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This year, we've especially come to appreciate the talented few who are able to give us the gift of laughter during even the most troubled times. Comedy continues to make news this year as the media and Washington watch how comics reflect and influence our ever-changing political, emotional, and social landscape. As for the rest of us, we just really need a good laugh now more than ever.

Even traditional Western medicine is embracing how comedy can be used to help relieve stress and aid in the treatment of illness. Laughter is believed to raise a patient's pain-fighting endorphins, which strengthen the immune system and lower blood pressure and stress. Many hospitals now have comedy videotape libraries and prescribe a daily dosage of levity from them. So, after searching for exciting and diverse comedy performances and venues all year in our "Laughing Matters" comedy column, we're offering you our own levity prescription by shining our annual comedy spotlight on the 10 standouts of 2002.

How did we find this year's talent? We do have the benefit of receiving listings, press kits, tapes, and invites for numerous shows and industry showcases. We also hear from club and festival bookers, agents, managers, publicists, and producers. Most importantly, we get recommendations from comics we already admire. More often than not, however, we're just like you. We go to see a show, or a performer who's being talked about, and instead find ourselves walking away the diehard fan of the opening act, or the last-minute addition to the lineup whom we'd never heard of before. Or we go to a venue with a new open mike and catch a complete unknown, or channel surf on cable and find some offbeat program with the debut of a comic so funny that we can't wait to see him or her live.

We then follow their careers, reviewing and supporting them as they build, and sharing our comedy finds with you, particularly as we see these artists getting both recognition, and the jobs where we know you'll regularly be able to find them. While some of these names may be new to you, they aren't new to the business. (Even an overnight comedy success is usually a performer who spent years seasoning an act and finding a personal comedy voice.) These 10 have been honing their comedy craft and paying their dues. We believe they have long successful futures ahead with lots of laughs to offer you.

Eddie Pepitone

Man of a Thousand Characters

Comedy performers and audiences who follow the stand-up, sketch, and alternative comedy scene on NYC's Lower East Side are already discovering and becoming diehard fans of the characters and comedy of Eddie Pepitone. Whether performing his multi-character solo shows, hosting a comedy lineup, or leaping out of the audience to create some surprise hilarity, Pepitone's fearless comic energy (especially when his characters show a dark side) is uniquely balanced with a likeable "Everyman" charisma reminiscent of Gleason, Winters, and O'Connor. He also shows their same talent and physical control for making even rage lovable.

It was in his sketch group, "Blue Collar Guys," where we first witnessed Pepitone's talent for finding the endearing and comedic side of the most blustering, ranting, sad sack individuals. He's also toured the country doing improv with Chicago City Limits, and has been featured as a stand-up at the major NYC comedy venues. He recently completed a three-month run of his third solo show, "The Big Push," at NYC's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, subsequently performing the show to rave reviews at HBO's WORKSPACE in L.A.

If you can't get to one of Pepitone's shows, you can catch him making regular TV appearances as the "Angry Guy" on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." He also just wrapped shooting "Old School" for Dreamworks, along with Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell. The film is slated for an October 2002 release, and we're sure there'll be much more screen work ahead. In the meantime, NYC audiences can enjoy Pepitone co-hosting "Hump Night" at the UCB Theatre every Wednesday (with Sean Conroy, one of the stellar stand-ups from last year's Back Stage comedy spotlight). "Hump Night" is a free weekly showcase of stand-ups and alternative comedy. Pepitone's off-the-cuff banter with Conroy, and their creativity and comedic chemistry, are not to be missed.

Sara Contreras

Keeping It Real

For Brooklyn comedian and writer Sara Contreras, "keeping it real" provides a strong thread running through her deliciously sassy act. Showing great pride in and a sense of humor about her Puerto Rican heritage, she won the Female Performer Award from the N.Y. Comedy Club Latino Laughter Comedy Awards, and she's just finishing shows at NYC's The Supper Club as part of a Comedy Central Urban Comedy Special. She's been featured at the Marshalls Women in Comedy Festival and Toyota Comedy Festival, and her comedy appearances include the MGM Grand, Dangerfields, Stand-Up New York, Boston Comedy Club, and New York Comedy Club. She's also written for "La Familia" (an animated series at icaramba.com).

