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Laughing matters.   on his deathbed, the great shakespearean actor edmund kean was asked if it was difficult to meet the end. “dying is easy,” he answered.  “comedy is hard.” a handful of bc graduates are doing it anyway.
. Photo of BC graduate comedian


Ten things comedians will tell you: New jokes need to be broken in one at a time. A "clam" is a hackneyed joke. Accelerating the delivery of a routine jump-starts the crowd. Swearing onstage is cheating. Audiences are much more willing to laugh at male comics than at female comics—no one knows why that is. Comedy club owners are vile. Lisps are funny. Teaching school or "going into writing" are the comedian's choice of fall-back careers. Hecklers don't just insult the comic, they also insult the comic's mother. He with the microphone always wins. He with the televised timeslot wins bigger.

Dave McLaughlin '85 is among a half-dozen BC graduates currently working in stand-up comedy. He doesn't star in his own sitcom (though he's appeared in more than 20 televised commercials) and he hasn't hosted an HBO special. But he has navigated the unpaid open-mic nights that give experience and exposure to beginners. He has an agent who books him into auditions for both broadcast advertisements and voice-over narration. His wife, Lori, works at a capital investment firm in midtown Manhattan, providing a hedge against the whims of his chosen trade; she considers it destiny that the word "laugh" appears in their last name.

McLaughlin tells jokes two or three nights a week, averaging between 150 and 175 gigs a year, but confesses that he wishes those numbers were higher. He admits that, at his level in the comedy business, stage time in New York City is barely profitable ($20 on weeknights and $50 on weekends, with one notoriously cheap club doling out $6 per appearance), and "quality" stage time (20 minutes or more) is extremely difficult to find—but McLaughlin insists that performing is more about practice and visibility than cash. Although the wages he draws from making people laugh are piddling, McLaughlin combines it with his income from advertisements to earn what he describes as a middle-class living. To hear him tell it, stand-up comedy demands persistence, passion, and patience. Also, it is one of the few trades in the world where your personal flaws and failings are valued commodities.

Take tonight, for instance—an early Saturday evening at Stand-Up NY, a 180-person-capacity comedy club wedged in Manhattan's Upper West Side. A spunky secretary strides onto the small, knee-high, carpeted stage and squawks about her bipolar moodswings to 60 or so people seated among tables sipping away at their two-drink minimum ($6.50 beers; $8 Cosmopolitans). She is followed by a 17-year-old high school senior named Max who assures the folks that he is so stupid, college admissions offices are using his entrance applications as bathroom tissue. Later, a squash-shaped woman boasts that her backside is as broad as a widescreen television. She bends over to illustrate. The audience giggles nervously.

Finally, McLaughlin bounds up to the microphone and begins cracking jokes about his unhealthy eating habits. "If it was up to me," McLaughlin declares in a rant about holiday meals, "I'd be stuffing the turkey with Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies." Dressed in a worn black turtleneck, a black V-neck blazer of indeterminate fabric—"black makes me look thinner"—and denim jeans, the burly McLaughlin looks like a cookie-munching, six-pack-glugging, working-class American. Which is exactly the demographic he is trying to channel.

"Growing up in New Hampshire," he says, bolstering his bona fides, "we went to the beach for two reasons: to eat bad food and get a sunburn. But then my wife and I are out in L.A."—at this point it's clear that the paunchy McLaughlin is about to become a stranger in a strange land—"and they're exercising at the beach. First of all, exercise is one thing I don't do. Obviously. But at the beach?"

The audience chuckles, either at his considerable na•vetŽ or his gruff hyperbolic delivery. "So I'm walking along this concrete path in the sand, on the way to get a snack because the one I'm eating's almost gone"—the audience roars, McLaughlin pauses—"and these rollerbladers are screaming at me to get out of the way: 'On your leeeeeeefffffffffffft!'" McLaughlin scrunches up his face in an imitation of the overexerting skaters. "'On your riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight!'" Then, as he pretends to elbow a speeding Californian in the head, he snaps, "On your ass!"

