MAYBE YOU HEARD how the Connecticut Avenue quarters of what was probably Washington's best- known comedy club, Garvin's Laugh Inn, were closed forever last year by that linchpin of modern-day whimsy -- the Internal Revenue Service.
"Apparently," as one Washington comic puts it, "the IRS didn't . . . get it."
Well, of course we know the IRS got something, eventually. And we did too, didn't we? Like perhaps the impression that comedy in Washington is a funny business.
Not always ha-ha funny. But a funny business.
And a scrappy business: You probably heard also that Garvin's is back, that it's been reincarnated, in a more subdued form -- and the same goes, by the way, for owner-impresario Harry Monocrusos -- at the Georgetown Holiday Inn every Friday and Saturday. "The best possible location for comedy in Washington," as Monocrusos says now and then on his answering machine. Convenient to shops, restaurants, parking, tax consultants.
Meanwhile, it is no joke that the Comedy Cafe, as you may also know, finally seems to be doing the kind of steady, growing business that certainly didn't seem possible four years ago. That was when owner Dan Harris opened the room just up the stairs from his upscale K Street topless club as an experimental haven for mostly local, inexpensive comedy. And nobody came.
Back in the early days, in fact, one Cafe customer left a note on a napkin; today it's tacked to the wall behind Harris' desk. It says: "The worst comedy show I've seen in my born days." Harris didn't smile then; he does now. He has even been rumored to laugh during a show nowadays.
It could be because Jay Leno has now played the Comedy Cafe twice. And Yakov Smirnoff will be back next month. Or because by sometime next year, God and permit-issuers willing, Harris' 120-set room will be moved up one floor of the building he owns, and enlarged to about twice its size. With carpeting and everything.
Which, incidentally, doesn't do well in Washington. You knew that.
It is true, however, that back when the original Garvin's opened as a comedy club in 1978 with such out-of-town acts as Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo (this was before "Saturday Night Live" made them What They Are Today) and Richard Belzer, it was among the first full-time comedy clubs in the country outside New York and Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, Washington still never became known across the nation for its laughs -- unless you count the unintentional funny business that leaks ever so often out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or some other nearby tax-supported edifice. But you can't count that, because those cutups do that stuff for free.
For some reason, in any case, this town -- with its stay-at- home, spread-out, success-bent population and overdone Seriousness Factor -- has remained rough on people who are funny on purpose, for a living. Sometimes, they'll rise above the roughness -- in which case they shine. And then inevitably leave -- like our own Mark Russell, nowadays L.A.'s own Mark Russell, or comic Ritch Shydner, now a two-time Carson veteran living in New York (but booked, incidentally, at Garvin's this weekend).
In surprising numbers, though, Washington's comedic population sticks around. Even though, as a lot of local comics will tell you, both Garvin's and the Comedy Cafe are inordinately worshipful of the words "From New York" or "From L.A." or "From Anyplace But Washington" following the names of their weekend headliners. Local acts don't headline here. They emcee. They "middle" (meaning they go on between the emcee and the headliner).
And boy, do they complain. They whine, they sulk, they nag. It's enough to drive you crazy.
When they aren't complaining, though, a dozen very good comics living in this area also spend a good part of every weekend driving three hours or more to a paying microphone. This is enough to drive them crazy.
The problem is, Washington has no real comedy scene. Who's going to discover you in a Washington club and make you famous? David Stockman?
Plus, comedians -- everywhere, not just here -- are essentially not into networking. They're not known as party animals, unless the party's for them.
"A friend of mine once told me the basic difference between comedians and musicians," says comedian-musician Chip Franklin, who spends part of the year in Falls Church and the rest in his car, driving to gigs at colleges and clubs. "The difference is: Musicians need each other."
The comedy scene in Washington, perhaps much like the Human Community itself around here, is . . . well, diffuse. So until someone organizes a comedy strike (which is not real likely), or until somebody with courage (translation: money to lose) opens a brave new be-all, end-all comedy lounge (and I hope they don't call it that), you're just going to have to do some risk-taking of your own.
