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Brian Peek

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
By Rick Marshall • Photos by Alicia Solsman

Getting serious about the Capital Region’s funny business

It takes only about two minutes for tonight to become one of those “bad nights” they talk about in the comedy business. The comedian on stage is just finishing up his third or fourth bit, doing an impression of himself as a dazed Little Leaguer, when the bar’s power goes out. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Not all the power goes out—the spotlight on the stage stays on for some strange reason, drawing even more attention to the confused look on the comedian’s face. Luckily for him (or perhaps not), there’s not much of a crowd here tonight. In fact, just about every person in the place is on one of the comedians’ guest lists. After a short moment of disorientation, the comedian recovers well, carrying on with the show and altering his routine to take the new environment into account. There won’t be much money—if any at all—coming out of tonight’s show for the comedians involved, but none of them seems too disappointed. Simply having the show at a Capital Region venue usually reserved for rock bands, they say, is a step in the right direction for the local comedy scene.

“Nowhere to go but up, right?” shrugs one of the comedians.

In 1961, when Lenny Bruce did a show at Carnegie Hall, he did a short bit about how humbling it can be to try and make a career out of stand-up comedy. According to Bruce, after causing one audience’s mass exodus during a gig in East Liberty, Pa., he noticed that the $3.25 dinner special had replaced his name on the club’s marquee as the show’s selling point. Sure, Bruce said, he knew beforehand that his style of comedy wasn’t likely to be well received by the club’s audience of retirees (“I got on stage and saw a row of Shriner pins in the audience,” he laughed), but he took the gig anyway.

“When you need bread,” he reasoned, “you do whatever it takes to make it.”

And while much has changed about the opportunities available to stand-up comedians in the 40-plus years since Bruce’s famous performance, making a go of it in the funny business is just as humbling an experience now as it was then. But here’s the warm-and-fuzzy part of the story, folks: While New York City and Los Angeles are certain to remain the undisputed meccas of stand-up comedy in America for years to come, it’s the smaller cities that often churn out the new talent year after year—cities just like the ones in and around the Capital Region.

Now, with stand-up comedy finding its way into local bars, restaurants and other venues that normally feature live entertainment—and with not just one, but two major comedy clubs within a short drive from Albany—a variety of factors have put the Capital Region at the center of a “perfect storm” of sorts when it comes to comedy. Boasting no shortage of comedic hopefuls, local A-listers and some dedicated club owners, the Capital Region may prove to be the best opportunity to say that you knew them all before they were famous.

>From moonlighting insurance adjusters to part-time cooks, real estate agents to organ-transplant technicians, the Capital Region is home to a persistent bunch of funnymen—and funnywomen—who spend their evenings waxing comedic from here to, well, Broadalbin. Maybe by catching up with them, you’ll all know where to look when comedy’s next shooting star appears in the Capital Region sky.

Among writers, there’s an old saying that goes, “Write what you know.” The same is true for developing new material in stand-up comedy, according to comedians.

“So I just found out that my girlfriend’s a screamer in bed,” says Brian Peek, a local software developer, calmly nodding to his audience, one hand on the microphone stand while he pauses long enough to set up the punchline. “But I find that most girls are when they’re trying to get away from me.”

Ask any veteran joke jockey what can make a mediocre joke better, and 10-to-1 they’ll tell you that it’s all about the delivery—usually, the timing. Spend enough nights at comedy clubs and open mics, and you’ll hear the same joke told over and over again. But if the comedian really wants to make the joke the best it can be, you’ll probably find yourself laughing hysterically at a joke that caused only an awkward chuckle the last time around. Young comedians, like young jokes, rarely sound the same twice.

Like any other art form, stand-up comedy takes practice. Yet, while a musician can write a song on the back porch and a painter can set up a canvas in her bedroom, stand-up comedians need an audience to measure their development. And that’s where open-mics come in. For some, the informal events are a sounding board for new material; for others, a practice field for stories that they just can’t find the “funny” in. And, as some young comedians have quickly learned, open mics can provide you with one of the most critical audiences you’ll ever be exposed to: other comedians.