McLaughlin tells audiences his dream is to own a nationwide chain of donut shops: "I already got the name, I already got the slogan, tell me whatcha think: 'Dave's Donuts—get them before he does.'" But offstage, when his comic persona's booming volume and exaggerated tone are switched off (well, turned down), and McLaughlin is just plain talking, he admits what he really dreams: "to make people laugh on a weekly basis, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC." For a profession that showcases dogged dissenters, manic misfits, and self-styled odd ducks, comedy is rife with mainstream ambition.

John roarke '74 has been in the stand-up business for the last quarter-century, and he agrees: Most comedians want what McLaughlin wants. His own career, however, is proof that success in comedy, as in most occupations, is less a winner-takes-all proposition, more a matter of degrees.

In a photograph posted on his promotional Web site, Roarke assumes the firm, all-knowing smile of a talk show host who's listening, sort of, but has heard it before. Talk with Roarke long enough, and you'll realize that he has. He is a seasoned stand-up comic whose métier is impressions. Over the past 25 years, he's lampooned the mannerisms, styles, and foibles of such household names as Bing Crosby, Ed Sullivan, Henry Kissinger, Richard Simmons, Woody Allen, Phil Donahue, Bill Cosby, William Shatner, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Larry King, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Austin Powers, and George H. W. Bush ("he didn't really light my fire. He was kind of a bland, WASPy geek").

Even among stand-up comics, Roarke suggests, comic impersonators rank as consummate freaks. "It's like [being] a geek that bites the heads off chickens at a carnival," he says over the phone from his Los Angeles office. "It's really a different skill. You wake up every morning wondering what kind of a cruel god would give you this talent."

Roarke, who now develops routines by scrutinizing tapes of his subjects, first recognized his sideshow skill while attending an all-boys academy in Providence, Rhode Island, when he began impersonating faculty members. "The teachers who were cool would smuggle me into their classes and I would do five minutes [of impressions] and leave," he says. After graduation, he entered Our Lady of Providence Catholic Seminary to prepare for the priesthood, but within two years "freaked out and went to BC." Although Roarke had always entertained ideas of becoming a comedian, his new college wasn't exactly an incubator for aspiring parodists. "Senior year at BC, they have one day with all these card tables, when all these corporations come to sign you up. But there's no company for comedy that comes. You don't want a job at UniFax, so you don't know what the hell to do."

Roarke's big break came in 1976, when a producer from a speaker's bureau spotted him in a Boston-based improv group and offered him a three-year stint performing at colleges. At his very first engagement, at a school in Nebraska, he earned a standing ovation—and the applause sealed his fate: "That was a pivotal point in my life. I realized, you know, I've got something here." His first significant television role came within two years, as a cast member on Fridays, an early 1980s sketch comedy show that took its cues from Saturday Night Live and featured future Seinfeld foil Michael Richards. Fridays lasted three seasons. In the score of years since the program's cancellation, Roarke has hopscotched from voice work (for puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft on their syndicated political satire D.C. Follies), to season-long spots on sitcoms like NBC's Out of This World and the syndicated Café DuArt, to one-shot appearances on Charles in Charge, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Weird Al Show.

These days, Roarke isn't vying for small-screen parts. "I just don't have the patience to go out for television stuff anymore," he says. And even TV commercial auditions no longer seem to make much business sense. "I've done a lot of commercials. They say if you get one commercial out of 30 auditions, you're doing well. I sat down and calculated that I had done one commercial for every 90 auditions," he states matter-of-factly. "To pursue television stuff, you have to put 10 units of energy in and maybe get one unit back. It's for a young kid with a lot of time."

