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Comedy Best Bets 2005

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Once again, after a last-minute shower of April and May show invitations and tape submissions, here is our annual Back Stage Comedy Spotlight list of 10 standout standups. Choosing the list is actually an ongoing process; queries about next year will start to appear in our mail the day this issue hits the newsstands. We gather this information throughout the year, using it to create this list and provide regular material for our Laughing Matters comedy column.

How do we find out about shows and performers? We get listings and invitations for numerous shows and industry showcases, and we hear from club and festival bookers, agents, managers, publicists, and producers. We look at recommendations from comics we admire and accept homegrown submissions of tapes and press kits from readers who either are performers or are recommending performers whom they've seen. There are no special ins or secret handshakes that land a comic on the list. It takes a charismatic, compelling stage performance, laugh-out-loud material, and a thought-provoking set—preferably all three at the same time.

In our talent search, we will sometimes arrange for comps to see a show; often, however, rather than announce our visit, we'll simply arrive and sit in the dark, rooting for the laughs to begin. We may choose to see a live show as an introduction to a performer or a production, but since we want to catch as many performances as possible, tapes and DVDs constitute our best resource. They're also good for gauging when a performer is ready for review consideration. If a performer can't provide a picture and resume with a list of club performances and hasn't yet needed a professional audition tape, he or she usually isn't ready. We look at hundreds of tapes and DVDs and will switch them off if the work hasn't grabbed us within the first 10 minutes. And that's being generous. Many in the comedy industry say they decide in the first two minutes if a performance is worth watching, and auditions for late-night talk-show spots are usually no more than five clean minutes. So keep your reels under 10 minutes and always be sure to put your best material first.

While some of our top 10 comics may be new to you, most aren't new to the business. Even an overnight success is usually a performer who has spent years "seasoning" to find his or her comedy voice. We try to provide something for everyone to enjoy by not choosing too many comics in a single style or category. We also follow performers from year to year as they evolve; a performer may send us a new submission every six months (or even three, as long as it's 100% new material). Experience can do amazing things for the evolution of a stage performer. These 10 performers have been paying their dues and we believe they've earned your attention. We hope at least a few will grab you and provide you with the laughter they gave to us.

Mimi Gonzalez

Funky Feminist

We first saw Mimi Gonzalez at New York's Gotham Comedy Club in a 2004 show that celebrated comediennes featured in a new paperback joke collection called "She's So Funny." Gonzalez was first recommended to us by past Back Stage Top 10 comic Jane Condon, who is also featured in the book. Gonzalez had sidesplitting material about her father, a Latino patriarch married 10 times with multiple families. While this strong, high-spirited comic had great observational material about being an American with hybrid roots, what made her set especially interesting was her ability to make her feminist material both funny and accessible to everyone in her audience (something we don't always see when feminism and comedy are mixed).

Gonzalez originally made a name for herself in San Francisco by producing "Women With Balls," a weekly women's showcase. She moved the show to Los Angeles with much success and was a semiregular at L.A.'s Laugh Factory and the Improv in Hollywood. Believing a comic has to pay some road dues, Gonzalez has worked clubs, hotels, and casinos, toured the U.S. twice, and entertained the military in Japan, South Korea, Bosnia, and Kosovo. She's experienced the fate of many road comics, however: Because she's on the road so often, she hasn't had time to develop a home club in New York that could give her headliner status. Since she tells us that this year she's ready to "come in off the road and trade in driving gloves for boxing gloves to slug it out in New York's clubs," we wanted to get you in her corner as she lines up more city shows.

Gonzalez has a no-genders-barred approach to sexuality and a funky kind of feminism that we believe will be very successful. Because of her last name, you may first see her pigeonholed a bit as part of Latino-themed nights (even though this Latina tells us she's "currently learning Spanish from books and tapes"). We're sure that as soon as New York bookers get to know her, she'll do well in any show. Gonzalez recently spent a month co-hosting a morning radio show in Albany and we wouldn't be surprised to see her develop into a successful radio personality as well. You can get her club schedule and more at www.mimigonzalez.com.

