Not every comic has plans to become the next Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock. Some just want to get in where they fit and make an impact on their community. Wayne Manigo is that guy.
“Comedians love dark humor,” Manigo said during a recent interview. “Comedy plus tragedy: That’s what makes things funny.”
In the bowels of the U.S. Navy Memorial at Burke Theatre, he had just been selected to make a movie out of John Tong’s story about his grandfather’s cryptic and rather rudimentary funeral.
The two were brought together as part of the SpeakeasyShorts competition, a collaboration between SpeakeasyDC and DC Shorts in which, storytellers are matched up with filmmakers to turn around a short movie in 5 days, with a winner picked the next week.
But Manigo is not a filmmaker. He’s a stand-up comic and the co-founder of the DC Comedy Writer’s Group, a collective of people who get together every week from all walks of the writing world to crack jokes and work on their craft. It’s been going for nearly four years, and a lot of that road has certainly been a dark one for Manigo.
Now 49, he only got into comedy six years ago. It started off as a hobby that he did on the side of his IT job at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He decided he wanted to do it full-time. When he found himself on-call all day every day, just to wake up at 3 a.m. to fix a kicked over modem. It was time for a change.
So he quit. It was a tough decision that two years ago, left him homeless, living in his car. He went from living in a house on 4th and R Streets NW where he regularly hosted a cooking meet-up group, to traveling between homeless facilities in Reston and Rockville, cleaning up in public bathrooms. He was making steady money in a government job to not being able to pay his rent, sometimes being forced to sit in his backseat for days to wait out rainstorms. But it was all by choice.
“Part of it was that I started so late that I felt if I didn’t like dedicate myself full-time to comedy then I wasn’t going to learn what I needed to learn,” Manigo, a New York City native said while making lunch Tuesday. “Ironically, I couldn’t drive to D.C. because my tags were expired. So, I couldn’t park the car anywhere. So I had to park in Maryland or Virginia. I had a lot of friends who worked in the restaurant industry so they made sure that I got fed. The key to being homeless and successful is to not look homeless.”
At the time, many of his friends didn’t know he was effectively homeless, living in his car. His goal was to learn more about the business, and bring people on D.C. fledgling stand-up scene together. While many famous comedians have come out the District area, the overall development culture for comics is two-sided. There are open mic nights, amateur sessions that allow anyone to say whatever they want, comedy notwithstanding and there’s the D.C. Improv, the city’s most popular comedy club that holds classes for beginners. But there seem to be few places designed to actively help make people better comedians overall in D.C. Manigo, who started the group with Mandy Dalton, wanted to provide that space, which would also foster a more collaborative comic community.
“When Wayne and I started this we really were looking at…Let’s just open it up to everybody, wherever they are with comedy. Whether they’re just starting, whether they’ve been doing it for years, but they’ve been doing it secretly,” Dalton, who’s also a professional clown, said Monday night after one of the meetings. “There’s this myth that somehow you can’t get better at it. You either do it and write it and it’s perfect out of your mouth to begin with. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The comics and writers pull no punches with each other. They do exercises that force them to expose their comedic method to their peers. People talk about their lives, their jobs, their kids. Real life is a huge part of being a comic, needless to say. Bill Cosby’s name comes up a time or two. It’s a safe space for people trying to create. Not just a stage to judge whether or not your material is worthy of a room.
Alli Hanley does lab research full time, and came upon the group just tooling around the Internet. She went to a couple meetings and liked it, and now she does stand-up regularly. “Wayne and Mandy are all about collaboration and not competition. They are never ones to take credit for themselves over everybody else, they really are about promoting the group,” Hanley, 34, said. “I think for that reason, the group doesn’t really get its dues in the community, because people are kind of more about competition and striving for yourself.”
Manigo smiles and laughs a lot, like a guy who’s been trying to find the funnier side of life for some time. It’s because he has. As a former Army guy who’s been looking for a more fulfilling career this group has become not just a peer group, but a friend group, too. He joined the service out of high school because he figured it made him employable. It didn’t mean that it made him happy. Catching him in a serious moment is difficult. “Being a comedian doesn’t have to be lonely unless you want it to be.
“D.C. is not the comedy mecca that it could be,” Manigo says. “I don’t want to say should be because there’s a lot of sucky comedians out there. When I was doing all this stuff I said, you know what? Why do I have to do this by myself? I’m thinking as a whole, we can develop a scene of our own.”
But there is one thing that turns down his smile. Manigo has a 23-year-old son. They haven’t talked in 2 years. He grew up with his mother in Pennsylvania and it still pains Manigo that he hasn’t been a better father. It’s a situation that he definitely regrets, but is still a lingering part of his transformation.
“With my son, I still want to build a relationship, but I already in my head, I’m not trying hard enough. And it’s because I want to make sure that when I do it, I’ve got something to bring to the table,” he said Wednesday at his 4th annual birthday roast at Judy’s Restaurant on 14th Street. Most of his comic friends showed up to hang out and make fun of him. He had a blast and no topic was off-limits, including his son.
“We just don’t have a bond yet. Like, all comedians have that painful thing that they’re like, you know what? This is what hurts. Me not having a relationship with my son is kind of like that thing that hurts.”
He currently writes a column called “Addicted to Comedy” for Stage Time magazine — an online publication dedicated to stand-up comedy — and has found a niche booking shows as a way to make money.
He’s gotten many of his friends their first paid gigs in the area, and they’re appreciative of that. As a former homeless vet, he’s acquired quite a few skills. He learned to cook through a program with Chef Jerald Thomas, a former veteran himself, and wants eventually become a private chef. Tuesday, it was fish chowder and Italian-style chicken for lunch. He knows it might be a long way off until comedy pays off full-time. “I went from living in my own place, to living with friends.
The reason I decided to live in my car when I did this, is because I didn’t want my friends to think I was leeching off them. Friends don’t understand your goals sometimes,” he said looking out the window of his studio apartment. “Believe me, they’ll support you, but they don’t quite get your goals. I had to prove to them and to myself that this is what I wanted to do.”