Contreras' background as a licensed speech-language pathologist and assistant principal provides great material. Her good-natured replays of the serious mangling of the English language she hears when dealing with the parents of her speech clients and students, as well as her take on her own mom's exasperating "Spanglish," are hilarious. It's a wonderful blend of 2002 streetwise savvy combined with the best language comedy à la Desi and Lucy. You can tell as well from Contreras' passionate yet upbeat stage act and lightning-bolt presence that she'd be a strong acting addition to a sitcom or television drama. We hope the "Law & Order" franchise's recent trend of using talented N.Y. comics in dramatic roles will soon include Contreras.

Liam McEneaney

The Write Stuff

We first became aware of the observational wit of stand-up, writer, and producer Liam McEneaney when he began sending our "Laughing Matters" column offbeat emails. Since his listings were so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, we weren't surprised to learn that he has appeared at clubs throughout the Northeast and Canada, as well as on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" (and their website's "Comedy Central Spotlight" for the HA! Comedy Festival). He's also served as head writer for The Humor Network.

McEneaney's unique style came through in his weekly emailed observations, which were similar to material in his shows "Festival Of Laughter" and "The Laffeteria" (a show NBC's "Late Friday" liked enough to use as an audition showcase). His listings also provided us with sly takes on spam email, offering weekly suggestions of how readers could struggle to be removed from his email list while parodying pop psychology by detailing the emotional and physical consequences of succeeding. This device is being used by growing numbers of comics for email listings, but McEneaney's are always a cut above the rest. McEneaney also uses his emails to promote other comics' shows when his own are between venues, a trend that we're glad to see is growing. It allows us to continue to read his material regularly while introducing us to other performers on the NYC alternative comedy circuit.

McEneaney is often featured at venues such as Luna Lounge and PSNBC. He also writes and performs sketch comedy, has co-hosted a sketch show on the Pseudo Online Network, and was recently invited to perform an original sketch at Irving Plaza. You can sample McEneaney's random writings at his "blog" (a.k.a. web log), which we think is a great venue. It challenges comics to keep writing regularly, and allows their audiences to get to know them by observing how rough observations get honed into performable material. You can find "The Liam McEneaney Experience!" at www.kidliam.blogspot.com.

Eliot Chang

Facing the Fear Factor

What struck us when we first saw comedian and actor Eliot Chang take the stage at NYC's Comic Strip Live were his electric energy, confidence, and stage presence. Chang is a refreshingly honest comic who prefers not to rely on ethnic humor and stereotypes. He especially grabbed us with his take on his life in Harlem (imagine continually having to fight off the offers of lifts from cab drivers and policemen, who constantly think you've gotten lost in the wrong part of town and need to be rescued).

In the past few years, Chang has toured across the U.S. to sold-out crowds. He's appeared in numerous commercials, on Metro Channel's "New Joke City," and, most recently, on NBC's "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." Whether doing a short set or his one-man show, "Face Fear," he prefers to talk frankly about real issues, but is still able to find the funny while sharing joy and pain in an intimate, conversational performance. While his razor-sharp tongue and dangerous mind like to attack hot-button topics like drugs, nicotine addiction, steroids, wheelchairs, the homeless, religion, and sex (from the regular to the freaky), his material is never insulting to any race, sex, or creed. The solo show's title is also an invitation to audiences to think for themselves and face their own fears. While that may sound like a serious night of theatre, we can't imagine anyone walking away from seeing Chang who didn't have fun and laugh out loud.

Chang also has a background as an actor and is a company member at the Actors Playground in NYC, as well as being a member of the "Just Us League Players," an improv and sketch group specializing in "Guerilla Comedy." To find out more about Eliot Chang's performances, visit www.echang.com

Becky Donohue

Girlcomic

Look up feisty in the dictionary and you might find a picture of Becky Donohue. This stand-up comic, who is also a William Esper and Lee Strasberg Institute-trained actress, born and bred in NYC, could easily bask in the glow of being laugh-out-loud funny. She's got comedy and storytelling skills that are brainy, sharp, and high energy, embracing the wild twists and turns, excitement, and way-too-much drama involved with being a New Yorker. She was just profiled on comedycentral.com, appeared in the Sundance selection "The Interrogation," and joined the Toronto "She's So Funny" stand-up special. She's a favorite feature at PSNBC and Luna Lounge, and works such premier clubs as Comic Strip Live and Gotham Comedy Club (when she isn't playing colleges and the road).