Brad Zimmerman

Comedy Crafted With Care

We got our first taste of Brad Zimmerman's dry, brainy, and just plain hilarious material at New York's Carolines, where he did his routine about a waiter who doesn't particularly like his job or his clientele. When we found ourselves laughing so much that it was hard to take notes, we knew he was destined for big things. Zimmerman, however, is a comic with a very strong work ethic: He's much more interested in doing his job of making audiences laugh than in seeking press accolades. The past few seasons, whenever we wanted to get information from him for Laughing Matters, he was always traveling around the world, hard at work—which just made us respect him even more.

Last year, Zimmy—as he is affectionately known by comics, including the many who recommended him to our list—killed at "The Bar Mitzvah Show" at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. He also performed at the festival's gala, which was hosted by Wayne Brady, who told the audience of over 2,000, "I'd love to get a commission on this guy, because he's brilliant." We agree.

Zimmerman has been featured in a tribute to the Friars Club with the venerable Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone and was part of the Kung Pao Kosher comedy festival in San Francisco with Judy Gold. He also took part in the Friars Club roast of the Smothers Brothers at the Hilton Hotel and has performed at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, the Improv in Atlantic City, and, so he tells us, "every Jewish country club in Long Island." You can bet that each synagogue and private party set he does is crafted with the same care as when he performs in front of thousands at a festival. He's also worked in New York at the Gotham Comedy Club and Stand-Up NY, to name a few. He's got such a strong stage presence that if he ever wanted to cross over to acting on the stage or screen, he'd be a casting catch there as well, comically or dramatically.

We especially want you to know about Zimmerman because of the debut of his upcoming one-man show, "Atta Boy, Zimmy," at the Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st St.), June 23–25. For reservations, call (212) 868-4444 or go online to www.smarttix.com. We'll be in the front row cheering. We're sure you'll become a Zimmy fan, too.

Dena Blizzard

One Funny Mother

This former Miss New Jersey and mother of three can be seen throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware bringing down the house with fun takes on dating, marriage, and parenting. Although Dena Blizzard had only been performing comedy a short time, she won the New Talent title at the 2004 Ladies of Laughter competition at the Improv in New York, where we were first introduced to her work last August by show producer Peggy Boyce. Blizzard's material—including a stage demonstration in which she creates less-than-serene yoga positions that let her kids and hubby know just what she is thinking of them—was the hit of the evening. We were shocked to find out that she was relatively new to standup and competing in the amateur section of the contest. After the contest, Laughing Matters called her "a real find with a bright future ahead." If you see her name in a show's lineup, we know you'll be in for a fun time.

Blizzard was also a finalist in radio station WMMR's Last Philly Comic Standing and the Comedy Zone's Captains of Comedy competition. She can be seen on QVC as the official spokesperson for Solitude and has also made appearances on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Some of the clubs where she performs include Catch a Rising Star, Rascals, and Stand-Up NY. She's appearing at the Comedy Stop at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas through May 28. Blizzard is one funny mother—and that's also the name of her website: www.onefunnymother.com.

Erik Marcisak

It's Saturday Night…Rewritten

When Laughing Matters first heard about writer, director, performer, and executive producer Erik Marcisak, he was running Above Kleptomania, a theatre company in New York featuring improv and sketch comedy. We began to see his name connected with a number of shows and became curious to find out more about this comedy supporter. Marcisak believed so strongly in the goal of providing low-cost comedy that in September 2004, he created a home for a coalition of actors, writers, and directors called Juvie Hall, a sketch-comedy-only theatre in the heart of the East Village, running Wednesday through Sunday at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., between Bowery and Lafayette. Looking at this space's roster of shows and the long list of artists who work there would have been enough for us to give Marcisak a spot on our list this year.

We're big believers that you can still create your own entertainment destiny by saying, "Let's put on a show"—and then doing it. When we asked Marcisak about his goals, he made it clear that he wants to strengthen and advance the quality of sketch comedy. He also has a special interest in one day working on "Saturday Night Live," which is what drew him to create "Saturday Night Rewritten," a show with a fast-paced and fascinating premise. Imagine watching "SNL" on Saturday night and then using it as your inspiration for a new show, written and rehearsed for seven hours on Sunday and then performed for 90 minutes Sunday night. There isn't enough space to tell you the challenging rules everyone must follow, but you can visit www.saturdaynightrewritten.com to learn more. We especially like the fact that performers and writers for this show have to be aware of what is going on in the news—always an important tool for comedy.