“When comedians listen to another comedian perform, we’re not even listening to the joke itself,” explains Aaron Ward, a born-and-bred Capital Region comedian who hit the road last fall as a traveling comic. With a routine that pokes fun at life as an over-30 male who lives in his parents’ basement, Ward can’t help but find the humor in—and agree with—the comedy-as-therapy connection that many comedians say is the reason they do what they do.

Blaise Thomas

“It really is courage—or maybe it’s insanity,” chuckles Ward, “to say that what you really want to do for fun is to be emotionally naked on a stage in front of large crowds of drunk people on a Friday or Saturday night.”

But while every person involved in the comedy business seems to offer a different assessment of what it takes to be a successful stand-up comedian, they tend to agree that the most critical ingredient for success is simply getting on stage as often as possible.

“The trick is to spend so much time on stage that you can make an entire set look like you made it up on the spot,” explains Larry Schechter, another budding comedian and owner of the Funny Farm, a massive barn-turned-comedy-club located just north of Amsterdam in the town of Broadalbin. The name of the club is entirely appropriate, too, as the open-mic and weekend shows that partner traveling comedians with local hosts and guest comics on a Funny Farm stage each week create an ideal incubator for both young comedians and veteran comics looking to stay sharp.

Like many of those in the comedy business, Schechter and Funny Farm manager Mike Irwin—a man who, along with writing for Comedy Central and Jay Leno, teaches a six-week stand-up comedy class that has counted some of the best up-and-coming comedians in New York City and the Capital Region among its members—keep themselves involved on both sides of the scene, handling club arrangements and working their own comedy when time allows.

“In comedy, when it’s all said and done, if you get a laugh, that’s good,” says Schechter, “but if you don’t get a laugh, that’s not always bad, either.”

And laughter can be a rare commodity on some nights, especially when first starting out in the stand-up scene.

“Anyone that says they’ve never had a bad night hasn’t tried to get any better,” laughs Greg Aidala, another local comic who divides his time between on- and off-stage projects in the comedy business. Stories abound among the region’s comedians about nights where their “best stuff” inspired little more than an uncomfortable chuckle from the first-row audience, sometimes throwing both the comic and the remainder of the routine into a tailspin.

Aidala, who resembles—in looks, at least—one of Albany’s famous collegiate comics, Saturday Night Live alum (and ex-Metroland employee) Jimmy Fallon, says he’d love to see local comedians invest more of their energy into making the Capital Region more comedy-friendly rather than taking off for L.A. or New York once they’ve outgrown what’s available here. And over the last few years, the 30-year-old comedian has tried to do just that for the Capital Region, arranging shows at bars and restaurants in downtown Albany and the surrounding area. Other comedians appear to be taking his lead, too, as local open mics typically dedicated to music have begun counting some of the region’s comedians among their regular attendees, and new open mics with a focus on comedy have popped up in Schenectady, Latham and Troy.

Aidala says he looks forward to the day when people don’t have to wait until the weekend for a laugh. Until then, however, he insists that he’ll keep sowing the seeds of stand-up comedy anywhere willing to give it a try.

“Anytime it gets slow for gigs, I put all my effort into organizing new ones,” says Aidala. “Albany’s not going to get any better for comedy unless [comedians] prove that it can work here.”

Aaron Ward

Of course, that’s not to say that the Capital Region hasn’t been friendly to stand-up comedy in the past. The Comedy Works in downtown Albany has been involved with comedy longer than many of the comedians it plays host to these days. From Jerry Seinfeld to Ray Romano and Robin Williams, father-and-son owners Tom Nicchi Jr. and Sr. have brought some of the top names in comedy to the Capital Region for decades now—and seen even the best at their worst.

“Seinfeld was here once, right after the pilot for his show, named Jerry, was turned down, and you could tell that he was pretty depressed,” remembers the younger Nicchi, a club employee since he was 15 years old. “You’d be surprised how many people get up on stage expecting to knock everyone dead with their first joke and then it tanks. They end up with this deer-in-headlights look on their faces for the rest of the time they’re up there.”

