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Laughing it off: Greg Aidala

Growing Pains

By John Brodeur

Photos by Alicia Solsman

Greg Aidala is having a rough night. The 33-year-old stand-up comic is pacing the floor at Tess’ Lark Tavern in downtown Albany, from the storeroom door in the rear of the club, halfway out into the dining area and back again. Beads of sweat line his brow. He’s visibly nervous. While that’s part of his on-stage persona—he will begin his act by asking the audience, “Who here is a germ freak?”—it’s obvious that, on this night, it’s not affectation.

Jason Keller, the morning DJ from area radio station Channel 103.1, emerges from behind the heavy green curtain clutching a handful of Bud Light promo shirts. He tries to draw attention to the stage by gamely joking with a table of 20-something females. (They don’t laugh.) The shirts are tossed into—or at—the audience, and Keller disappears again behind the curtain.

Aidala crosses the room to the wait station opposite the stage, pauses to fuss with his video camera.

“You’d think after a year and a half. . . . ” He trails off mid-sentence. “But that’s the price of entertainment: Sell out every show, but the minute Metroland shows up . . . ”

Aidala is the man behind the Brew Ha-Ha Comedy Showcase, presented on the second-to-last Saturday (typically) of each month at the venerable Albany nightlife landmark on Madison Avenue. The show usually features two comics of a reasonable level of fame—“I try to bring up people you may see on TV today,” he says, and indeed, most of the featured acts have appearance credits from major cable- and network- television stations—with Aidala hosting the show and performing a short set of his own material.

“People won’t see a rock band they don’t know, but usually they’ll go out and see a comedy show . . . because the ultimate goal is to laugh. I really want to hit on that.”

And hit on that he has: Each of the first 13 shows packed the Lark’s relatively cozy backroom. (If that doesn’t sound like much, note that it actually takes 70 people to be considered a sellout.) In February, Aidala invited Craig Gass, a comic best known for his appearances on Howard Stern’s radio program, to be his sole guest, and expanded the night to accommodate what would be two sold-out crowds, a major success—and a strong sign that comedy has a home in Albany.

“It’s good that there are more [venues] coming up,” says Aidala, a lifelong Capital Region resident. He says that the public’s collective interest in the laughter business has piqued, in part, due to a change in the popular style. “People are looking for intelligent, in-your-face comedy. . . . When I see shows in clubs across the states, it’s not knock-knock jokes; it’s real-life, this is what’s going on. . . . that’s what people really want.”

Aidala, as animated and talkative in interview as onstage, radiating a borderline-manic energy, didn’t jump into the business of promotion hastily—certainly not as hastily as he jumped into comedy itself. (As the story goes, he talked his way into his first gig, opening for Colin Quinn, despite never before having performed as a stand-up comic.)

“When I started doing club shows in Albany, the first place I did was the [now-shuttered Lark Street restaurant] Larkin, and I wound up getting 50 people to show.” From there, he produced a handful of successful one-night-only affairs at downtown-Albany nightspots like DeJohn’s, Justin’s, and Pearl. In early 2005, he formed his own entertainment-production company, Radial Gage Entertainment, and in April of that year, produced Laugh Out Loud at the Egg’s Swyer Theatre, a show that featured comics Gass and Jesse Joyce, plus area rock band Super 400.

“I always wanted to do a comedy-rock show; and I always had a fascination, for some reason, with the Egg. So I saved and saved—I just wanted to do it myself, just to prove it to me.” That show broke even, selling just under 200 tickets, and, Aidala says proudly, “I did it all on my own without sponsors.” Plus, he adds, “Everyone that I wanted there that I love was there. I proved a lot to myself and really felt good.”

But the move to producing a full-fledged series was slow. “Tess [Collins, owner of the Lark Tavern] had been asking me to do shows, and I told her ‘I’m not gonna do it willy-nilly.’. . . I have to build these peoples’ trust.” But he was interested in working with Collins.

“[Collins] understands that I’m professional—I’m not gonna give you headaches.” Also, “the first thing she built [after assuming ownership] was a stage, which was positive, [and] she’s great to get along with.” So he agreed to a “trial run” of shows at the Lark in summer 2005, featuring Capital Region comics.