As with "SNL" (and all sketch work), there were some very funny sketches and some clinkers in the collection we saw. We especially liked a sketch in which a man was cursed with an ever-present voiceover narration, which was particularly funny in a bar as he tried to socialize and hook up. It was fast-paced and had some very charismatic and funny performances. "Saturday Night Rewritten" starts at 8 p.m. and has a $7 cover charge that includes an invite to the weekly after-party. You can call (212) 868-4444 or go to www.smarttix.com for tickets. Marcisak is also a performer in the show.

We don't know if Marcisak will take a break from doing comedy 24/7 long enough to actually read this article (we still haven't figured out when he has time to sleep), but we do know that no one is working harder today to support sketch comedy. We also want to salute the hard-working writers, staff, and performers on "Saturday Night Rewritten," and suggest that readers visit www.juviehall.com and maybe even get involved yourself.

Sara Schaefer

Obsessed With Comedy

Over the years at Back Stage, we've watched many turn their performance dreams into reality and tried to share with you how it was done. Sara Schaefer is a comedian and writer, one part irrepressible transplanted Southern belle and one part jaded New Yorker (with a healthy pinch of Mary Richards tossing her beret), who has a dream of being a late-night TV talk-show host. How is she making it happen? Along with the support of co-writers Amanda Melson and Kara Lee Burk and co-creator Erik Marcisak, Schaefer has been presenting a funny, homegrown, staged weekly talk show titled "Sara Schaefer Is Obsessed With You." Schaefer isn't nosy as she interviews guests and asks the audience for feedback; she just has a healthy obsession with finding out about everything. Her wonder, curiosity, and glee make this show much more fun than anything you'd catch on basic cable. The seats are packed and many comedy and radio heavy-hitters have started to take an interest. Those who have already appeared on the show include "Daily Show" correspondent Samantha Bee; writer, humorist, and alumnus of this top 10 list Jonathan Ames; and comedians Todd Barry and Marc Maron.

But what really makes this show's engine run is the naturally down-to-earth but silly hostess and her obsession with the omnipresent New York TV franchise "Law & Order." Every week, she features funny interviews with a new guest who has appeared on the series—whether in a recurring role or as a day player, under-five, or, yes, even a dead body—and shows a clip of the guest's performance. The show we saw featured actor Kali Karagias, who had played a hooker and who gave us a hilarious blow by blow of her experience.

But this isn't a show tied to any of the usual talk-show rules. Schaefer's magnifying glass catches "personal and cultural obsessions," she says. She also uses her Richmond, Va., background to educate us in the differences between Southern white-glove charm and etiquette and the pace and attitude of New York. (Her old clips of herself at dance class and cotillion, shown on a big screen, are priceless.)

Considering that she's only been in New York for three years, we think Schaefer is right on track. Recently she won an Emerging Comics of New York Award for best host of a variety show. You can catch her host her next show on Fri., June 17, at 8 p.m. at Juvie Hall, and check out her website at www.saraschaefer.com.

Nancy Witter

The Life of the Party

We've enjoyed 2005 MAC Award winner Nancy Witter in the past for her hosting and comedic performances at New York's Don't Tell Mama, where she is an important ingredient in the critically acclaimed and very successful Saturday night variety series "Poole Party," hosted by Laughing Matters favorite Ron Poole. Witter's comedy about her Irish family and the mishaps of some hard but hilarious drinking are very funny; still, we mistakenly thought of her as only a great 10-minute standup for a loud, well-lubricated cabaret-bar audience (a kudos-deserving skill in itself).

We weren't seeing the big picture, however, and now need to write about Witter in a totally different light after catching her full-length show, "Dignity Check, Please!," directed by Poole. This production allows Witter to spread her wings and show, through a diverse list of hell-raising yet endearing subjects, what a great storyteller and punch-line player she can be. With a hilarious, razor-sharp delivery, facial double takes like those of the great old-time comediennes (Martha Raye and Sophie Tucker come to mind), and the wit and balls of a Bette Midler at her bathhouse best, Witter's work deserves headliner status and your immediate attention. The stories are well-crafted and hilarious; we won't even try to retell one, because they need Witter's one-of-a-kind touch. You'll feel like you're at one of those great soirees where the life of the party tells fabulous stories and can do no wrong when it comes to getting laughs. We were speechless (or just hoarse from laughing) and can see why Witter was recently selected from 1,000 contestants to be one of the five finalists for Nick at Nite's Search for the Funniest Mom in America.

