Jim Tam, a take-home-to-mom kind of guy, stood on stage at the Comedy Cafe, fiddling with the microphone stand, as the crowd awaited anxiously. "People are always asking me if I do drugswhen I perform. Yes," he said, then paused. "I do large amounts of caffeine."
The audience chuckled. "You probably know this drug by its street terminology . . . freeze dried . . . Can you imagine if they made caffeine a controlled substance. You'd hear news announcements like (he deepens his voice) "A two pound bag of Columbian coffee was recovered today with a street value of two million dollars. It was 65 percent pure and was cut with Ovaltine and Nestle's Quick . . . The government would have a Sanka program."
When it comes to politics or social issues, Tam, one of a growing number of young Washington comedians, knows that his white-collar Washington audience can relate. Comedy in Washington is different, he says. "The crowd will pick up things that would normally go over people's heads in other cities."
"The people are part of the process here," said political satirist Mark Russell, who performed at the Shoreham Hotel here for 20 years. "It's almost like Washingtonians synthesize politics."
Four years ago, there was only one comedy club in Washington. Now there are two full-time comedy places and a half a dozen more that showcase comedy one or two nights a week.
"Comedy is thriving, much as it did in the 1920s, because of the economics of the times," says Harry Monocrusos, owner of Garvins Laugh Inn at 2621 Connecticut Ave. NW, the largest of the clubs that offer comedy in Washington.
Monocrusos said comedy's popularity in Washington is increasing so much that he and Jeff Penn and Estee Seward recently formed Comiclubs International Inc. to market Garvins' successful style to other restaurants and clubs around the country. And, they said, there are other signs of comedy's growing popularity: comedy clubs have opened in at least a dozen states in the last two years, a trade association of comedy-club owners was formed recently, and preliminary plans are under way for the first organized comedy circuit, to include Washington, Philadelphia, Montreal and a half dozen more cities.
Because of the city's unique ethnic and social makeup, Washington comedians run the gamut of comedic styles similiar to those of well-known national comedians: from the self-deprecating humor of Rodney Dangerfield and the biting political satire of Mort Sahl to the zany comic wit of Steve Martin.
Catering to the many audience tastes are the quick-witted, rapid-fire style of Dan Brenner; Andy Evans, who capitalizes by turning a plausible idea into a most improbable circumstance; and Tam, who takes Evans' style a step further by juxtaposing two incongruous ideas together in a song.
While there are hundreds of part-time comedians, Tam, Brenner and Evans are known as the "major leaguers" in Washington. Everyone else appears to be a step behind.
Tam, 34, makes his living performing comedy. But many others wait on tables, tend bar or hold other odd jobs while hoping for their big break into show business. Brenner spends his days as a Federal Communications Commission attorney; Evans works as the minority recruiter for George Mason University.
Comedians are motivated by a myriad of reasons. Insecurity and a thirst for attention often complement their sometimes fragile egos. Some use comedy as a defense mechanism. Brenner simply loves the often witty back-and-forth of audience participation. Evans attempts to get a point of view across. Tam tries to make people think.
"My comedy is an extraction of my experiences, mostly bitter ones . . . and now I've gained enough distance on them to laugh at them and make others laugh also," said Tam, an experienced musician who considers himself a "musical comedian."
"I'm not ready for national TV," said Tam, who grew up in the District but now lives in Chevy Chase. He still feels insecure about just how successful he can be. "If I get seven minutes on Johnny Carson, what happens if the next time I went on and my stuff wasn't as good? I'd be through. There's just too much at stake," he said. "Then again, if I could get seven minutes on Carson, I'd jump at it."
"You know, I was thinking the other day," Dan Brenner tells a full house at Garvins on a recent Saturday night, "Did you ever wonder what a GS-1 does?" A handful of people laugh at the premise. He pauses for a moment, smiles and says "They come in in the morning, check to see if all 50 states are there . . ." He turns suddenly, slaps his hands together, and yells "COFFEE BREAK."
Brenner, a 30-year-old District resident, still has a boyish innocence about him and has developed a biting wit. He says the only way he would be heard at the family dinner table was to be a character. Comedy was also a defense at the time for being short. Brenner moved on to "The Dating Game" television show.
