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LAUGHS ON LONG ISLAND
By TOM SOTER
for LONG ISLAND VOICE
Kevin James, sandy-haired and stocky, is dressed in black and has the energy of a dynamo. "You know what irritates me?" he says to an audience of mostly young people. "I was on the phone with someone today trying to get a phone number and write it down, but they didn't have phone number rhythm. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Phone number rhythm. Especially where there's an area code involved." He pounds out the rhythm on his microphone: "BAAM BAAM BA." A pause. "BAAM BAAM BA BAAM." Another pause. "BAAM BAAM. That's the rhythm that we're all familiar with.
"I say, 'Okay, Hank, give me the number. He says, 'Okay, it's 2129.'" He pauses. "'1581120.'" He pauses "'9.'" James explodes in anger. "'What are you throwing me a zip code? There are two many numbers!' They screw you up with the last four. That's where they get you." He imitates someone giving out a phone number: "'782 - 6 - teen 41.'" He screams in manic fury. "'I ALREADY WROTE THE SIX! I made the dash too close, I can't shimmy the one in there!'"
The audience at McGuire's Comedy Club in Bohemia goes wild with laughter. But James is soon off on another bit, spitting out his words with good-natured venom that often makes him the hapless lead character in his stories of woe, the ironic butt of his own wry and wacky jokes.
Kevin James, 32, is hot. He's just shot a pilot for NBC (his second), he was a standout at the Montreal Comedy Festival a couple of years ago, and is now busy almost 52 weeks a year at comedy clubs through the country. Yet like a comedic salmon, he always returns to his spawning ground: the Long Island club circuit. "I love it here," he says. "This is where I started."
Long Island is a breeding ground for comedy. It is the creative (and sometimes actual) birthplace of some of the biggest stars in the comedy world: Jerry Seinfeld is a Massapequa boy, Rosie O'Donnell comes from Commack, and Eddie Murphy hails from Roosevelt. And all of them honed their comic personalities in the Long Island club circuit. And it's no wonder. The Long Island comedy club scene is as versatile as the comics who perform it, offering a range of material and a host of opportunities.
There are off-color, absurdist gags. "They didn't tell us everything in sex education class," Lenny Horowitz, a young comic who looks like Murray the Cop on The Odd Couple, complains one night at McGuire's. "They tell you that the penis enters the vagina - maybe on a good night - but what about all that other stuff? You know, like, the penis enters the flower shop. The penis buys the chocolates. There's a whole process. They told us where it goes, but they didn't tell us how to get it there."
There are puns on names. "My name is John Priest," says a young, thin, clean-cut man appearing at Governor's Comedy Cabaret and Restaurant in Levittown. "It's kind of a strange name, considering I'm Jewish. I think I'm the only Jewish Priest. Imagine if I had gotten serious about the religion and gone rabbinical and I'm paged in a restaurant, 'Rabbi Priest, you have a phone call. Schlmo Christianson.'"
Naturally, there are digs against wives. "I'm married," explains Buddy Fitzpatrick, a thin, rubber-faced comic appearing at The Brokerage Comedy Club in Bellmore. "Let me share this, from the guy's point of view. Do you love him the way he is?" he says to a woman in the audience who has revealed she is about to be married. "Yes? Well, remember that five years from now. He doesn't know this yet, but he's about to change. When you get married," he observes, indicating himself, "you have to change. And she doesn't. There's one reason my wife and I argue. I do something wrong." He repeats it, with an emphasis on the personal pronoun: "There's one reason my wife and I argue. I do something wrong."
Some comics are not overly subtle. Cigarette-smoking Joe Moffa at Governor's offers a deadpan view of wedded bliss: "I'm gettin' divorced after 12 years of marriage. That sucks. I should have killed my wife the first day I met her. I'd be out of prison already. That's what I think about marriage."
Such comedy may be universal, but Long Island both onstage and off is an unusual scene. Onstage, comedians get from 15 to 45 minutes of performing time, a great deal by most club standards. Because of that, Rich Brooks, a comic for only ten months, often finds himself commuting to Long Island from his home in Manhattan. "In the city, I'm fighting for a five-minute spot," he explains. "But at McGuire's, I get 15- to 20-minute spots in front of a large crowd. And I get paid."
