NYC's Comedy Garden at Madison Square Garden recently hosted a packed, cheering house and an impressive list of judges from ABC Entertainment, PSNBC, Comedy Central, Oxygen Network, and Resorts Atlantic City Casino, all there to witness the finals of the third successful year of the "Ladies of Laughter" contest. This search for "New York's Funniest Female" also benefited Gilda's Club of Westchester and the Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition. LOL, which had semifinals throughout the summer, is produced by former comedienne Peggy Boyce, who I think always deserves kudos for her continuing search to provide opportunities for women in comedy.
While many highly reputable annual contests still provide little more than bragging rights, LOL stands out because comediennes in both professional and amateur divisions compete for $5,000 in cash prizes. You'd have to book a lot of $25 and $50 headliner weekend spots at top NYC comedy clubs before you'd match this contest's $2,500 top prize. It's also a career jumpstart that has provided valuable contacts and TV and club bookings to dozens of talented comediennes. This year it even got the attention of The New York Times, which ran a large and well-deserved article on "professional" division winner comedienne Stephanie Blum, who is also a very funny suburban mom of a toddler and a former high school psychologist. She wowed and won the crowd with a fun, family-oriented, and refreshingly G-rated routine that included jokes on the trials and tribulations of motherhood, wifedom, in-laws, and coping with her unique and wacky family.
What I especially enjoy about Blum's work is how funny the truth can be in her very capable comedic hands. She proves truth is not only stranger than fiction—it's also often hilarious. My favorite is her closing killer bit about her two-year-old son being tested for speech aptitude by a speech therapist with such a thick accent that both child and mom wind up totally confused and in need of a "time out." Her smart observations, natural storytelling ability, and perceptions of her problems and apathetic coping skills are laugh-out-loud silly and very accessible. Any audience can walk away from Blum's set seeing themselves in her life situations (unlike the mistake many others make when their sets become more like therapy or complaining sessions, alienating rather than drawing in the audience). We may not have a two-year-old son at home, but we can still relate to Blum's Oscar Madison-esque attitudes towards her own lack of perfection, especially when compared to her highly competitive sister-in-law and mother-in-law (observations that are obviously made in a loving though cantankerous way).
Blum also deals with her parents' sudden desire to share more personal information about their sex lives and imagined bodily ills than an adult child ever wants to hear. Her very honest set rings true with elements of the domestic imperfections and sassy apathy of a Roseanne Barr, but also with the kinder, gentler delivery of family man Ray Romano. I think she's highly bookable. Blum has already won New York's "Funniest Female" contest at NYC's venerable Comic Strip this year. She's also a past winner of Stand-Up New York's "Funniest Teacher" and appears at top Manhattan clubs, including Caroline's and Gotham Comedy Club. Without the help of an agent or management, she's already opened for Bobby Collins, appeared on HBO's "Sex and the City," been a reporter for Bobby Unser's "Cruisin' America," and co-hosted "Speak Up New York." Blum is also a Meisner-trained actress with assorted film and theatre credits. Sheri Kelton, of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, says Blum is "unique, exciting, and a great role model for women." I heartily agree. Blum is also a great example of how the old adage "write what you know" can give birth to a truthful and thoroughly standout set.
By the way, another winner at "Ladies of Laughter" was Tracy Esposito, my pick for the talented comedienne who most deserves to be booked as a new character on "The Sopranos." Esposito was runner-up in the "Professional" category.
A past winner of the "Ladies of Laughter" contest, one who takes the truth and finely crafts it into hilarious stories and sets, is Wendy Spero, who just finished a sold-out summer "work-in-progress" run of her greatly anticipated one-woman show, "Microthrills," at NYC's Village Lantern—a fun, funky Bleecker Street basement grotto perfect for comedy or one-person shows. With its leopard carpet, cushy banquettes, and exposed brick, the Village Lantern is upscale and intimate, but also the perfect setting for the supremely talented Spero's quirky and perky observations of her life experiences. These "true stories you simply need to hear" include not-to-be-missed tales about selling knives door-to-door, loving "squishy potato bread" (which she even leaves on each table for the audience), and growing up in Manhattan with her sex-therapist mother. The crown jewel of the evening, which is wonderfully directed with the lightest hand by Sheila Head, is a sordid tale about her boyfriend's frighteningly narcissistic landlady and the copious memos she sends to him.
This dishy yet totally vulnerable, real, and honest show explores Spero's joy and almost addictive need to share her experiences with an audience. She also explores the age-old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, or something really outrageous and juicy happens to you but you don't tell someone, did it really happen?" Spero's work is pure guilty pleasure, as well as solid laugh-out-loud comedy—so good you'll need to share it with everyone you know. You may have seen Spero on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend," and she was a regular on Food Network's "Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay." This fall she will appear in the new Monica Potter movie, "I'm with Lucy." Spero has also been featured on "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and continues to do stand-up around the city, recently performing at "Eating It" 's annual "Eating Out." I'm amazed she hasn't already been snatched up to play the quirky roommate or neighbor in some sitcom. Until then, and lucky for us, "Microthrills" will be featured this fall at PSNBC, located in the HERE Arts Center. (You can check their website for the dates; to hear about Spero's other upcoming performances, visit www.wipproductions.com.)