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Rut-Busting Comedy

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Whether you're a stand-up or an audience member, once you've found clubs you like, it's easy to become pleasantly lulled into a comedy rut. You could, however, be missing out on other roads (or, in New York, subway lines) less traveled, leading to great venues, performances, and opportunities. Different rooms also have their own brands of audience. References that soar in one room (or even state) may tank in another. To be a versatile comic, you must challenge yourself to move easily between styles, from urban or alternative comedy to honing your crowd work at an upscale venue to having that seven-minute squeaky-clean industry showcase audition set. It's best as well not to get too attached to one place in a lineup. Opportunities can be found in any slot, be it MC/host, opening act, following the headliner, the dreaded set after a musical act, or even performing in the check slot. This last is when the audience is either receiving/talking about the bill or starting to leave; it's a challenge, but I've seen amazing performances from comics prepared for it.

One comic who rules anywhere in a lineup, but especially as audiences get antsy, is Bruce Smirnoff. He's a great storyteller, and his confidence under fire may be because of the comedy mishaps he shares so openly. Imagine how you might have handled it if, on that rare occasion when Johnny Carson actually made an appearance at the Hollywood Improv, Budd Friedman chose to put you on stage. The room is putty in your hands when suddenly a drugged-out heckler (the son of your agent) destroys your performance. But you're still expected to drive Carson home after the show. And what would you have done after being fired on your first day of shooting "Archie Bunker's Place"? Or after being asked to leave some of Hollywood's most prestigious acting schools?

If it sounds like the horrible performer's nightmares we all get (but thankfully wake from), it's instead a page out of Smirnoff's past. This self-deprecating comic's life and delivery is a delicious Stage Deli platter mixing Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. He's hilarious describing the crazy women he meets (think of it as being on a date while cranking a jack-in-the-box—you're hearing that hypnotically lulling tune while knowing that at any moment a scary figure might pop out and strike). On any night he's performing (regularly at NYC's The Comic Strip and many clubs), what especially makes audiences love Smirnoff is that you can tell he still genuinely loves what he's doing.

Wanting to avoid my own comedy rut, I recently rode a surprisingly quick three subway stops outside of Manhattan to see "Brooklyn Brew Ha Ha," a weekly Saturday night 8 pm show at the East End Ensemble (273 Smith St.; (718) 624-8878). This small but mighty vintage clothing store/gallery by day is a music/comedy showcase and bar/salon by night. The venue has a magical feel for both audience and performers, who often challenge themselves to improvise, offering new observations on what it's like to do comedy in such offbeat surroundings. Kudos especially to comic Larry Getlen, who books the Saturday night show and is often the evening's host. His weekly lineups consistently feature a wise and balanced mix of bright developing newcomers, along with talented comics you'll see at traditional NYC rooms and performers from Luna Lounge, PSNBC, and the UCB.

At the show I attended, hosting duties were playfully provided by comic and SNL writer Ritch Duncan. I've enjoyed him in clubs and when he had a show on WMCA, but I especially liked this set. As a host, Duncan's observational and self-deprecating wit had even more of a chance to shine. His energetic mix of trying out (to the audience's delight) "fresh off the presses jokes," crowd work, and his own funny set material made the night a real party. One of my favorites: his bit about how, if someone told us hot dogs were really made out of the least appetizing animal body parts we could possibly imagine, we'd be shocked but so fascinated those parts tasted good that we'd eat them anyway.

One of the evening's standout performances came from stand-up and Esper-trained actor David Fenton. His dark but good-natured humor and sly, wicked observations were balanced by the sort of likeability that left the audience obviously wanting more. I loved his take on why New Yorkers become hostile, complete with a very funny performance of the song Mister Softee trucks play, explaining how it makes pedestrians yearn for a shotgun rather than ice cream. And he was especially funny transforming into his young nephew and asking questions like, "Why can't we put fire on the baby?" Fenton's material about the weirder courses in The Learning Annex catalogue was also fun. I think this edgy comic's one to watch, and look forward to seeing more of him at venues including the Tuesday "Big Fun" 9 pm shows at NYC's Bar None (98 Third Ave.; (212) 777-6663), a new venue for comedy that's also been presenting impressive lineups.

After enjoying his smartly brewed Brooklyn set, I now understand why I've been seeing Jon Frisch on lineups for PSNBC, Luna, and The Comic Strip. This likeable performer was able to take the smallest things and create real comedy gems. I liked his idea for customizing luggage tags: "If you enjoyed my stuff, here's my address where you can get more." He also observed that he uses nine towels a day when in a hotel, but of course still hasn't washed his one towel at home. His dating and relationship material was great as well. Frisch recently came in third place (out of 200) in the Boston Comedy Festival, and he's advanced to the finals for this year's Comedy Central "Laugh Riots." We're rooting for him.

"Brooklyn Brew Ha Ha" had many performers with potential whom I look forward to seeing more of, including Val Kappa, Pat Galante, Nellie Stevens, Jessi Klein, and Ben Morrison, a stand-up who also has his own monthly production, "Come Drunk," at The St. Marks Theatre. This SRO well kept NYC secret just celebrated its second anniversary of presenting great lineups and headliners (always combined with an after-show party). I haven't yet, but I look forward to catching one of Morrison's lineups in the future.

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