"There are thousands of comics in Manhattan who have moved from Cincinnati and Florida and all around," observes Rock Reuben, a veteran Long Island-born and bred comic. "In Long Island, you have 20, 30 comics as opposed to 1,000 in the city. To get on stage in New York, people wait in lines around the block. Here, it's a little easier to get on stage. And if you can't get on stage you really can't develop."
"Development" is a common theme among the island's comics. If they have more time, they have more opportunity to work the room, entertaining their customers while developing material from the absurdities they find in their audience. Stand-up Joe Lazer, dry and sophisticated, found the give-and-take useful one Thursday night at Governor's when the audience wasn't terribly enthusiastic about his prepared gags.
"How many smokers we have here?" he asks. "Anybody quit recently? You did. How long did you quit for?"
A young blonde woman, chewing gum while holding a foot-long cigarette, replies with a nervous smile: "Two weeks."
"How'd you do it?" asks Lazer.
"I just didn't buy any."
The comic looks startled. "Ah-ha," he says finally, to the biggest burst of laughter he's received so far. "Why didn't I think of that?" He goes into a mock question-and-answer session with himself: "'How'd you kick the heroin habit?' 'Oh, I just didn't buy any. I got more money now. I quit buying.'" The audience is hysterical and Lazer, too, has picked up energy, feeding off their enthusiasm.
"Sometimes you can get a whole 10-minute thing out of an audience member's response, which for me is fun because it's not repeating my act," Reuben explains. Adds James: "It's exciting. It's live and anything can happen. And sometimes it does."
Although the audience can't tell, there is also less professional pressure in the island venues. "Agents don't come out here," says John Ryerson, the owner of McGuire's. "So the comics can start developing longer material without industry pressure." Adds Reuben: "You can grow. You can suck and not have to worry about it, where in the city somebody could see you learning how to do the business and categorize you as a shitty comic and not want to see you after that."
The comedy clubs themselves are as different as the comics that perform in them. Governor's, adorned with 3- by 4-foot pictures of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, and local comedians Bob Woods and Bob Nelson, is widely considered one of the top clubs, with out-of-town headliners performing there on Saturday nights and locals in on other nights. The Brokerage, in business 16 years, features local and national talent, as well. And then there's McGuire's, the quirkiest of the lot, low-key and informal, more like an upscale cafeteria than a club. Reuben is amusingly vicious about it as he takes the stage on one Saturday night.
"I hope you all found the club easily," he says. "I know when I first came it was a little hard to find. They give you the clear directions, 'We're located right behind Appleby's Dumpster.' I found it. I just followed the trail of rat shit to the club and you just know, 'I have no career. I'm in Bohemia again.'"
There is a blue curtain behind the stage; taped on it is a sign made out of five pieces of 8 1/2- by 11-inch pieces of paper taped together. On it, in computer type, are the words "McGuire's Restaurant and Comedy Bar." (By contrast, Governor's and The Brokerage have hand-painted wooden signs with fancy logos.)
"This is one of my favorite clubs," continues Reuben. "I love coming back because of the attention to detail of John, the owner. He goes the extra mile. A lot of the owners are cheap bastards. Not John. He'll take some of the [profits] to reinvest in the club. Because shit like this," he indicates the sign, "has a price tag. Look, from the back you can't see - that's one, two, three, four, five pages that he had to print out and I'm sure there were two or three other pages that he printed up and got fucked up and he had to throw them away. But he's willing to go the extra mile. And he got the crazy fonts and graphics. And color! If you have a computer at home, you know hoe expensive the color cartridge can be. He doesn't give a shit. He said, 'Fuck it, they deserve it.'"