There's probably something around to fit your particular form of funny bone. For instance, if you never miss the news at 7, say, you'll probably like the headline-based song-and-dance satire of the Capitol Steps. Or if you never miss "Green Acres," seek out an off-the-wall duo called the Video Pirates. Or if you want to be a more interesting person on Monday, have dinner Saturday at a place where they serve stand-up comedians with the coffee.
Take chances. Parallel park. Miss a movie or two at the K-B Octaquadraplex, what the heck.
I know just the place where you can start. THE K STREET SHUFFLE
Twenty-five comics in 31/2 hours. The amateurs get five minutes, the pros get 10. The emcee gets $25. Plus control of the egg timer -- and, if he's nimble and lucky, the audience.
To you, this is open-mike night at the Comedy Cafe -- a regular Thursday night gig. To the pros who comprise about half the night's stage presence -- all of which is unpaid -- it is usually either a tryout of something new, a workout of something old, or a zoo. Matter of fact, it's usually a zoo either way. To the amateurs, a few of them giddy first-timers and some of them inexplicably calm regulars whom no one seems to have told to try a career in data processing, open-mike night usually amounts to reality therapy.
In general, the earlier you get on, the better.
"Okay, lemme have your attention please, this is not part of the show," says Kevin Lee, who is from Washington and has just juggled a machete, a hatchet and a meat cleaver. This is his first time as open-mike emcee at the Cafe. He reads a tag number from a scrap of paper -- for the owner of a brown Volvo which is apparently blocking a guy who's standing, arms folded, at the door.
"This your Volvo, anybody?" Lee asks. Silence. This isn't really the Volvo crowd here (historically, Volvos gravitate to Garvin's). The guy at the door is big; his patience isn't. "Okay," he yells in Lee's direction, "if it turns out to be somebody's car in here, you tell them I'll be waiting for them. Outside." He stalks down the stairs.
Lee glances from the stairs to the audience, and back again. "All right," he says, raising an arm toward the door, "that was a word from Rambo -- thank you, Mr. Rambo. Give him a big hand."
The big hand that follows the big laugh helps Lee through his next between-comics juggling act, which involves an egg, an apple and a Twinkie. He eats the apple.
And it helps the next guy up -- a young, Steve Wright-ish act named Kenny Raymond, who delivers some really funny lines in a borderline mental-case monotone:
"I really didn't like high school too much," he says, clinging to the mike stand with both hands, expressionless. "I just used to go because that's where my locker was."
Jeff Black, a D.C. comic who recently won Showtime's "Funniest Person in Washington" award and who also just moved to New York, doesn't need the help. His impressions are good enough, particularly his Johnny Carson, his Rodney Dangerfield, his Joan Rivers, his Rod Serling (doing "Hotel California," as in: 'You can check out anytime you want / But you can never leave"). Between these he tosses in quick, non-sequitur transitions: "You know the person that calls you up at home, at work, doesn't say anything, hangs up?" A pause. "That's me."
Gregory H. Poole doesn't need the help either. Poole is a full-time comic who lives in Silver Spring with his wife and two children. He went to New York for a while last year -- and while there was able to headline in his hometown because then he was "from N.Y." He's back now; he still could be headlining here.
"Used to work at a ticket phone-charge office," says Poole, who is tall and thin and has a few facial expressions that work better than some comics' best lines. "Yeah, I love the questns people used to ask, boy. Like, 'Can you tell me, what time . . . does the midnight show . . . start?' Or, 'Is that concert at 8 p.m. or a.m.?' Yes, of course, sir -- they'll be serving breakfast just after the show at McDonald's."
The typical open-mike crowd here is similar to the mix on stage: Young, black, white, glad to be here. After all, the cover's $2.49 and there's no minimum -- though worrying about drink minimums isn't exactly the problem here. The crowd greets a bad joke with silence early in the evening. By 11:30, it is willing to talk about it.
