BY CAMILLE DODERO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEE PELLEGRINI
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
|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
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
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 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."