At 50, Roarke admits that age imparts certain professional limitations. "It's easier for a younger person to impersonate an older person than it is for an older person to impersonate a younger person. So because I'm 50, I have this built-in obsolescence thing—it's sort of like a baseball player. For me to go out and try to do Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn't look very good." Roarke adds in the tangential manner of a person whose vocation encourages speaking in parenthetical asides, "Although Leonardo's got a great hairline."

Roarke also points out that there are few film prospects for an impersonator, but his own résumé includes a smattering of movies. He spoofed George H. W. Bush in Naked Gun 2: The Smell of Fear (1991), multitasked as Sam Donaldson, Ted Koppel, and Larry King in the satirical S.F.W. (1994), feigned the air of a fictional president in Courage Under Fire (1996), and caricatured a trio of talk show hosts (Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Tom Snyder) in American Virgin (2000). Roarke's name generally appears far down the closing credits, but it's there.

"The comedy business is hard," he says. "Even if you get [a sitcom], good luck if the pilot gets picked up, good luck if you know how to handle the producers, good luck if you have the juice to make the changes you need to make before they squash you, good luck if you go 13 [episodes], and good luck if by then you're not already gone."

Roarke keeps his career in play with the entrepreneurial skill that most lifelong comedians master. "You have to create your own opportunities," he explains. So in addition to juggling stand-up gigs in Hawaiian hotels and Vegas clubs, Roarke emcees big-budget corporate meetings, earning up to $20,000 per event. "The meeting has a number of goals that the company wants to communicate to its people and ordinarily it's very boring," he says. Roarke injects "fun into it, so it goes down a little easier." Fun could mean summoning the solemn style of Tom Brokaw to read mock, company-related news briefs, or donning the suspenders and bad posture of Larry King for a staged interview with the CEO.

Has Roarke ever considered quitting comedy altogether? "I'm the last person who wants to do anything because"—he assumes a tone of pompous authority—"it's a job. I really love what I'm doing and I'm spoiled in that way." Asked if he's accomplished his goals, Roarke offers ambivalence. "Yes and no. I've done a lot of good work, but it's been sporadic—feast and famine. I would like to have done a lot more, but I know how notoriously hard it is to do. And only 1 percent of anybody who tries really gets there for a long period of time. How many Jay Lenos and David Lettermans are there?"

Counting the stand-up comics who make it to the top is easy. It can be harder to pin down the ones who opted out somewhere along the way, even those who had a measure of success. After nine years and 24 televised commercials, David Pierre '90 relinquished the road-tripping, club-hopping, gut-splitting lifestyle of a stand-up comic in September 2001. He became a full-time special-education teacher in south-central Los Angeles. But despite the fact that his stretch in the joke sellers' marketplace is over, Pierre, who started out as a disc jockey at Boston's WFNX, frames his comedic experience with positive memories and an unexpected reserve.

Pierre's comedy career began when he relocated to California and acquired an entry-level position at a comedy club on Sunset Strip. "I got a job answering phones at the Comedy Store," he recalls. "The owner there is Mitzi Shore, Pauly's mom. All the people that work at the Comedy Store—in the booth, at the door, and in the parking lot—are comics. She staffs the place with comics; it's kind of like a school to her."

While Pierre fielded phone calls, he cultivated a "quirky" persona, an alter ego exemplified by his later commercial roles. "I did a rental car commercial, and I played the guy who works for the other rental car company," he explains over the phone. His voice is distinctly nasal and sounds fitting for a smarmy salesman. "Also, in a Bud Light commercial I did—it aired during the Super Bowl three years ago—there were two guys in a checkout line and they had to decide between beer and toilet paper. I was the guy who went, 'Paper or plastic?'"

Pierre never imagined that he'd be identifying himself by a Super Bowl spot. But as he discovered, the undertow of acting is strong in Los Angeles. "I came out to L.A. with the idea that I was going to be just a comedy guy. But when you're doing comedy in L.A.—and I didn't know this until I got here— there's all this TV and movie stuff around you, and comedy often leads to it."