Comedy became hot on Long Island in the 1980s, when clubs were springing up all over the country. But now times are getting tighter and competition stiffer. "Business has leveled off," reports Andrea Levy, a talent coordinator for Global Entertainment Network East in Huntington, who is the exclusive booking agent for Governor's. "A lot of the clubs I book for around the country are complaining that business is down. We are giving out more comps [complimentary tickets], and making less money at door. Clubs are hiring telemarketers. We're trying to get people through the doors, and that's why we book big-name acts. They get publicity. You just don't get the turnover of people you used to. They can see it on TV. Stand-up has been overexposed."
With night spots looking for comics, the talent wars can become intense. Levy says that she requires an exclusive: if a comic is playing Governor's, he or she cannot play in competing Long Island clubs in the month before or the month after the appearance. She is strict about it, too, saying she has refused to book a comic for year and half now who wouldn't agree to those terms. Comics can get paid anywhere from $25 to $5,000, depending on the club and their reputation.
Times may be tough for industry, but they can be tougher for the comics if they don't know their customers. Stand-ups agree that audiences on the island are a special breed. "A lot of the comics who work just Long Island, do a Long Island-type of humor," says James, "then they go into the city and just eat it. Everything has got its own feel, and you've got to get your legs in each city, feel what it's like and see what hits home with them. And they let you know quick enough."
Adds Reuben: "It's not a general rule, but the guys who started out in the city tend to be more cerebral, lower energy, and a little bit more edgy. Long Island types tend to be a little bit more crotch-gas-bodily function [comedians]. They are louder, have more energy. It's power comedy. It's what people out here expect and it's what people in the city expect, so when you get the crossover, a loud guy doing fart jokes, that doesn't play well on the Upper East Side, and the cerebral guy talking about Dole and Gingrich doesn't play in Bohemia."
Long Islanders seem to love anything to do with their native habitat. "The L.I.E. sucks," says Buddy Fitzpatrick to roars from the audience at The Brokerage one Saturday night. "What's wrong with that road? Constant construction, constantly merging you in three lanes, merge to two lanes, merge to one lane. It dissolved to nothingness at one point and I appeared on the other side, like Star Trek."
"I grew up in Long Island," confesses Jeff Rogell, also at the Brokerage. "I'm Jewish and I didn't understand why we didn't celebrate Christmas. I wrote a letter: 'Dear Santa, I know you won't give me any toys because I'm a Jew. Your apparent lack of compassion towards the Jewish community is only a reflection of a racist policy of non-recognition towards the state of Israel. I hope you get clipped by a DC-10, you fat Nazi bastard.'"
Island audiences also seem to like people who point out the peculiarities of their neighborhoods. Kathy Walker, a heavy-set, young black woman, bounds onto the stage at The Brokerage, with good-natured energy. "Long island!" she cries. "The big L. I'm so excited about being here. My agent said, 'Kathy girl, you gonna love Long Island. It's gonna be a blast. So many black folk out there.'" The audience whoops with laughter. Then Walker notices a black woman. "Oh, hi! Are you black or just an Italian with a tan?"
"Where you from?" Rogell asks, at The Brokerage on the same night. "Queens. Uh-huh. I took a course in Italian martial arts. It's a lot like karate. Except there are two guys holding your opponent down." He acts it out with a Queens accent: "Alright, class, repeat after me, 'You fuckin' douche bag.'"
The chains of marriage, the oddities of foreigners (from cab drivers to neighbors), and the absurdities of mall life, shopping, and eating all seem to be staples of "island humor."
"Tonight, I had a pizza," James tells the crowd at McGuire's. "Ain't pizza great? You know what sucks, though, is to have it with other people. That's way too much pressure, especially when those slices get lower and lower, you gotta look around the room, do that pizza math." He lowers his voice, acting out his inner monologue, a tense moment when he is petrified by fear: "Alright, HE already had two slices. Hey! Maureen - what the FUCK is she doing? Setting the record for women? Slow it down! Finish the crust! That doesn't count! NO GOOD! NOOO!"
Long Island comedy is wild, crazy, and everyone agrees, is here to stay. "One of the greatest things about comedy is that everybody can be an expert," notes Gary Smith, the owner of The Brokerage. "Everybody knows what they like and 99 times out of 100, they leave satisfied. If you have enough variety, you can have a great show. I love this business because anything goes. Comedy is universal."