Not content just to enjoy being one of the few women welcome on the male-oriented lineups in town, Donohue also hosts and produces one of the hottest downtown rooms, the b3 Comedy Lounge, where she gives other women comics (as well as men) the chance to shine and work in a supportive room. She presents a weekly no cover, no minimum, high caliber show on Wednesday nights at 8 pm that is one of the longest-running shows in the city. To back up her strong belief that comedy should not be an exclusively male domain, Donohue also co-founded (with stand-up, actress, and satirical essayist Jen Kirkman of Premium Blend, Cartoon Network's "Home Movies, Luna Lounge, and PSNBC) the webzine www.girlcomic.net, the first webzine to expose and celebrate the often-overlooked talent of female comedians.

Donohue and Kirkman believe that the Internet could expand the reach of incredibly talented comics who often get ensconced in New York and L.A. These comedians first and writers second have been getting out the message that funny women's voices need to be unleashed. They want to provide the virtual stage, and celebrate their one-year zine anniversary this month. Girlcomic.net creates a place where women (and even a monthly "token male") can submit work and get their writing read, alongside helpful articles and interviews from other top women comics.

We look forward to Donohue's solo show, "Stupid American (gringo estupido)," playing Mondays in May at 8 pm at the UCB Theatre, and June 24 and 25 at 9 pm at the PSNBC space at HERE. In it, Donohue answers the question, "What happens when you disrespect an immigrant parent who has a country she ran from, and which she could send you back to?"

Craig Baldo

He's Got the Music in Him

Craig Baldo is one of the multitalented performers whose comic writing has been featured on the "token male" segment of Girlcomic.net. His fresh, hip material—peppered with music and pop culture references—is making him a familiar face on TV and in comedy clubs. Using his background in music (he plays guitar, piano, and congas), this self-described "guitar comic" soon shed the "guitar," and instead now uniquely infuses bits and characters with music. Two of our favorites: the guy who takes his mom to a rave for Mother's Day, and the clueless club kid who can't get the techno beats he's been dancing to out of his head.

Baldo's musical material served him well doing audience warm-up for over a thousand Destiny's Child fans for CBS' "The Early Show," and as studio warm-up for VH1's "Never Mind the Buzzcocks." It's also part of what makes him stand out at "Eating It," the Luna Lounge Monday show, where we first saw him and where he performs regularly. This packed night, produced by Naomi Frisch and Jeff Singeris, is a must-see for catching up-and-coming, as well as established, stars who are developing material. (This booking team's comedy savvy is one of "Laughing Matters" best resources for finding talent.)

Baldo also honed his comedy chops during his six-month run of "Chunky Bits" (a weekly stand-up and video shorts show he produced and hosted at NYC's Siberia Bar). His accessible, laidback, but obviously exuberant enjoyment of sharing the funny with audiences goes over whether he's at the West Village Comedy Cellar or the Boston Comedy Club, in upscale rooms like Gotham Comedy Club and Carolines, or serving as MC for Rich Hall at The Riviera in Las Vegas.

Along with club appearances, you can spot Baldo in sketches on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," as well as on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" and NBC's "Late Friday." As an actor, film work includes "Whaa, Huhhh" (featured in the N.Y. Comedy Film Festival), and The Village Voice just singled him out for his stage appearance in Trilogy Theatre's "Roadkill." He's now finishing an NYC run at HERE in "It's a Detective Agency (and everyone's English)," which also features past Back Stage Bistro Award-winning comic Tom Shillue. You can still catch Baldo on May 21 and 22, and we're sure you'll be seeing much more from him in the future on stage and screen.

Mike Birbiglia

A Name to Remember

When Mike Birbiglia started in comedy, people advised him to "change the name." Still, despite the fact that one of his fun bits centers around his ease at recognizing telemarketers because of how they mangle his name, we're sure stage and TV audiences will remember it because of his talent. After being selected one of the "New Faces" in Montreal's "Just For Laughs Festival," he was then mentioned in Variety as one of those generating the most "industry heat." Birbiglia was also named one of "Seventeen New Voices for a New Generation" by Seventeen Magazine (along with Josh Hartnett, Venus and Serena Williams, and Chelsea Clinton), and his appearance on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" went so well that it was used for the season promo.

