January 21, 2010

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Funny business
A look at the local comedy scene
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

A guy walks into a bar …

At a weekly promotion

at Mottley’s Comedy Club in Boston, anyone who shows up on a Wednesday night with a pink slip, unemployment check stub or some other proof of joblessness gets into the club for free. Mottley’s calls it a “Comedy Bailout” — when everything else fails, all that’s left is laughter.

“You can’t be sick, sore or tired if you’re laughing,” said agent and comedian Mike Smith, whose Laugh Riot Productions books shows throughout the region, at venues including Tupelo Music Hall and the recently opened Boynton’s Taproom.

Rob Steen is a stand-up comic and promoter, operating Headliners clubs in Manchester, Gilford and Newington, along with locations in Portland and Auburn, Maine. With 14 or 15 New Hampshire venues, including an annual series at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts, Steen said business is booming.

Steen opened his Manchester Headliners a year and a half ago at the Chateau restaurant, later moving the Saturday night series to the Clarion Hotel. “I’ve sold out every show,” he said. “People want to see comedians talk about things that they’re going through in this tough economy.”

Jim Roach, another agent who books shows at opera houses throughout the state, including an upcoming appearance by Maine funny man Juston McKinney at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, agrees.

“Last year when I was struggling with music shows, comedy was doing really well,” he said. “In a down economy, booze doesn’t suffer and neither does comedy generally. People need to feel good about life, and when you go to a comedy show — and it’s a good comedy show — you forget about what’s going on and have a good time.”

Some comics aren’t shy about mining the hard times for material. Ira Proctor, who will appear at a benefit for MCAM public television at The Yard in Manchester on Friday, Jan. 29, said in his act recently, “I’m happy people are poor, I’m happy there’s a recession. Welcome to my life. When things were supposedly good, this is how it was for me, I can’t tell that there’s any difference. I’m a comedian; I make 10 grand a year. Screw you people!” The audience roars. As in the boom days of the Marx Brothers, Little Rascals and screwball comedies like It Happened One Night in the depths of the Depression, comedy is once again king.

Local boy makes good
Juston McKinnon was born in Portsmouth and moved to Maine at a young age.

“Dad got tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city so we loaded up the U-haul and headed north and got off in Kittery,” McKinnon said with a chuckle. “I guess he didn’t want to pay the toll anymore.”

McKinnon has had a lot of success with his stand-up, which riffs on married life, parenthood and the region’s idiosyncrasies. His Comedy Central special, Middle Class-hole, debuts next month, and he’s toured with Bill Engvall as part of the “Blue Collar Comedy: The Next Generation” tour. He’s visited the Tonight Show multiple times, even getting an invite to sit on the couch with host Jay Leno, a high water mark for many comics.

Even though he’s built a solid career with a hometown base of operations, McKinney said staying local is sometimes a struggle: “It’s hard living in New Hampshire and keeping a national presence. I miss opportunities.”

Recently, McKinney made his first appearance on the Conan O’Brien-hosted Tonight Show. That happened, he said, “because I flew out to L.A. on my dime and did an audition. You’ve got to be where the industry is.”

McKinney headlines the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Saturday, March 6, but he likes to drop in to smaller clubs to work on new material.

“I try to get up every week, even if it’s an open-mike night,” McKinney said. “There are a few little rooms in New Hampshire which I go to and work things out. I just pop in and work on some stuff.”

The open mike
A surprise set by a comic of McKinney’s stature is the upside of open-microphone nights, but to promoters like Mike Smith and Rob Steen they’re simply a necessary evil, not something they’re willing to attach their brands to.

“I’m not a big fan of open-mike nights, but you need a place to work out to get better,” said Steen, who doesn’t sponsor the events as a rule. “I would hate for a customer to see a show on a Thursday that’s not very funny and think that’s what they might see on a paying night.”

“As long as people understand that it’s an open mike, that it’s basically an amateur night and a time for the pros to work on new bits, then it will work,” Smith said.

But comedian Matt D, who recently won MCAM’s Manchester Last Comic Standing competition, has a different perspective. The Hudson native is currently based in Cambridge and steeped in that city’s rich comedy scene, working rooms like the Comedy Studio, where he has a residency coming up in July.

