Rich Shydner is on. Tall, blond, he grabs the microphone and launches into his routine: "Television commercials are really something. I love the one with the Navy recruiter."
He turns his back briefly and whirls around, hunddled over the microphone.
"BEEP... BEEP... BEEP... You're 18 -- You're on a sophisticated destroyer -- your job -- to fire a live missile on a practice target -- Pshoo!! -- You miss it -- it flies off course and destroys Philadelphia -- but, hey -- so what -- it was fun -- the Navy -- not just a job -- an adventure...."
It's open mike night at Washington's newest comedy club, The Laughing Stock, and Shydner is getting some laughs.
He is a veteran of El Brookman's, more a working class bar in Anacostia than a comedy club. But until the Laughing Stock it was the only place in Washington that featured comedy. Brookman's is the sort of place where a comic vies with the liquor for attention from the audience.
The Laughing Stock is different, says its owner and creator, Sandy Kalenik, a writer. The club, which operates out of Garvin's Grill on Connecticut Avenue, is trying to make its mark among the comedy showcases, mostly in New York, where rising young comedians can practice and where young established comedians can try out new material. Fridays and Saturdays there are featured comics from New York at two shows, 9 p.m. and midnight, with a $3 cover charge. Thursday is amateur night when anyone can play stand-up comic for a generous yet mercifully brief five minutes.
"We don't want it to be too terribly embarrassing to them," said Kalenik, who hunts up young comics in New York for the weekend shows. (The Thursday cover charge for the show, which starts at 9 p.m., is a reasonable buck.)
But embarrassing or not this kind of place is important for a comic. A comic needs a place to work, often for free, to see if he's funny, to see how to get funnier. David Sayh, one of the Laughing Stock's two featured comics when it opened two weeks ago, was once an engineer who wanted to be a comic.
He started learning how to be a comic at New York's Catch a Rising Star. The first time he did a routine there, he bombed horrendously. The second time, he got one laugh. He went back a third time and got a few more laughs. He kept going back and eventually he got a lot of laughs. On one of those nights after he had gotten better, Johnny Carson, who was in the audience, went up to Sayh and told him he was funny. Then Carson winked (he actually winked, said Sayh) and said he would be seeing him later. A few weeks later, Sayh was booked on the show. He's now been on six times.
Sayh is the straight Carson-type comic, talking about the neighborhood he grew up in (in New York of course), television commercials, school....
"I love those late night commercials... 'Do you have a drinking problem? Call 741-1776'... that's Al's Liquors...
"Remember biology? You had to dissect a frog? But first you had to give it a little local anesthesia? A nail through the head?....
"Have you noticed on the highway some speed limit signs say 'minimum speed -- 40'? I've never seen seen a cop stop a guy for going under the speed limit...."
Sayh mimics the sound of a siren into the mike.....
"A little slow, pal... where you goin'? The dentist?... I'll let you go this time but next time you go by I wanna see you burning rubber...."
On the first open mike night at The Laughing Stock a week ago, the comics paraded up, one after another to the raised platform of the lounge at Garvin's -- red-carpeted with poinsettia plants in the back, surrounded by tables on either side of the long rectangular room. It was a bit tunnel-like, but cozy -- clubby.
There were 10 comics and two music acts. They were young, male, black, white and sometimes quite funny.
Two magicians, both in their early 20s, were looking more like the Hardy Boys in their suits, fresh faces and fluffy haircuts.
"I know magicians who come out and do a trick and you say 'ooh, aah,'" says professional magician David Willis. "I'd rather do something and have people say 'hee, hee.' Maybe you fool people, but big deal, I'd rather they laugh."
Willis is the first comic to go on, says the emcee, "because in 20 minutes he has to perform at the Embassy of Malaysia." It brings laughs from the audience."No, that's true. I do have to go there," says Willis later.
He does a few straight jokes and goes into magic acts with scarves and canes. He produces a piece of string. "And now," he says ceremoniously, "is there a beautiful young woman here who would like to be tied up? If so, please see me after the show...."
There was a young black placement officer from George Mason named Andy Evans who said his job is to recruit minorities -- "blacks, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and others -- it's the others that always get me confused." He looked around the room, smiling.
"You'll notice there aren't many blacks here. We don't come out on cold nights. You ain't seen no winter riots, have you? How many blacks have you seen in the Winter Olympics?"
Ron Zimmerman, the cheese man at Larimer's, was there, for his five minutes, complete with his own audience -- co-workers, friends, his brother, his mother, his father. They guffaw just at the sight of him forlornly grinning in front of the mike. "Hi!" he said. "Is there anyone here my father has not paid off to laugh?"
Larry Seymour concentrates on politicians and celebrities in the news.
"Dolly Parton just made sports history... She ran the 100-yard dash and her T-shirt made it in first...."
Seymour, 30, a free-lance writer, watched from the back of the room after his own five minutes were up. He had his jacket on and was ready to dash over to Brookman's for the newly formed open mike night there. "I look at this and El Brookman's as a breakthrough," he said, "a part of the evolving sophistication of Washington."
Seymour has made a couple of attempts at the New York showcase circuit. He went to Catch a Rising Star. "You get there at noon and they pass out 20 numbers. First time I went there, I pulled 18. I didn't get on 'til 2 a.m. The men were cleaning up and there were two guys sitting there drunk and asleep. But, I thought to myself, I drove 240 miles to be here and I'm going through with it."
Washington needs a place where people can practice being funny, the comics wandering around the Laughing Stock kept saying. Just be cautious. This is not New York. This also is said over and over again. Easy on the Nelson Rockefeller jokes, the Jim Jones and Kool-aid jokes, the rough language. They're not sure if the three-piece pinstripe set can take it. After all, these people are used to Mark Russell, Washington's popular political humorist.They're used to politics.
But on the first open mike night, the mostly young audience was downright encouraging -- at least for the first two hours. They were up for this. When a comic had a bad run, people laughed a little anyway. When he finally came up with a good one, they laughed loud, as if to say "much better!"
The audiences were also receptive for David Sayh and Richard Belzer, the featured comics for the first weekend.
Belzer was more offbeat than Sayh. Tall, thin, with a gaunt Mick Jagger look, he constantly raked his hand through his long dark-brown hair, spitting out cracks and jokes spasmodically, gagging with the audience, occasionally breaking into song lyrics....
"Ceilings... nothing more than ceilings..."
The audience booed a little.
Belzer leaned back, putting his hands up defensively.
"Okay, okay, it was going fine for a while -- you tell me a joke...."
"I was here the first Friday and Saturday night just listening," said T. P. Mulrooney, 26, a former reporter for the Annapolis Evening Capitol, now doing comedy. He emceed The Laughing Stock's first open mike night and regularly emcees at El Brookman's. "I was pretty jealous of the crowd here. The people sat and listened . They hung on to every word. We usually don't have that luxury at Brookman's. "It's a little more raucous."
Bill Masters, who also works Brookman's and who came to the open mike night at The Laughing Stock, said the audience was so attentive it almost threw his timing off. He was used to yelling to get people's attention.
"The one thing missing in this city is a place where you can go and laugh," said Jim Elliott, morning dise jockey on WPGC, after listening to the Laughing Stock's first Saturday night offering. "And this city needs lots of laughs."