Witter's next performance of her show is Fri., May 27, at 7 p.m. at Don't Tell Mama. After that she'll be at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, opening for Bob Zany, June 13–19. You can catch her weekly in the "Poole Party" when she's in town, but we suggest you go soon, as Witter's well-earned star is on the rise. She would make a great character actor for the big or small screen, and now that TV is starting to take a look at what this comedy powerhouse can do, she could easily get called away to the West Coast.

Jason and Randy Sklar

Great Ideas From the Cheap Seats

Over the years, we've marveled at the unique and lightning-quick comedy stylings of pop-culture enthusiasts Jason and Randy Sklar. They came to New York from the University of Michigan and quickly took the town and us by storm with their quick, tag-team-style delivery (much like the rap of the Beastie Boys). We especially admire how they acknowledge being twins in their work, but never use it as a crutch in their writing or performance. You may have seen shows they developed for New York clubs, like "Double Agents" or "Apartment 2F," as part of their many national TV appearances, particularly on MTV. But they still haven't forgotten how to do fun live work when they perform in L.A. or come back to New York (often at "Eating It" shows).

We think they're a great example of how to combine comedy with multimedia, developing shows that showcase their special talents. We also admire how they choose to feature many other talented comics in their shows, including a number of our favorites from past columns and top 10 lists (Eddie Pepitone, Matt Price, and members of the original Upright Citizens Brigade).

While we love live comedy performance here at Back Stage, comedy is also a business. Development contracts bring freedom and more bucks, and no performers showcase themselves better in other media than the Sklars. Their current show on ESPN Classic is "Cheap Seats: Without Ron Parker," seen Mondays at 10 p.m. and throughout the week. The premise is that a horrible tragedy has struck the ESPN tape library. Sportscaster Ron Parker's career has been ruined, so the Sklar brothers, longtime tape librarians, are forced to take over the show. If you like Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily?," you'll love this combination of old and often strange sports footage with new and hilarious caustic commentary from the Sklars. There are also many enjoyable sketch appearances by visiting comics. It's one of our favorite guilty pleasures: dry and clever, as only the Sklars do clever. Study it as an example of comics creating their own niche rather than having to fit someone else's mold. They also have a wicked website at www.supersklars.com that's another great example of creativity. Don't miss their next New York appearance.

Melissa Rauch

The Merry Matriculator

We first enjoyed the feisty observations of Melissa Rauch in 2002, when she was a finalist in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival auditions. As we've often written in Laughing Matters, contests are a great way for other comics and industry members to get to know your work. We've discovered new faces when observing or judging at contests and festival auditions. Last August, when Rauch was a finalist in the professional category at the Ladies of Laughter competition at New York's Improv, it seemed to us as if the last few years of her local and national club work and college sets had really paid off.

Rauch was recently named best college comedian on MTV's "Total Request Live." We believe it's because she's such a strong example of a comic who creates fun material for smart audiences. We wanted to make sure Rauch was on your radar this year as she prepares to present her one-woman show about Jenna Bush at the New York International Fringe Festival in August.

Whether watching her hone routines in clubs like Rascals in New Jersey or in regular appearances on VH1's "Best Week Ever," we're especially impressed with her diverse, clean, bright material and the appeal it can have to so many different audiences. Her dead-on observations about our pop culture and human foibles are the right mix of smart and silly. She pokes fun at pharmaceutical commercials in which all the patients are so good-looking and in such good shape that we'd like to sign up for what ails them, no matter how bad it may be. She has a hilarious bit showing how a woman's behavior can dangerously mutate once she's gotten that first tiny taste of what is on her date's dinner plate. She's even found a way to use her resemblance to Jodie Foster to create a great closing bit that shows what would happen if Foster became a standup comic, with jokes like "I adopted two kids, so I guess now they're in Foster care."

On stage, Rauch may look like she's still in high school, but her parody of the college edition of a "Girls Gone Wild" infomercial, in which she confides to us what she really experienced as a college woman living with other college women, will have you laughing and cheering. You can next see Rauch doing a set at Carolines in New York on May 31 at 9 p.m.