What sets Birbiglia apart is an earnest likeability, not only in his stage persona, but also in his writing. He has the rare gift for being clever while never being "slick," and remains true to who he is offstage, taking how he sees the world, relationships, and even his fear of bears to make winning sets. It's quite impressive how he covers such a wide range of today's topics while still working totally "clean," providing a set that's juicy for adults, yet family friendly enough to make him perfect for a sitcom. Birbiglia combines a comfort in his own skin with an obvious love of performance that clearly dates way back (he has such great material about his many brushes with the stage through school shows and writing awards).

Our favorite material involves his showing (and good naturedly poking fun at) childhood drawings, songs, poetry, and writing assignments. The material celebrates the unwavering confidence only children can possess and is comfort comedy at its best. In sixth grade, he wrote and performed a rap song for a graduation ceremony, and we wonder if that was the inspiration for his sly material about rappers, including jokes about his own yearning to be a rapper comic. He also has a fun alter ego—a "cracker" comic who thinks he's all that while trying to use the word "cracka" as many times as he can in his act (imagine Beaver Cleaver trying to channel Huggy Bear or Busta Rhymes).

Birbiglia is also a talented actor and improv performer. While attending Georgetown University, he was cast in "The Georgetown Players" and won "The Funniest Person on Campus Contest." This earned him a chance at the D.C. Improv, where he honed his act before bringing it to NYC's Carolines and Comic Strip Live, where he's featured regularly. He also performs in NYC with the improv group, "Littleman." It's even worth a trip to Brooklyn to catch his every-first-Wednesday-of-the-month show, "Birbiglia Live," at The East End Ensemble, where he combines his own half-hour set on fun themes like pizza tasting with the work of other comics. You can find his performance information at www.birbigs.com.

Littleman

Big Improv Talent

We first encountered the innovative, well-oiled improv love fest that is Littleman last year, after we'd already run both our comedy and improv issues. They had an impressive pedigree, having been together for six years, beginning as students at Georgetown University, experimenting with Chicago-style long form, and building a strong following via word of mouth. They even hosted improv guru Charna Halpern and the group "Frank Booth" from Chicago's Improv Olympic, and studied with other respected members of the improv culture, including members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. They also held their own successful improv festivals in D.C. We enjoyed their fun and intriguing materials, and the invitations for their SRO NYC summer shows titled "Free Ice Cream" (to evoke a sweet summer memory and continue what we now know is their ongoing tradition of offering free sweets to entice their audience). We were interested, but having just covered the NYC improv scene, made a note to catch them later. As the seasons changed, we went back, read the fine print, and realized that Mike Birbiglia, whose stand-up we were already hooked on, was also part of this group. When we rushed out to see a "Free Hot Chocolate" show, we were so impressed that we decided they deserved their own separate place in this year's top 10.

So what makes Brian Donovan, Ed Herro, Nick Kroll, Conrad Mulcahy, and Mike Birbiglia stand out in the already not-to-be-beat NYC improv community? Something that sounds so easy, but is so easily forgotten—they truly listen to each other. It's obviously the top priority in their work. They have a genuine onstage camaraderie and joy in what they're doing that can't be faked, and their individual acting, characterization, and comedy talents (Herro and Kroll are stand-ups as well) are more evenly matched than in any group we know. At their shows, we laughed even harder than at our favorite improv groups, and were impressed with how they never relied on getting cheap laughs by using impediments or cracking each other up. They knew that less is more, providing real, down-to-earth conversations even between their most weird and offbeat characters. They also made sure to set their scenes seamlessly, making sure that the audience knew character names and scene locations, thus allowing us to relax and get immersed in their reality.

Littleman is also comedy comfort food at it's best and, luckily, you can catch them at the UCB Theatre on Thurs., June 6 at 11 pm. They'll be one of the teams featured in UCB's popular "Cage Match NYC," where improv groups compete against each other in a no-holds-barred competition. The audience determines the winner each week via secret ballot, and the winner returns the following week to defend the title against a new challenger. You can visit www.littlemanimprov.com for more details.