Early last year, he decided to move from a David Sedaris-style spoken word act to a punchier set of one-liners, a winning formula that Steen glowingly likened to “a cross between Woody Allen and Steven Wright.”

Rather than risk trying his new material on the sometimes harsh Boston crowds, the comic came home to New Hampshire to work in a Queen City club known for music that’s fast become a mainstay of the local comedy scene.

“I am indebted to The Shaskeen in Manchester for allowing me to really find my voice and experiment with joke writing,” said Matt D, who began going to the Wednesday night open auditions in February 2009. “That room is amazing. Nick David and Brad Hagen [who run the show] have a gold mine on their hands. You won’t find an open mike in Boston on a Wednesday with 50 to 75 people, consistently.”

As for McKinney’s take on open-mike nights — funny story.

When he first decided to try standup, McKinney did three well-received minutes at Boston’s Stitches Comedy Club, so he signed up for a return engagement — and invited 30 of his friends.

“I told everybody,” he says. “But I didn’t know that comedians repeat material. This is how naïve I was when I first started. I went up and tried to do a new three minutes different from what I did the first time.”

“It did not go that well,” McKinney said. “I was swearing a lot. I got off stage and I was sweating. I’m like — man that was rough. I don’t know what happened.”

Then he recognized another performer from the first open-mike night. “He did the same jokes he did before and I remember sitting in the back of the room thinking, you can do that? I thought every time you go up there you had to have new material.”

Jim Colliton, who performed recently at Boynton’s Taproom, came to comedy late in life after finishing college and started a full-time job. “I was sitting in my cubicle and I said, I can’t do this for the rest of my life,” he said.

Like most aspiring comics, Colliton began by doing open-mike nights. “It’s really hard because you work a full-time job and then you get out and you have to drive to some restaurant or comedy club where no one really wants you there,” he said. “I always figured you’d walk in to do some comedy, and they’d be ‘Oh great! We’re waiting for you.’ But it’s more like well, great. Stand in line with the other 15 guys who think they’re funny and we’ll see.”

He found a comfortable niche doing observational comedy bereft of scatology and f-bombs. “Someone pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey man, if you can keep working clean, it’s gonna help you get to the next level’ — meaning you’re gonna make more money, do it full time. It’s tough when you first start because you’re doing hell gigs where it’s ‘f’in this’ and you’re talking about your ass and doing the most heinous stuff,” Colliton said.

Brad Mastrangelo, who appears with fellow North Shore Comedy comics Mike Donovan and Dan Crohn on Saturday, Jan. 16, got into comedy on a dare. Surprisingly, no alcohol was involved.

“I don’t drink and have never done drugs — it’s a rarity in this profession,” said Mastrangelo, who went with 15 of his friends into Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston (the franchise runs weekly standup shows at the Amber Room in Nashua). He intended to catch a show, and ended up on stage.

“It was a crazy time in my life,” he said. “I figured I’d make a fool of myself and we’d be done with it. I was the only amateur there, you know. It was all pros working on material. But people were laughing, I was talking about growing up Italian and stuff.”

After he finished, the club owner asked him how long he’d been doing comedy. “About five minutes,” Mastrangelo replied. “They convinced me to go into a little comedy competition, and I came in first — don’t ask me how. That’s how it happened.”

Build it and they will come
Throughout the area, comedy clubs are beating the odds. Since opening in November, Boynton’s Taproom has sold out every comedy show it has held. Tupelo Music Hall’s Scott Haywood helped Josh Boynton set up his ticketing system early on, and assisted with booking, but the club’s been flying solo since the New Year, with Laugh Riot providing a lot of talent to the Mill District club.

When Haywood began offering comedy at his Londonderry club four years ago, it wasn’t a smooth opening. Mike Smith, who set up the first show, recalls, “There were, like, 30 people and I thought, uh-oh, he’s not going to want to do this again.” But despite those early hiccups, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

“After the first year, our comedy is always sold out, so it was more about establishing the comedy,” Haywood said. “We used to need sponsors … now we just send an e-mail and they’re gone.”

At the recently opened Tupelo Hall in Salisbury, Mass., the first comedy show in December was an instant sellout in a room that’s three times the size of the Londonderry location. Despite weather concerns, a second show on Jan. 2 sold well.