Tom Shillue

More Than Just Madison Avenue

We've been rooting for comedian, actor, writer, and commercial character extraordinaire Tom Shillue ever since we first saw him at the Duplex in the West Village at the beginning of his New York sketch and standup career. We marveled at how he was equally at home as a comedic mime, impressionist, barbershop quartet singer, and club MC. He had us cheering at shows like "Eating It" and Ars Nova's "Automatic Vaudeville."

The versatile Shillue uses his Norman Rockwell looks to inhabit an unlimited number of characters as well as talk about his own suburban past. His interest in stretching and creating new formats for comedy is always bringing fans and producers something new and noteworthy. He has a particular talent for what used to be called "alternative comedy"—work that employs long-form character development and storytelling as opposed to standard punch lines.

Shillue is one of the few comics who can work any room and wear any label, traditional or otherwise. It has made him a favorite with bookers and earned him the Back Stage Bistro Award for comedy in the late '90s. He always has something exciting in development and is now using the Web to pursue his interest in mixed-media comedy, with the 30-second sitcom series at www.fairenough.com and his soon-to-be-released Web-based standup act, Comix.

He may be best known for the multitude of diverse characters he's played in commercials. So why are we singling out this headliner for our 2005 list? Because his noteworthy work continually earns our interest and respect. Also, unlike some comics who are also popular actors, Shillue has chosen to stay and work in New York. He is constantly seen live in rooms big and small, both here and on the road, still doing the standup he loves. We wanted to make sure you catch a live set rather than just his screen work, because he's an exciting live talent; nevertheless, don't miss Shillue's hysterical new half-hour cable special, part of the "Comedy Central Presents" series. While it debuted earlier this month, it's so good that the network will undoubtedly continue to air it. To find out more about his schedule, visit www.tomshillue.com.

Jenn Palumbo

Brooklyn-Born Comedy Savvy

This Brooklyn-based comic has the ability to see the ironies in life and make sassy, savvy observations about friends, family, and dating in New York. We especially crack up every time we hear her material about friends who have trouble with the concept of leaving Manhattan to visit her in the faraway land of Brooklyn. ("Will I have to set my clock differently there? Will I need a passport and shots?") Palumbo's wisecracking delivery and attitude are especially present when she is describing herself as "a skeptical Catholic." ("I believe Jesus walked on water. I just also believe it had to have been winter at the time.")

As well as being a sharp, bright writer with a very New York state of mind, she's also an accomplished author of children's plays that are frequently performed around the five boroughs. She's been a guest on "Mancow Morning Madhouse" on WKQX-FM in Chicago and is a board member of Brooklyn Family Theatre, and her comedy essays have been featured online at www.girlcomic.com. Because she has a resume full of acting credits in addition to her strong stage presence and audience appeal as a standup, we could easily see her doing well as a sidekick character on a network or cable TV series or making a serious appearance on the "Law & Order" franchise, "Rescue Me," or "The Sopranos" (she is, after all, of Italian background).

* * *

This group is a small sampling of the great comedy talent developing and flourishing in New York and across our country. We hope you'll look for these standout performers and support their work. You can also keep reading our regular Laughing Matters column for information about comedy and clubs. You'll find that many clubs and performers have websites with updated lineups and calendars. Many performers also now have email lists featuring material from their daily blogs. Blogs are fascinating and fun to read, providing you with insights into a performer's creative process. You'll even occasionally read developing material there before it lands on stage.

As we've recommended in the past, our favorite information source on the Web is the site for "Eating It" (www.eatingit.net), the monthly show now running at the Zipper Theatre. Their emails often tell you when many of their alumni will be making club or TV appearances and are a great barometer for which comics are attracting industry attention. We're also very impressed with the website www.comedysoapbox.com and its creators, comedians Danny McDermott and Steve Hofstetter. Their goal is to help bring comedians to a larger audience and a larger audience to comedians. It's a not-to-be-missed gold mine of information. As always, if there's a comic, group, show, or venue you think we should know about, we invite you to email lafsmatter@aol.com, or send materials to columnist Amelia David, Laughing Matters, c/o Back Stage, 770 Broadway, 4th floor, New York, NY 10003.

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