Comedy also leads to friendship, and that's the one thing Pierre mentions missing about the industry. "I miss seeing the friends I made, y'know, the comics who you chum around with at the gigs. Because part of the fun is watching each other, cheering each other on, and getting kicks out of your buddy's new joke."

Pierre portrays the demands of comedy as somehow consuming. "Doing stand-up is more than just opening your list of jokes and going down it," he says; there's also a constant refining of the comic persona. "There's a lot of effort to keep your act fresh. It's ongoing. It's something you always have to be working on, you always have to be writing new bits, calibrating your point of view."

Comedy attracts a lot of hopefuls, he says, who think, "'Oh, I'm just going to try this for six months and see if it takes off.'" But "unless a miracle happens, there is literally no way you can establish yourself that quickly." For some lucky aspirants, he suggests, the process will only take years. The ones with a certain temperament, and enough commitment, turn rejection and discouragement into fresh material and soldier on.

Dave Mclaughlin first dove into stand-up when he was 31—an unusually late age. Most aspiring comics start hitting the clubs in their late teens or early-to-mid twenties. After graduating from BC, he returned to his native New Hampshire and fell uneasily into selling insurance. ("I hated every minute of it.") The turning point came one night when he was watching television—he can't seem to recall which show—with his brother. "That guy really stinks," he complained about a particularly dreadful comic. "And he's on national television. I can do better than that." McLaughlin's brother effectively issued him a challenge by calling Nick's Comedy Stop in Boston and scheduling stage time for him three months hence.

McLaughlin showed up at that first gig, bowled the crowd over, and within two years had quit his desk job, relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, and purchased a license plate that read mclaugh. Upbeat and ambitious, he made headway on the comedy circuit by waiting in all-day lines for three-minute slots at open-mic nights. Eventually, perseverance paid off: he became a regular performer at Hollywood's Laugh Factory (famous as the club where Richard Pryor got his start), acquired an agent, and started landing television commercials. (His first contract was for 10 ads for Borders Books, which ran on networks nationwide.)

Then an established club owner offered McLaughlin a six-month management contract that promised an abundance of stage time but required McLaughlin to perform material he didn't write. Despite misgivings, McLaughlin inked the deal in the hopes that it would be the long-sought catalyst toward a television career. "Sold my soul for six months, which I regret now. But I did it thinking, 'This is going to get me a show—this is going to get me a show.' Six months later, I almost quit stand-up I was so miserable," he says. "It wasn't me up there." Hurt simultaneously by a commercial actors' strike that cut off his other source of income, McLaughlin watched his career flatline. But instead of leaving stand-up altogether, he and his wife opted for a change of scenery—which is how he ended up moving to New York City.

"What that experience taught me is that this is about life," he reflects. "This isn't only about getting a TV show. If you're not enjoying the process, you're wasting your life."

McLaughlin tends to speak with a warm smile, but right now, his expression is sober. He's seated in a third-floor food court near Times Square, a cafeteria-style tray of fast-food Chinese positioned in front of him. On the table also are a tape recorder and notebook, which he keeps on hand to capture ideas. He's schedule to perform for 10 minutes at Stand-Up NY in a few hours. Sipping on a large soda that came free with a coupon he brought to lunch, McLaughlin talks ardently about an ABC pilot he will be auditioning for later in the week. "They're either going with a Ralph Kramden type or they're going with the Alec Baldwin type," he effuses while poking a plastic fork into a chunk of orange chicken. McLaughlin's face is familiar, friendly, and globular, a confluence of John Goodman's playful grin and Andy Richter's doughy chin. "I'm the Ralph Kramden type, but I'm not sure which way they're going. But it's perfect. It's everything that I'm trying to do on stage."

