Amid Tears, the Hope of Laughter

By Doug Hecox
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 11, 2006

There is an old show business saying that comedy is just tragedy plus time, which I've always thought was odd. Tragedy often is when comedy is needed most.

I've been a comedian for more than a decade, since my humble beginnings at the now-defunct Annapolis Comedy Club, and know that being a comic isn't always a laugh a minute. Comedians have their share of professional challenges; the "tough room" is among the biggest. From unruly audiences to inadequate sound systems, any number of things can make it hard to win over a crowd.

At 8 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2001, I faced the toughest of tough rooms. I followed a terrorist attack.

When the lights went up at DC Improv that Friday night, I parted the curtain, walked onstage and faced a sea of roughly 35 people.

Considering all that had happened that week, we were lucky anyone at all was there, but it didn't change the fact that this was a small crowd. Making a thousand people laugh is easy, but it is real work making three dozen laugh -- particularly in so spacious a room and at such a sorrowful time.

Months earlier, I had been booked to work for a week at the club with national headliner Wendy Liebman. I eagerly counted down the days to our first show. It was to be on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Twelve hours before show time, the planes crashed, the twin towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned. There is nothing I can say about that day that hasn't already been said a thousand times before and more poignantly. We were a nation under attack, unsure of why or of when and where the terrorists would strike next.

As a precaution, all commercial air traffic was stopped. The only thing on television was news -- round-the-clock and commercial-free. With people staying home for safety's sake and many streets in the capital barricaded, many Washington bars and restaurants were dark.

That Friday, DC Improv managers John Xereas and John Johnson decided to open the club's doors. It was a risky move, so instead of the usual two shows, they opted for one. Only three days after the attacks, it was unclear whether anyone was ready to laugh again. The room either would be empty or it would be packed with people needing relief from the continuous news and the acute anxiety.

For comedians, a Friday early show is one of the best shows of the week. The crowd typically fills the room to capacity, having already had a couple of after-work drinks, and is ready to start the weekend with a few laughs. In this respect, Washington's first comedy show after 9/11 had everything going for it -- except for the nearly empty room staring back at me and those 35 people waiting to be entertained.

My nerves were shot because a lot rides on the opening act. A bad start can taint an entire show, and this was one evening that deserved to be great. When I pulled the microphone out of its stand, I thanked the people for coming and said I hoped they would have a good time because that's what the terrorists don't want us to have.

The crowd applauded patriotically, so I went on. Unsure of how they would react to edgy material, I stayed with my tamer stuff.

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