Then, that October, Gass invited Aidala to check out his set at Stand-Up NY, a comedy club set in a brownstone on New York City’s Upper West Side—“in the middle of a neighborhood like this [Albany’s Center Square].”

“As soon as I saw it, I went ‘uh-oh.’ I walked in, I saw it, and I had the whole idea. Wrote it all down, met with Budweiser, Tess, drew up the contracts.” With Bud Light on board, and with the support of Collins and her staff, Aidala launched the Brew Ha-Ha in January 2006. In March of this year, he decided the series was successful enough to warrant a second show. “I was getting e-mails from people saying, ‘I don’t get out of work until 9,’ so I offered a 10.” Seemed like a wise enough move, considering the showcase’s history.

As he puts it, “They did all sell out—until the week of the parade.”

Blame it on City Hall: It’s Saturday night, March 24, and Albany’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade has been rescheduled to this afternoon due to inclement weather. Now, the post-parade revelers are here, soaking up their Jerry Jennings-approved bonus drunk, clogging the bar and hanging onto precious real estate in the tavern’s backroom. Eventually, more of the green plastic hats make their way out, more bodies enter, and by quarter past 8, the room is a respectable two-thirds full. “Alright, time to go for broke,” says Aidala. He clicks the record button on his video camera—he has every show on tape—and darts to the stage.

Although the turnout is disappointing, the show goes off more or less without a hitch. Aidala fusses with his microphone stand throughout his opening set, exposing his nerves, but the crowd is engaged, and the evening’s guest comics, Keith Alberstadt and Todd Dixon, seem unfazed by the empty seats. While there is some talk-back from the audience, that is to be expected considering that a fair number of them started the show inebriated.

The second show doesn’t go as well. Fifteen minutes past the start, there are 15 people staggering around the room. As the late Bill Hicks might have said, “I’ve had more people than this in bed.” Aidala works the crowd, but it’s a tough sell. As Dixon begins his set, a young woman sitting in the front row gives him absolute hell. She jumps on his every punchline (having memorized them from the latter part of the night’s first show), and her boyfriend is too out of it to say anything. Dixon struggles to ignore her, tosses back insults (although he could have been more incisive than “only halfway-decent-looking”), but in this nearly empty room, her voice is all he can hear, and she is plainly antagonistic. (“She was out of her skull,” Aidala says.) Bar security is summoned, and the hecklers are shown the door.

“So after a year you get two bad shows,” Aidala later recalls. “Allow me that. But you got 15 people in there and two people have to get kicked out? Like, what the fuck? Can it get worse?”

“Honestly, I battled that for four days after that show—‘Jesus Christ, did I do the wrong thing?’ And then you just want to crawl in a fucking bag.” But, he says, he’s not going to let it faze him. “I’ve performed for . . . four people, with no mic, at a professional club on the circuit, [and] as embarrassed as I felt, it was cathartic, because if that’s the worst it can be, then it can only get better.”

That show-must-go-on attitude makes him, he thinks, an asset to the area’s hot comedy scene. He seems to understand the tenacity required to keep something like this running—and to keep people coming back.

“I e-mail, I press the flesh, I throw out flyers—what can you do?” he says of the relative failure of the March shows. “These are the trial months. It’s gonna take a while.”

“I try to put on a good show so people can forget about their life for 90 minutes. That’s my ultimate goal—especially in my own hometown. There’s so much ambivalence that comes out of Albany, [but] you gotta put that aside. I can’t stand naysayers. Get up and do something—try to do something. You can knock me as much as you want, but at least I’m trying.”

As to the future of the Brew Ha-Ha, Greg speaks with cautious optimism. “If it ended tomorrow—if it ended after this show,” he imagines, “I think everyone will walk away saying ‘that was a good time,’ [that we] captured a little piece of history in Albany.”

The Brew Ha-Ha Comedy Showcase returns this Saturday (April 19) for two shows, 8 and 10 PM, at Tess’ Lark Tavern (453 Madison Ave., Albany). The scheduled performers are Bernadette Pauley and the Rob and Mark Show. For information, call 463-9779 or visit gregaidala.com.


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