McLaughlin is highly motivated by the notion of starring on prime-time television. He usually prefaces the phrase "get a show" with qualifiers like "someday" and "when." He's already primed a tight version of his set for Letterman or Leno, he often considers which anecdotes will be included in his imagined ghostwritten autobiography (one possible title: Husky . . . And Other Words that Haunt Me from Childhood), and he keeps a journal he expects will be published, you know, someday when. "Your path can change on a dime," he asserts. "For instance, about a month ago, I'm auditioning for The Sopranos. It's one of my favorite shows in the whole world.

"I go in and read, expecting nothing because I've gone on hundreds of auditions. I do a reading with a girl; we do it again. Then we do it more angry, then we do it more lighthearted. After four or five times, she says, 'Well, let me get the head casting director.' She leaves the room, and for those 45 seconds, I let myself believe, 'Oh my god, I'm on The Sopranos! I just nailed this, I'm on The Sopranos!'

"The door opens, the head casting director sticks her head in and goes, 'Nope, the guy's supposed to be mid-forties. Too young.' And the door closes. I'm walking out of there, going, 'I had it, I had it. For those 45 seconds, I had it.'"

Several months later, McLaughlin still hasn't heard anything about his tryout for the Ralph Kramden/Alec Baldwin part, although the audition tape went to ABC for review. "I've been scouring through Variety everyday," he says, "and it still hasn't mentioned anyone else getting the lead." Is he feeling optimistic? Well, he has lately auditioned for Third Watch, Law & Order, and the lead in another sit-com, and he'll be supplying the voice of Eddie in Adam Sandler's new cartoon feature Eight Crazy Nights, scheduled for release this Thanksgiving. As McLaughlin exhorts on his Web site, "Keep the faith—I'm getting closer—I CAN FEEL IT!!!"

Ten more facts comedians may (or may not) tell you about their work: There is no category listed for comics on the U.S. Census form; the closest title is "miscellaneous entertainer or performer." Stand-up comics have little respect for the cozy ensemble of improv—having teammates onstage means a safety net in the event of a solo comedic plummet. The word "juice" means charisma, talent, or energy. Chris Rock, rumor has it, can command upwards of $150,000 per show.

A half-hour stand-up routine contains between 50 and 75 punch lines. Letterman and Leno sets usually involve a punch line every 15 seconds for seven minutes. Roughly 10 percent of comedians are women. Currently nine stand-up comics have their own prime-time TV shows (eight men and Ellen DeGeneres). The New York City Yellow Pages list 27 comedy clubs; Los Angeles follows with 12, Washington, D.C., with 10; but you can find a club almost anywhere--Boise and Tacoma have one apiece. In a survey of BC alumni who are comedians, 40 percent of respondents said they've had their mother insulted by a heckler while onstage; 100 percent said they've insulted their mother themselves while onstage.

Brian Kiley: “It happened really fast”

Eight years ago, Brian Kiley ’83 was a relatively successful stand-up comic with a handful of Tonight Show appearances. A few of Kiley's pals worked at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and the television show, then only six months old, needed a monologue writer. Kiley’s friends gave him the heads-up, and he submitted a package of topical jokes. “It happened really fast,” Kiley remembers. “They were like, ‘Conan likes it. Can you start tomorrow?’” He has been a writer on O’Brien’s staff ever since. As a child, Kiley idolized the fictional comedy writer Rob Petrie on The Dick van Dyke Show. At 16, the future English major began scripting jokes. But it wasn’t until Kiley was a junior at BC and saw political satirist Barry Crimmins live at O’Connell House that he considered performing. “I talked to Crimmins afterwards,” Kiley recalls. “He said that in Boston, you couldn’t really make any money writing comedy; you had to go onstage.”

Soon after, Kiley went onstage at the club where Crimmins worked, the now-defunct Ding Ho in Cambridge, and eventually he was manning microphones once or twice a week in the Boston area. This was back in the early 1980s—before cable shows like Comic Strip Live and Evening at the Improv allowed people to see stand-up without leaving their couches.

