AFTER SURVEYING THE FULL HOUSE from a back room at the DC Improv Comedy Club‘s Lounge, Chris White heads toward the stage and introduces himself. Then he starts cutting himself down. Next come the stories about his dysfunctional family: “Parenting is a job. My mom treated it like a job. Every day at
5 p.m. she would stop working and go to happy hour.”
Just as the crowd teeters on the brink of deciding whether the 32-year-old comedian is funny-funny or crazy-funny, White switches gears, closing with a terribly off-key sing-along (folks chimed in on the chorus) of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
And the audience knows: Whatever White’s deal, they just spent an hour laughing.
For White and other local comedians, that’s the ultimate employer feedback. Nine-to-5 isn’t really in comics’ vocabulary — unless they’re talking about their day jobs, which many keep to earn a living. Prep time is short — usually a few hours per week — and performances can clock in at a whopping three minutes, but most funny folks aren’t in the business for the big bucks. They’re in it for the big laughs.
Working in comedy has all the benefits one might imagine, chiefly chuckles aplenty — even in a straight-laced, serious city such as the nation’s capital. “Anyone who’s coming to a comedy show is accepting the premise that you’re there to make them laugh,” says White, who appeared briefly on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2007 and hosts monthly trivia nights at the Improv. “People are uptight and can be sensitive about a lot of things, but if you figure out how to present yourself, you can make anybody laugh. It’s just a matter of figuring out the right way to relate to people.”
“D.C. is a great city for comedy since it offers a diverse audience,” says Allyson Jaffe, co-owner of the Improv. “There is no one specific kind of comedy people like the best, and I think that’s what makes D.C. such a great place for comedy.”
Although White avoids political humor in his acts, other local comics have made careers of it. “People like to laugh at their politicians even though the next day they might show up and work for one,” says Elaina Newport, a former Senate staffer who co-founded Capitol Steps, a comedic theater troupe, in 1981. “It’s a bit of a way of relieving stress, I think.”
The group, which has grown from the three founders — Newport, Bill Strauss and Jim Aidala — to 30 full- and part-time performers (most current or former Hill staffers), has recorded 29 albums and performed in all 50 states. Most skits poke fun at politicians and political events. “We do try to mix it up,” says Newport, who schedules performers and writes songs and sketches. As a result, a song about Jon and Kate Gosselin could be followed by a number about President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win.
“When something like that happens, we don’t sit around thinking like other people do: ‘Is it good for the country or bad for the country, or does he deserve it or not deserve it?’ We just sort of think, ‘OK, is it funny and what rhymes with it?'”
The list of qualifications for joining Capitol Steps is short: Be able to sing and eschew embarrassment. At an audition, an applicant will “sing a beautiful song, maybe a show tune or a ballad. Then we’ll say, ‘OK, now sing that like Osama bin Laden would sing it,'” Newport says. “You can’t mind if we tell you you’re playing Kim Jong Il. If mad cow disease is in the news, you might be the cow. You can’t mind that.”
Shahryar Rizvi, 28, uses his job as an information technology specialist at the U.S. Census Bureau to his advantage onstage. “Being a federal employee has helped out my material a lot. I do a lot of jokes at the Census’ expense,” says Rizvi, a finalist in this year’s Funniest Fed Competition.
Still, comedy can be a really tough gig. Sure, some folks make it big, but for most, the late-night performances can take a toll, the pay (at least initially) is next to nil, and the success threshold is low.
Rizvi makes his job and his MBA studies at the University of Maryland his priorities. “I don’t know how anybody could really survive off of [comedy],” he says.
Working behind the scenes isn’t necessarily more lucrative, judging by Curt Shackelford, 46, owner of Standupcomedytogo.com, which puts on local shows and books comedians for corporate and private events. For each of his weekly open mics — one at Ri Ra Irish Pub in Arlington and another at the Topaz Hotel — Shackelford gets $150. After his Saturday night “real” (or paid) shows, complete with an MC, feature act, headliner and $10 ticket fee, at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda, he typically nets $100 to $400.
“Thank God I’m not doing it for the money. If I were depending on this for my livelihood, yikes!” says Shackelford, an office manager at a government contractor. “I’m doing it for the fun of it.”
Although he says the local comedy scene has exploded in the past five years, D.C. remains a feeder city for comedy hubs.
“We actually have people moving to D.C. because they want to be in comedy and they heard it’s a great place to start,” he says. “After about five years, if you’re really good, you have to go to L.A. or New York or Chicago. You can’t stay here, because there’s just not enough paid work.”
Besides live-performance experience, D.C. offers aspiring comedians more formal training opportunities. The Comedy Spot in Arlington has improv classes, and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda offers “Applying Standup Comedy Techniques,” which teaches students to use what they find funny in others to write their own jokes.
Jaffe started the Improv’s Comedy School in May 2003. Since then, more than 1,000 students have taken classes in improv, stand-up and sketch writing that range from daylong workshops to 10-week courses.
Goli Samimi, 33, is a devotee of the school, having completed six courses since July 2008. “While I’ve always been comfortable in front of an audience, I’ve really learned how to play a character and how to entertain without cracking jokes,” Samimi says.
Despite the work and hardships, Jaffe says, hopeful humorists shouldn’t lose sight of the lightheartedness. “Comedy is a beautiful art form, and my best advice to anyone who wants to be involved in it is to do it for yourself and make sure you love it. The business can be tough and when you stop loving it and it begins to bring you down, you may want to rethink things. It’s comedy, remember — it’s supposed to be fun.”
Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express