a hurricane by the name of Gloria -- had most of the evening to wreak havoc. Inside, the locals got only eight minutes apiece.
Nineteen local comics took the stage at Garvin's at the Georgetown Holiday Inn Thursday night -- all of them hoping for a shot at "Star Search," the weekly syndicated television show whose talent-scouting team was there to tape the finalists from a month-long Washington comedy competition. More than 250 people (including actor Tommy Lee Jones and Sen. Albert Gore Jr.) paid to see the 19 (chosen from among about 50 entrants) -- and stuck around for three hours, while the weather tried, mostly in vain, to act menacing.
The comedians, on the other hand -- an accomplished, amiably frustrated and necessarily itinerant group from Washington, Baltimore and Richmond -- tried to act funny. Happily, very little of this was in vain. "Scented bathroom tissue," said Richmond comic Brett Leake, in the middle of a hilarious dissection of stuff we otherwise take for granted. "Now there's something that reflects badly on the guy who invented it, don't you think? Here's a guy who noticed there was an unpleasant odor in the bathroom -- "
Leake paused, hands in pockets.
" -- and thought it was the paper."
"I was listening to a classic old Beatles album the other day," said D.C.'s Tony Perkins. "I played some of it backwards, and I heard something really incredible. I distinctly heard John Lennon say: 'You're ruining your needle.'"
For those of us who like to tell friends that Washington isn't a good town for comedy -- and this includes jaded local comics as well as patrons of one too many agonizing open-mike nights -- it was an encouraging and generally giddy affair.
"Lotta good comics here tonight," said Richmond's Merle Hobbs. "Black comics, white comics. I like to go out with the black comics, and hang out together. We mix the cultures. We'll do white things together, then we'll do black things. We went out and got a piece of quiche. Then we hung it from the rear-view mirror."
After the show, someone asked "Star Search" talent scout Gale Conetta -- who's also in town to audition singers, dancers, actors and "spokesmodels" by appointments set up following a newspaper ad last month -- what she thought.
"I saw a couple of acts tonight that I can recommend," she said, smiling as she plopped down a large cardboard box filled with re'sume's, tapes, press kits -- people's lives, that sort of thing. "To say anything else would be unfair, of course."
Conetta's choices, she said, will be passed on to the chief comedy talent scout in New York, who'll decide which acts make the "master reel" -- a product of "Star Search" auditions in about 30 cities across the country, several times a year. This is what the producers see when they're looking for people to be on the show. The end-of-season prize in each category: $100,000.
But for the comedian, the competition offers another coveted prize: exposure. Like most comics in their own home towns, Washington's comedians have to travel -- often to such destinations as Raleigh, Indianapolis, Schenectady -- to be the headline act. An appearance on "Star Search" helps shorten the distance he or she has to go for good money.
So this is a big night: a shot, right here in River City, at some big-time exposure. And that starts with E, which rhymes with V, which stands for Valium. Somebody should have some. Particularly before the show, as the anxious stand-up crew, forced to sit down in a room down the hall, gets ready.
Jeff Penn, the local comedy promoter who put the auditions together for "Star Search" with Garvin's Harry Monocrusos, is passing the hat around for starting order. Roger Mursick, who recently headlined at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, N.J., gets to draw first -- and comes up with No. 7. "I wanted 6 or 7, I got it," Mursick says. He grabs a reporter's tape recorder and speaks into it, quietly serious: "This room is full of losers. It's incredible how many losers there are in this room."
"I have a question," says D.C. comic Andy Evans, standing up. "Can we all get up on stage and sing 'We Are the World'?"
"Okay," says Penn, trying to restore calm. "Please -- sit down, everybody just sit down! Okay, here's the order: Merle Hobbs, Andy Evans, Sylvia Traymore, Ed Wilsinski, Ron Moranian, Fat Doctor, Roger Mursick, Daniel Russ, Bill McCuddy, Brett Leake, Gregory Poole, John Marks, Bill King, Tommy Davidson, Tony Perkins, Marla Aaron, Chris Thomas, Bob Somerby and Vincent Cook. I leave anybody out?"
Cook, originally from Baltimore, is trying to look on the bright side of performing last. "I'm a Cleanup Man," he sings, improvising from a slouching position in the corner.
Hobbs is sitting quietly in the center of the room, eyes on the tablecloth, perspiring slightly.
"Okay, anybody wants to make an extra 25 bucks, just mention the Crystal City Comedy Club," says comic Bill King, who books the Virginia club.
Lights, camera, jokes. Among the night's more memorable bits are:
*Mursick, on how men never grow up: "I'll prove it. How many of you guys, when you go to the supermarket, still like to ride the shopping carts? Eh? Kind of push it, and hop up on it and coast, until you crash? I like to do this -- I was doing it the other day and some kid, 8 or 9 years old, came up and said, 'Aren't you a little old for that stuff, Mister?' Hah. So I spit on him."
*Somerby, on freeway paraphernalia: "Why do they spend big money to put up big signs to tell us the names of each river? I mean, rivers? Apparently, they're for the motorist who plans to abandon his car, and continue that journey by canoe. When was the last time you picked up a hitchhiker who said, 'Just get me as far as the Rappahannock -- I think I can swim it from there.' "
*Wilsinski, on training bras: "I always envisioned them as some apparatus up here," he says, holding his hands chest high, "and then some long aluminum struts down to the floor, and two big rubber wheels . . . "
*Leake, being disarmingly cheerful about his own disability (he has muscular dystrophy): "A lot of people think of the disadvantages first. I never do, I like to think of the advantages. For instance, I'm never caught short of change at the 7-Eleven." (A delayed, big laugh.) "I cut out that middleman, and reach right in the fishbowl . . ."
Two comments in particular break up the comics, who periodically sneak in to see other acts perform.
*One is Sinbad (the headliner this weekend at Garvin's, who did an impromptu 20 minutes at the end of the auditions), on being a semifinalist on "Star Search" last year, mimicking himself on stage at the moment he learned he had not won the $100,000. He stands bolt straight, and smiles stiffly. "Thank you. I stink. Yes. He was better. Thank you.
"Inside," he continues, "this is what I was feeling." He flings his body forward, holding his head in his hands, and screams: "Noooohhhhh! Ahhhgh! I already spent that money!"
*And the other is Poole, on comic economics. "A lot of comics like to come up and talk about how poor they were growing up. Not me," he says.
"I want to talk about how poor I am right now."