It was also a time when a fresh-faced kid like Kiley could earn a living solely from stand-up gigs—a feat he managed to accomplish by the time he was 24. “It wasn’t a huge living, but I paid my rent without asking my dad. So that was a moral victory. I lucked out in the sense that the comedy boom had just started. I did the clubs for years, and then I traveled around the country.”

Since then, Kiley has opened for Jerry Seinfeld, garnered Emmy nominations for his work on Late Night (“We don’t win—but at least we get to go”), and had his caricatured likeness appear as a guest on the animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.

Gary Gulman: “You can’t go back”

Gary Gulman ’93 is a stand-up comedian living in Los Angeles. His onstage alter ego is a callow, Jewish twentysomething still paying rent to his folks—a premise rooted in truth for the Peabody, Massachusetts, native. “I lived at home until I moved [to L.A.] when I was 25 or 26,” he says. “It was a miserable existence.”

Compounding that misery was Gulman’s day job as an accountant, a dull, number-crunching position that became intolerable once the lanky former Eagles tight end first got onstage during an open-mic night at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston. “Comedy is a drug. When you get up there and get a positive response from the audience, you can’t go back to accounting. You certainly don’t get that kind of laughter in the auditing room.”

Gulman worked at stand-up for six years before landing his first of two appearances on The Tonight Show. (He’s also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman). “You think that when you do The Tonight Show,” he says, “the next day, everybody you ever knew is going to call you and tell you how great you were or tell you how sorry they are for breaking up with you. You think teachers will call and apologize for giving you bad grades and you’ll get offers to be in movies. Instead, you get a call from your mom, who’s like, ‘You should’ve worn a tie.’”

With several fruitless sitcom-development deals behind him, Gulman’s love for comedy hasn’t faded. He takes acting classes three nights a week and performs at L.A. clubs between two and four nights a week, all in the hopes that he’ll someday sculpt a career similar to that of Mad About You star Paul Reiser. “The only thing you can really control,” he says, “in a business that’s so out of control is how much you believe in yourself. Persistence is essential.”

Greg Johnson: “Me being goofy”

“My act is this totally lame, stupid thing. It’s me being goofy, me making fun of myself, me dancing around stage,” says Greg Johnson ’03. This past May, Johnson finished in the top seven among 140 competitors at the third annual Boston Comedy Festival—a ranking that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Johnson doesn’t own a comic’s business card or proper publicity stills. “During the festival, a lot of people were like, ‘Hey, can I get your number? Do you have a card?’ I didn’t have any, so I’d scribble my number on a bar napkin.”

High school ennui first spurred Johnson’s entrance into stand-up. “I don’t like to talk about this—it’s a pretty embarrassing way to get into comedy—but I took a class at the Boston Center for Adult Education. I was having a boring summer, and my mother thought it would be a good idea. At the end of the course, they let me do a show at the Comedy Studio.”

Although Johnson has leapt headfirst into the stand-up spotlight, he’s still a college student at heart—and in syntax. Recounting a show he self-produced at BC, he says, “So I did a lot of stupid, ‘What’s the deal with Doug Flutie?’ [one-liners]. Everyone’s like, ‘That’s so funny. Doug Flutie, totally.’ So then I’m like, ‘Yeah, what’s with all the athletes here?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah!’ They thought I was hilarious. Totally. I don’t know why.”

As for the future, Johnson is wisely keeping his options open. “Comedy seems to be something I’m talented at, but I don’t know where I’m going with it.

“In some ways, I wish I were, like, talented at accounting.” Really? “No, wait a minute. I didn’t mean that.”

Camille Dodero

Camille Dodero is a freelance writer based in Boston. Her article on Fox TV's Boston Public, "School for Scandal," appeared in BCM's Winter 2002 issue.

Photo: McLaughlin records his thoughts on a NYC subway platform. "If you're not enjoying the process, you're wasting your life."

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