“Eight inches of snow and 50-mile-an-hour winds, and 350 people showed up,” said Haywood incredulously. “We had 34 walkups!”

“When times are crappy, people are always going to go out and laugh,” Haywood said. “Comedians lighten the reality. They take something uncomfortable and expose it. They make it funny.”


Try your laugh factor
Think you’re funny? Upcoming comedy competitions in Manchester, Seabrook and Newmarket will help you find out.

• Milly’s Tavern, 500 N. Commercial St. in Manchester, 625-4444, www.millystavern.com, begins a six-week comedy competition on Thursday, Feb. 18. Each night features 10 comics, with one winner each week. Six finalists will compete in April, with the winner receiving $1,000, an opening weekend at the Manchester or Portland Headliners club, and a spot on the bill at the Capitol Center when Rob Steen opens his season there in the fall. Call 800-923-0879.

• The Players Entertainment complex, 920 Lafayette Road in Seabrook, has been doing comedy for the past seven months, moving recently into the newly remodeled Chop Shop. The room features a professional-quality stage, with a press photo-ready backdrop. In December, the club held an amateur night hosted by Dover native Jay Grove, whose debut album The Granite Gun was released independently last year. Nineteen comedians took the stage, joined by a midget in a Santa suit. The event worked so well that on Thursday, Jan. 21, the club will host a top comic competition with a cash prize of $100. Contact the club at 474-6001.

• KJ’s Sports Bar on North Main Street in Newmarket (659-2329) held its first Comedy Tuesday contest on Jan. 12 hosted by Jay Grove. Depending on the effort’s success, the club will continue the monthly competition in February and beyond. “We did comedy in the summer, three to four shows. A couple were successful, some were flops,” said owner Jim Mastin. “We’ll see how it goes.” The contest features a panel of comics and a $50 cash prize.

• To warm up for these competitions, try the open-microphone night Wednesdays at The Shaskeen, 909 Elm St. in Manchester, 625-0246, www.theshaskeen.com, hosted by Nick David and Brad Hagen, with a weekly cash prize.

In the club
Between regular clubs like Headliners, Boynton’s Taproom and Amherst Country Club and many one-off and monthly shows, comedy options abound in the area. Here’s a rundown of some of the upcoming shows:

• The Amber Room, 53 High St. in Nashua, features comedy every Friday night with Nick’s Comedy Stop. Call 881-9060 or go to www.theamberroomnightlife.com.

• Boynton’s Taproom, located in the Millyard at 155 Dow St., Suite 300 (third floor) in Manchester, 623-7778, www.boyntonstaproom.com, has comedy every Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.

Jan. 22: Steve Bjork, Bob Niles and Carolyn Plummer
Jan. 29: Paul Nardizzi, Rick Beretta and Tom E Morello
Feb. 5: Chance Langton, Ben Hague and Dave McDonough
Feb. 12: Dave Russo, Bill Campbell and Sean Sullivan
Feb. 19: Steve Sweeney, John Rineman and John Garrison
Feb. 26: Tony V, Dan Boulger and Rich Gustus
March 5: John Fisch, Dan Hirshon and Lauren Verge
March 12: Mike Bent, Chris Tabb and Alicia Love

• Club Comedy at Amherst Country Club, 72 & 55 Ponemah Road in Amherst, offers comedy every Saturday night at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20. Call 673-9908.
Jan. 23: Jimmy Smith, Thomas Mitchell and Jodie Sloane
Jan. 30: Christine Hurley, Jack Hurney
Feb. 6: Stephanie Peters, Dan Hirshon and TBA
Feb. 13: Spike Tobin, Stacy Yannetty
Feb. 20: Kal Verducci, Shaun Bedgood

• The 2010 Comedy Bowl, a benefit for the Queen City Rotary, will be held Saturday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m., at the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral Auditorium, 650 Hanover St. in Manchester. The show features Kenny Rogerson, Jim McCue and Graig Murphy. Tickets cost $25 and include snacks, cash bar and raffle. Buy tickets at the door or call Donna Wilczek at 305-1826.

• The Element Lounge, 1055 Elm St. in Manchester, 627-2922, www.elementlounge.net, features mature comedy every Thursday night with drag queen Mama Savannah. There’s no cover for the 21+ gathering.