This shakes up a few comics -- including one pro who drove down tonight from Pittsburgh. It doesn't shake up Ron Moranian -- but this veteran D.C. comic, who recently returned to Washington after several years abroad and in Los Angeles (where he was president of Southern California's first comics union), tonight wants to try some subtle, low-key stuff. The audience, anesthesized by a few too many earlier acts who sought refuge in crotch-grabbin and audience-assault stuff, doesn't respond. "This is weird, I've never played to a painting before," Moranian says; he gets off stage well before the egg timer commands.
One of the last acts to get up on stage has been standing in the back alone through most of this, quietly eyeing things. If you catch his eye on the way to the rest room, he smiles. When a busboy leaves the door of a noisy kitchen open, he leans over and closes it gently.
When he gets on stage, Andy Evans -- a 40-year-old counselor at George Mason University who emceed the first-ever comedy show at Garvin's in 1978 and nowadays does clubs, colleges and private functions whenever possible -- does something he calls "eating the mike."
He arrives at about 10 decibels over the previous act. He plucks the mike off the stand, puts the stand against the wall while he's talking, and goes into a quick, physical bit about picking up a hitchhiker on the way over. It works. And he now has control -- which was the idea.
This night, Evans doesn't perform anything he couldn't also do for a high school audience (which he does frequently, in fact, as counselor, comic or both). But the crowd even responds well to an old bit, wherein E.T. shows up on Georgia Avenue. (Evans puts the shades on, pretends to be talking to a brother and stops, turning his head in slow amazement as E.T. passes by. A pause. The shades come off. "Is that Earl? Earl, come over here, you look awful . . .") By the time Evans asks a woman near the stage if she's from "the islands" -- a prelude to some stuff he does on visiting Jamaica -- it doesn't matter that she says no, she's from Chicago. Should the crowd like you, she could say she was from Venus. It wouldn't matter. LIFE IN THE MIDDLE LANE
So the best a Washington comic can do in Washington, for now, is "middle." And though it isn't a bad layover, this city is not many funny people's idea of Destination Comedy. Hence, every Washington comic makes a decision at some point. Sometimes by not making one. It is:
Stay -- or go?
Evans, for one, says he'll be staying for a while.
"I thought for a while that I should take my act to New York," he says. "But D.C. is all right. I think it's a good place to develop, to work at it. And I think I would rather stay here than go to New York, and be No. 106 or something. You know, there are 10,000 comics in New York -- though you don't know but fifty of them."
"Washington has such potential," says Dan Brenner, one of a handful of local comics who go back to the mid-'70s days of El Brookman's, Washington's first comedy club. "Things just seem to go wrong more often."
Brenner may have been thinking about local promoter Jeff Penn's recent stab at gathering a few talented area comics -- Brenner, Jay Keating, Bill King, Tony Perkins, Bob Somerby, Jim Tam, Roger Mursick -- into a loose-knit improvisational troupe called the Washington Suburban Insanity Commission. The WSIC did a couple of shows at Charlie's, and was booked for a two-month summer experiment in the back room.
And boom: Charlie's announces it's closing at the end of June. Penn says the WSIC will endure (although the name should definitely be reconsidered). And meanwhile Dan Brenner is still a full-time FCC attorney. One of their funniest.
One thing Washington isn't, of course, is New York. Another is Los Angeles. And if a comic decides to leave D.C., this is the next decision: Am I ready for the New York/L.A. trip, which is made with big-time exposure in mind? Or do I go to a city like Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia -- all of which aren't big on exposure but support live nightly comedy the way Washington supports, say, Muzak, or bad downtown lunch counters that close at 3.
Jeff Black decided on New York.
"Up there," says Black, back in town last week to do Arch Campbell's new show (which I'll get to), "it's just a lot more fulfilling. You get to work out two three times a night, every night -- at Catch a Rising Star, the Improv, the Comedy Store, lots of little places. And you get the exposure -- a chance for auditions for 'Star Search,' the Letterman show. Washington has the potential to be a really good place for comedy, but it's nothing compared to New York. That's why any serious comic has to eventually move."
