting in bigger names. He would meet other comedians, invite them to Omaha, then make sure they had a great time.

“I think at one point, I was like the tourism board for Omaha, Nebraska, just with very specific comedy groups or people. Like, there were comedians from LA who wanted to come and meet Conor Oberst. And I was like, ‘OK do a show at O’Leavers. There’s a 50/50 chance he’ll pop in.’”

As Rohde expanded his offerings of improv, sketch and stand-up classes, he began booking shows in his venue, frequently collaborating with OK Party. He quickly realized he needed to improve his space.

“Nate Bargatze called it the ‘Chuckle Dungeon,’” Rohde said.

In 2014, The Backline moved into its current home on Harney Street. Ware became part owner. 

A fissure began to open in the local comedy world. Rohde and Terry had a falling out over a failed comedy festival they launched together. 

A small group gathers outside The Backline in Omaha
A small group gathers outside The Backline in Omaha in late February. The club was hosting a comedy showcase that evening. Since its founding more than a decade ago, The Backline has become a hub for the area’s improv and stand-up communities. (Photo by Joseph Saaid for the Flatwater Free Press)

At the same time, the comedians who had helped build The Backline found themselves in different camps regarding the move. Many didn’t want to move out of the art-studio basement, Ware said. 

“Because at this point, we were used to packing a basement full of all our friends, bring your own beer, free tickets, doing comedy and kind of whatever we wanted … and now there’s structure and there’s rules.”

Improv and stand-up split into different camps.

“If you wanted to do improv, you went to the new Backline,” Ware said. “If you wanted to do stand-up, you befriended these guys who were kind of creating their own scene and hoped that you didn’t hate each other.”

After three years together, Rohde and Ware had their own breakup. She left for LA to do comedy and voice work, and was bought out of her Backline ownership stake.

She returned to Nebraska in 2020, and didn’t reconcile with Rohde until the comedy scene started rebounding post-pandemic.

She’s now an advocate for The Backline – teaching classes there and preaching the value of improv to her stand-up friends. The recruitment drew a variety of newer comedians to learn the two crafts.

“Not a lot of people actively do improv and stand-up at the same time,” Ware said. “What we’re seeing now is a new generation of young people trying stand-up and actively seeking out improv shows. We’re finally seeing both kind of start to happen.”

Shows at The Backline are about 50/50 improv and stand-up, Ware estimated.

“Stand-up is a big part of the scene,” Rohde said. “I rely on other people to do that and do it well. Zach (Peterson) and all of the other stand-ups who have grown around him are really important to growing and maintaining comedy in the area.”

New Jersey stand-up comic Glen Tickle, who spends much of his professional time on the road, performed more shows in Nebraska in 2022 than he did in his home state. Among those performances were roughly half dozen at The Backline.

He said the growth, and maintenance, of the Omaha comedy scene reminds him of the scene in his home area: the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

“People think things like open mics just happen, but it usually falls on one or two people to keep those things happening,” Tickle said. “You need that core group of people who are actively trying to put comedy forward.”

Peterson acknowledged that Omaha will always be closer to an Allentown than a New York or LA, but he said the importance of mid-sized markets and the comedians they produce remains high.

“I think having a community that helps you along and normalizes what you’re doing, like ‘oh, you’re writing jokes and you’re working on jokes,’  … that’s huge,” Peterson said.

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