• At Fody’s Tavern, 9 Clinton St. in Nashua, www.fodystavern.com, Alana Susko hosts Comedy Showcase on the second Thursday of every month.  Tickets cost $5.  Also upcoming at Fody’s are professional comedy shows with Bob Seibel on Saturday, Feb. 27 and Tom Clark on Saturday, March 27; tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at www.comedyonpurpose.com or at the door. For all comedy shows, doors open at 7 p.m. with an 8 p.m. showtime.

• Headliners Gilford is located at Patrick’s Pub, 18 Weirs Road in Gilford, 293-0841, www.headlinerscomedyclub.com. Comedy shows happen every Thursday night at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10.

Jan. 21: Mark Scalla
Jan. 28: Steve Bjork
Feb. 4: Bill Campbell
Feb. 11: Dave Andrews
Feb. 18: Bob Goutreau
Feb. 25: Steve Scarfo
March 4: Joe Yannety
March 11: Joey Carroll
March 18: Jim McCue
March 25: Mike Koutrobis

• Headliners Manchester, located in the Clarion Hotel at 21 Front St. in Manchester, 669-2660, www.headlinerscomedyclub.com, hosts standup comedy shows every Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, except where noted.

Jan. 23: “Comic on a Harley” Larry Norton
Jan. 30: movie and television veteran Chance Langton
Feb. 6: 2006 Catch a “New” Rising Star winner Ben Hague
Feb. 13: lawyer turned comic Paul D’Angelo (tickets $20)
Feb. 20: Boston “Next Great Comic Search” winner Ira Proctor
Feb. 27: high-energy physical comic Mike Koutrobis
March 6: Headliners CEO and veteran comic Rob Steen
March 13: observational comedian Brad Mastrangelo

• Headliners Portsmouth, located in the New Asia restaurant at 99 River Road in Newington, 431-3121, www.headlinerscomedyclub.com, does monthly Saturday comedy shows. Tickets are $15:

Feb. 13: Mike Prior and Matt D
March 27: Comedy Hypnotist Frank Santos Jr.

• Kelly’s Row, located at 421 Central Avenue in Dover, 750-7081, www.kelleysrow.com, holds a dinner comedy show on the second Saturday of every month. Call the restaurant for details.

• Steve Bjork and Robbie Printz perform a dinner show on Thursday, Jan. 21, at the Old Salt, 490 Lafayette Road in Hampton. Call 926-8322 for $39.99 tickets, which include show and buffet.

• At Sky Lounge, 522 Amherst St. in Nashua, 882-6026, www.skyloungenh.com, Laugh Riot Productions comics will perform a benefit for the New England Colonials on Sunday, Feb. 21.

• The Strikers East bowling alley in Raymond hosts comedy events seven times a year. The Saturday, Feb. 27, Comedy at the Bowl Night will feature George Hamm, Steve Bjork and Kyle Crawford. Tickets are $15, with $99 eight-seat table tickets offered in advance by calling 895-9501.

• The Yard, at 1211 S. Mammoth Road in Manchester, 623-3545, theyardrestaurant.com, hosts a fundraiser for MCAM Community Television on Friday, Jan. 29, with Ira Proctor, Rob Steen and Manchester Last Comic Standing winner Matt D. Tickets to the 18+ show are $25; the night includes an auction and DJ dancing.

Bits
Get a taste of some local comedians by checking out their acts online. (Note: the bits are not from the mentioned recent events.)

• Jim Colliton recently performed at Boynton’s Taproom (www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYhOODrmR-k)

•  Jay Grove hosts upcoming comedy competitions at Players Chop Shop in Seabrook and KJ’s Sports Bar in Newmarket (www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0KqFEBaSRI).

• Brad Mastrangelo performed recently at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1_rlrsNOhs.

• Matt D appears with Rob Steen and Ira Proctor at The Yard on Friday, Jan. 29, in a benefit for MCAM.   Sample joke: “I got fired from my job the other day and it was very awkward, because I worked at the unemployment office. I didn’t know where to go.”

• Juston McKinney headlines the Palace Theatre in Manchester on March 6 (justonmckinney.com/media.html).