D.C.'s Sam Greenfield recently moved to Boston -- to work, he says, instead of play -- play, that is, the kind of cat-and- mouse games that Harris and Monocrusos are known to play among the comic population. "It's so nice to be able to work in one club early one night, and go to another and work there later," Greenfield says.
Meanwhile, there are those funny people we started out speaking of -- those who stay in Washington, who play the game, who either have full-time day jobs or travel often for mike time.
Oh yeah -- and who are funny. Almost forgot that.
Hey, Bill King is funny. He lives in Gaithersburg. Works in department-store security most days. He'll be at the Comedy Cafe the weekend of June 28 -- as a comic -- and he'll probably talk a little about those special times he's spent down at the Motor Vehicle Division. "You know the parking lot there, where they give the driving tests? I look out the window, and they have this girl driving backwards through orange traffic cones." He nods, holding back a grin. "Now, here's a situation I'm coming across almost daily."
Now, the bad news: King will be booking the acts for a new comedy club opening in Crystal City soon (we'll get to that in a moment). So he won't be at the Comedy Cafe for some time again after the 28th. He's competition now, Harris says.
The game, as it were.
If you checked, in any case, you would probably find most of Washington's better-known comics on the road this weekend. Greg Poole might be -- partly because when he isn't, he says, "I sit around the house and start asking my wife, 'Hi, what's your name, honey -- where you from?"
Roger Mursick, for a change, will be in town this weekend -- opening at Garvin's for Ritch Shydner. And Lord knows where you will find Tam, Keating, Franklin, Ed Wilsinski, Sylvia Traymore, William Stephenson, Fat Doctor, Norman Chad, the Pheromones, Tony Perkins.
Perkins is an interesting case. At 25 and fast-developing, Perkins was almost ready to move to New York a few months ago. He was kept in town, fortunately (for us audiences, anyway), by WKYS-FM program director Donnie Simpson, who hired him last month as his producer.
This little development helps explains the commercial you may have heard the other morning during Simpson's show for the Prince Shopping Mall on Branch Avenue in Paisley Park. Home of The When Doves Cry Pet Store, and Raspberry Beret clothing.
There are a couple of other local comedy developments you should know about. YUK NEWS
Before we get to some new stuff on the Washington comedy scene, such as it is, I should briefly mention the special Weekend Section Emergency Comedy Guide on Page 9. Consider clipping it out and putting it in a safe, appropriate place -- the drawer where you keep your Maryland savings and loan passbook, for example. Or in the breakfast nook where you do most of your reading about world terrorism.
Next, consider staying up late some Saturday night after "Saturday Night Live," for Arch Campbell's new late-night half hour on Channel 4. And notice: The program is only about 10 weeks old, it has no budget -- what it has mostly is the down- to-earth eccentric Arch Campbell himself, and what appears to be my Aunt Phyllis' living-room furniture. But what a different little show it is. Campbell's guests are interesting, offbeat entertainers and celebrities and semicelebrities who generally live in Washington, or are passing through (including Billy Crystal and Baltimore's hair-weave mogul Mr. Ray, together for the first time, on June 22).
And, lo and ehold, Campbell's show ends with a brief segment called "Gimme a Break" -- in which local performers, most often comedians, get to do a quick routine.
On television. Before a live studio audience. In Washington. Where comedy doen't do well, of course.
Another place comedy has never been real big is Crystal City -- but come next Friday (June 21), a new comedy club is scheduled to open there. And the Crystal City Comedy Club -- actually the 120-seat back room of a relatively new restaurant called the 23rd Street Precinct -- is fortunately not hidden beneath one of the concrete hatboxes of Crystal City proper. So you can get there from here.
Co-owner Howard Siegel, who until recently owned a New York meet market called 41st Street Precinct (what an incredible coincidence!), says he's convinced that ''the small cabaret is coming back. It's been coming back for two years now in Manhattan."
Two years? Sounds just about right on schedule for us to catch wind of that trend here in Washington.
I hope we like it.