While Seinfeld eventually found a taker for his show after a simple change of name, mass-market success is not always the best measure of comedic talent, says Nicchi, who plans on opening up his doors to amateur comedians again—after a brief hiatus when the club changed locations—within the next few months.

“The funniest comics in the world are not necessarily the people you see on television,” he explains. “Some comics’ level of success is a product of their circumstances. You can’t be out on the road all the time when you’ve got a wife and kids.”

Yet, that willingness to set everything else aside for the art is one of the most important elements in making the move from local guest spots to full-time road comic, according to some of the area’s most experienced comedians.

“You’ve got to keep hustling, always on the phone and e-mailing people,” says John Briggs, a 15-year veteran of the stand-up comedy scene now living in Glens Falls. Briggs, whose frantic touring schedule recently included a Christmas Eve show in Michigan, has also found time in his life to create a one-man political comedy show titled Left-Wing Laughs, which he performs around the country each year. As important as having a thick skin is in the comedy world, says Briggs, being able to make a faraway gig on a moment’s notice is equally important for anyone who wants to get their name out there.

“I keep a bag packed all the time—just in case,” he says, adding that there’s no reason why the Capital Region couldn’t be the home of America’s next great comic.

Dave Bancroft

“After all, Bobcat Goldthwait came from Syracuse—and that’s not much different from Albany,” he laughs. “Audiences don’t care where you’re coming from, they just want you to be funny.”

Of course, it also helps to have a job that you can walk away from when comedic opportunity comes knocking, according to Irwin, who removed his own safety net—
college—more than 20 years ago when he decided to become a full-time comedian.

“The hardest thing to overcome is a really good day job,” he laughs, adding that in truth, he’s had very little experience with the nine-to-five routine, thanks to the success he’s had in comedy. But that doesn’t mean everyone should throw it all away and run off to the Big Apple, says Irwin, who points to several local comedians who hold high-profile jobs and appear to get everything they want out of comedy.

“I see someone like [Funny Farm regular] Dave Bancroft, who’s a bank vice president and he’s got two or three kids,” says Irwin. “Someone like that can’t just say they’re going to go off and live in an apartment with four other guys in New York City.”

And for some comedians, the day job actually serves as a muse for the routine.

Along with Peek, who jokes about everyone asking him if he can “hack” into computers, comics like Russ Montour, who spends his days removing corneas from cadavers for organ donations, occasionally draw upon the idiosyncrasies of their nine-to-fiver for subject matter. Steve Adiletta, a 20-year-old comedian beginning to get some significant notice around the local scene, spends his days in the kitchen of a nursing home—a job that, he says, allows for ample time to roll around new jokes in his head—while 15-year-old comedian Andrea Kannes is afforded a direct connection with comedy through her job at the Comedy Works.

While it’s difficult to find a common thread that winds its way through the Capital Region’s comedy community, many of those involved in the business, whether for profit or for a sort of therapeutic catharsis, tend to echo one another when you ask them why they brave drunken hecklers and disenchanted audiences night after night.

“You want to know the big payoff is?” asks Adiletta. “Just think about the way you feel when you’re with your closest friends, and everybody’s laughing about a funny story you told them. Now imagine feeling that way with a crowd of people you’ve never met before—it’s pretty amazing, really.”

And that, according to most of the region’s comedians, is exactly why they do what they do. No matter how many times your best set is greeted with silence or a drunken barfly gets more laughs than your best joke, that one perfect night—and every local comedian assures me that, as the years go on, the ratio of good nights to bad does indeed swing in their favor—make it all worthwhile. Yes, for every night you drink away your paycheck or slink away in embarrassment after a bad show, there’s a night where one joke flows into the next and the whole routine seems effortless, like you could make the crowd erupt in laughter with even the corniest joke. That, they say, is what makes it all worthwhile.

“You want to make it in comedy, you have to be a glutton for punishment,” laughs Esther Irwin, Mike’s wife, who describes her role at the Funny Farm as “half-bartender, half-counselor” for club patrons. “It’s a tough way to make a living, sure, but when things are going well, everyone’s having a great time and they have you to thank for it.”


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