Marta Ravin

The World According to Marta

Before viewers were hooked on the shopping and dating habits of the gals in HBO's "Sex and the City," NYC audiences had their own guilty pleasure—the wackiness of comedian Marta Ravin on subjects like living beyond her means and dating. This comedian's stage alter ego is a single woman who doesn't apologize for wondering on a first meeting if her date can support her in the style to which her credit cards have made her accustomed. She's also not afraid to say that a great vacation is a six-city, nine-man tour of Italy, or that her love life post Sept. 11 can be described as "America Strikes Back Sex" (befriending men she'd never have thought of having sex with under different circumstances).

As well as appearing on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend," and being the former host of VH1's "Rock Of Ages," Ravin has made us giggle on the stages of many comedy clubs. She has also written, produced, and performed two one-woman shows. Both "An All Star Celebrity Benefit to Support the Marta Ravin Foundation for the Previously Privileged" and "Little Girl Laugh: The Marta Ravin True Hollywood Story" have titles that already give you an idea of the silliness provided. What makes her dating woes unique is the good-natured heart that shines through her wild tales, which run the gamut from bizarre to painful. You know these stories are all true, and that she still remains a hopeful rather than helpless (or angry) romantic.

If stage time is her therapy, as she ditzily wonders at her taste in men or her spending habits, it's our therapy, too, allowing us to laugh at our own dating and money horror stories by laughing at hers. Ravin is now a welcome addition to TV's Oxygen Network, both as the producer for its flagship half-hour magazine show, "Pure Oxygen," and as an on-the-air contributor providing segments focusing on men and celebrities (with her usual sense of humor). While her new producing schedule means less late nights in clubs, you'll still find her in NYC (we've caught her at Gotham Comedy Club and Luna Lounge), as well as on the air. We're especially looking forward to the new material she'll no doubt soon be discovering and creating, now that she's gotten engaged and is planning her wedding for Memorial Day 2003.

Mike Britt

A Passion for Comedy

We were already sold this year on telling readers about the comedic talents of Mike Britt, but after his recent knockout first performance on "Late Night with David Letterman," we know it won't be long before others will be singing his praises as well. Britt has winning material in so many diverse areas, but we especially admire how his observations about dating strong, independent women are not only funny, but also refreshingly non-derogatory. After Sept. 11, he also has wise, good-natured, and wonderfully honest material about how we look at others, and about how our lives have been changed. Among his on-the-money observations: Why not use the folks who track down defaulters on student loans (to which Britt pleads guilty) to find Bin Laden? If only we did, it would all be over by now.

Britt received the ultimate comedic seal of approval when David Letterman invited him to sit at his desk and chat after the set. It reminded us that Ray Romano's appearance on "Letterman," after many years of paying his dues, got the ball rolling for his current success. We believe Britt's future deserves to be equally as bright. It's hard to imagine that this Brooklyn native with a degree in commerce and engineering wasn't interested in pursuing comedy professionally, despite the pleasure he took in making people laugh. He credits workshops at the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem for giving him a blueprint to maximize his talent.

When talking with Britt, you quickly understand that he takes very seriously the new importance that being a comic has for "bringing much needed smiles to the faces of so many heavy hearts." He's now performed all over the world, opening for The Kings Of Comedy Tour, and appearing at the Montreal "Just For Laughs" and Aspen "U.S. Comedy Arts" festivals. He's been featured on "Def Comedy Jam," "Showtime at the Apollo," "Premium Blend," and at celebrity Roasts for Sean "Puffy" Combs and Ed Lover and Dr. Dre. This talented writer co-wrote D. L. Hughley's "Goin' Home" special for HBO, and just had his own half-hour "Comedy Central Presents" special. (Night owls can catch a rebroadcast May 19 at 2:30 am.) He's also a member of the sketch and improv group, "The Goon Squad," and his sketch work has been featured on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Britt likes to remember that even in this time of turmoil, you can see comedy club audiences on any given night finding, at least for a few hours, that at least they have laughter in common. We heartily agree when he observes, "That's a good start."

* * * *

We hope you'll look for these standout performers, who are just a sample of the exciting talent developing not only in NYC and other metro areas, but across the country as well. You can also keep reading our regular "Laughing Matters" column for information about comedy and clubs, and watch for the July 5 issue of Back Stage, which will feature many off-the-beaten-path, non traditional venues offering less expensive or free comedy shows. You'll find many clubs also provide websites with updated lineups, and even specific shows like "Eating It" now have websites (www.eatingit.net) and email lists that tell you when many of their performers make club or TV appearances. 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, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10003.

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