• Kenny Rogerson headlines a benefit for the Queen City Rotary Club on Jan. 30 in Manchester (comedians.comedycentral.com/kenny-rogerson/videos/kenny-rogerson---back-from-the-dead).

• Headliners mogul Rob Steen is also a veteran comic and appears Jan. 29 at the Yard in Manchester  (www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXbLzyZy-Nc).

Really big show
Comedy is a mainstay in the regional opera house circuit. While a few big-name shows are sold out, most notably Jeff Dunham’s Jan. 30 appearance at the Paul Tsongas Arena in Lowell, tickets are available for most upcoming shows.

Here’s a rundown of some upcoming shows:

• At the Capitol Center for the Performing Arts, 44 S. Main St. in Concord,225-1111, www.ccanh.com,  R-Rated Comedy Hypnotist Frank Santos Jr. performs a show that includes lots of audience participation on Saturday, April 24, at 8 p.m. Santos also plays the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. ($24.50) and the Rochester Opera House, 31 Wakefield St. in Rochester (335-1992), on Saturday, Feb. 13, at 8 p.m. ($20). All of Santos’s performances have been dubbed “the show must go on” in tribute to the comic’s father, original R-Rated Hypnotist Frank Santos Jr., who died last year.

• At the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St. in Manchester, 668-5588, www.palacetheatre.org, professional wrestling and standup will mix for “Total Extreme Comedy” on Friday, March 5, at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St. in Manchester (tickets cost $19.50 to $49.50), as Mick Foley performs with fellow WWE wrestlers Colt Cabana and Brother Love. Fresh from a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, Juston McKinney plays the Palace on Saturday, March 6, at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $24.50). McKinney’s one-hour Comedy Central special premieres later this year. Motivational comic Loretta LaRoche brings her popular show to the Palace on Saturday, April 24, at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $34 to $58). Whose Line Is It Anyway? stars Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood present a night of improvisational comedy at the Palace on Thursday, May 20, at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $29.50 to $75). Nickelodeon Television regular Karen Morgan does standup at the Palace on Friday, June 11, at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $19).

• The Middle, 316 Central St. in Franklin (934-1901, http://themiddlenh.org), presents a “Good Ol’ Burlesque Show” on Friday and Saturday, April 16 and 17 (tickets cost $14), a night of old-fashioned comedy in the style of Abbott & Costello and the Marx Brothers. “The Early Evening Show” hits The Middle on Saturday, June 5 (tickets cost $10 to $25), hosted by talk show favorites Mike Miclon, Jason Tardy and Matthew Tardy.

• The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St. in Portsmouth (436-2400, www.themusichall.org), welcomes the political barbs of Washington’s Capitol Steps on Saturday, Jan. 30, for two shows at 5 and 8 p.m. (tickets cost $24 to $54), a benefit for the Housing Partnership. Paula Poundstone returns to New Hampshire for a show at the Music Hall on Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m. The comic also appears at the Colonial Theatre in Keene on Friday, March 19, at 8 p.m. Three well-known comics perform at the Music Hall in a benefit for the non-profit BreastCancerStories.com on Saturday, May 5, at 8 p.m. I Survived Breast Cancer and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt features Kelly McFarland (Comedy Central’s Premium Blend), Imus in the Morning sidekick Karith Foster and Boston favorite Jimmy Dunn. Tickets cost $75 (VIP reception and show) and $35 (show only).

• The Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St. in Keene (352-2033, www.thecolonial.org), presents North Shore Comedy with Mike Donovan, Brad Mastrangelo and Dan Cohen on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. (tickets cost $21-$23) The dry wit of Garrison Keillor comes to the Colonial on Sunday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $49-$72, with a special $100 package that includes a post-show reception.

• Robbie Printz and Rob Steen are at the Lebanon Opera House, 51 North Park St., Lebanon (448-0400, www.lebanonoperahouse.org), on Saturday, April 3 ($19 & $23). The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi appears at Lebanon Opera House on Saturday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.

• Maine comic Tim Sample plays the Rochester Opera House, 31 Wakefield St. in Rochester (335-1992, www.rochesteroperahouse.com), on Saturday, April 10, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.

• Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road in Londonderry (437-5100, www.tupelohall.com), presents “Tupelo Night of Comedy” on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. with Tyler Boeh and Stacy Yannetty.