"I went on there as a joke," he said. "I didn't really want to win the date, I just wanted the polyester slacks. But I won. Ultimately the girl decided not to go, so I went into the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and did a standup routine to get over it." He bombed that night, and his lack of success made him try again and again until he hit upon success. Brenner said comedy gives him the opportunity "to say things to people that no one would have the guts to tell them outright."
He prefers playing on the oddities and insecurities of his audience--like a person's mannerisms or clothing styles--rather than discussing "normal" topics, like sex and drugs.
Brenner wants to be a television talk show host and already works on WDVM-TV/Channel 9's Saturday Magazine for experience--but as a lawyer, not a comedian. He is the show's legal correspondent. Brenner says he is ready to make "the serious switch" in careers. "I'm not changing for the money," he adds, "but I would give up my law practice if the 'right offer' came along."
As for Brenner's strengths and weaknesses? He quickly retorts, "About 40 to 50 pounds . . . and whipped cream and spatulas."
"I remember Superman, but I never had a hero," said Andy Evans, 37, a part-time comedian who performed recently at The Comedy Cafe, at 1512 K St. NW. "Here's a guy who was a champion of justice, locked up all the criminals, never once locked up a brother. I mean, we're supposed to be No. 1 on the crime list, never locked up a brother. I was thinking what would it have been like if Superman had come down through the ghetto. It probably would have gone like this:
Evans puts on his "sunshades" and pulls out what appears to be a marijuana cigarette, and continues. "Two brothers standing on the corner, smoking a reefer. Superman's gonna lock them up.
"Drop that marijuana."
"Hey, Holt! . . . Who's the honky with the cape on?"
"Don't know, Blade. . . . You think he's high?"
"No. . . . He's got an S on his chest. . . . I think he works for Safeway."
"They say he can leap over tall buildings in a single bound and has X-ray vision."
"Yeah, well too bad it don't work in reverse. . . . If it did he would have seen those two guys stealing them clothes he left in that phone booth."
Behind each of Evans' jokes is a message. He does a routine about people going down to the cheese lines in taxis that cost them more than the cheese is worth. "I do the bit about cheese because I wonder how many old people suffered just to get a piece of cheese. It makes people think about it," he said.
"I try and take the seriousness out of what people are trying to kill themselves over."
Evans, married with a 12-year-old son, has a different perspective on comedy as a career. Unlike other comedians who ache for stardom, he says he wouldn't drop his full-time job at George Mason or give up his home in Fort Washington, Md., and move to New York for a chance at the big time.
A family man with responsibilities, Evans said he is content to play nightclubs and college audiences in the Washington area.
Although it wasn't always this way, Evans says he's "accepted as a comedian who is black instead of as a black comedian. The problem with being black on stage in comedy is that people expect you to be either [Bill] Cosby or [Richard] Pryor. There is no third option."
On a recent evening, Tam sits at the bar in the back of the Comedy Cafe, waiting to go on, watching impressionist Sonny Black imitating Johnny Carson above the noise of clinking glasses, idle chatter and scattered laughter. He sips a cola and stares at the single spotlight coming from above a narrow staircase.
The light cuts through the thick smoke slowly making its way to the swirling fans on the ceiling. The smell of popcorn and beer pervades the packed room, and waitresses navigate through the sweating mass of people seated at church pews and checkered-clothed tables.
There are a few empty tables near the front--only the brave ones sit up front, knowing they will be harassed by the comics. If Tam is nervous, it doesn't show as he looks around the room to see if the audience is young, old, predominately male, female, or a mix thereof. He does 250 shows a year and going on stage has become almost as routine as combing his hair.
As Tam finishes his drink, he watches the comic on stage being harassed by a few rowdy people in the audience. Tam knows he will have to grab his audience early, if he is going to grab them at all.
"If you can't jar your audience, then it's not worth doing," says Tam, surveying the crowd. He figures the talkative group in the back is probably "the Beach Boys type."
"Did you ever wonder what would happen if the Beach Boys were writing their songs for the 1980s?" he asks, before launching into a Beach Boys medley, 1980s style.
To Song "Good Vibrations":
"She's giving off Radiation,
"Like nuclear heat prostration."
To Song "Fun, Fun,Fun:"
"We'll have to run, run, run when the Arabs take the petrol away. . . ."