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Monday, August 26, 2019

Comedy Gets Serious

From the Vault Dept.: New York’s Capital Region endured a comedy threat 33 years ago – at least, that’s when I wrote this piece about it. Otherwise, the story speaks for itself. But I should note that Janette Barber has gone on to win six Emmy Awards, including those for her work with Rosie O’Donnell; Vinny Montello became known for “Between Brothers,” “Pranks,” and “Loonatics Unleashed.” The clubs mentioned below have long since shuttered.


“COMICS AND ROCK STARS are the only people today who are talking about anything important,” says comic Janette Barber. “I mean, this country is making such an incredible swing to the right that somebody’s got to say something!”

Original Metroland art by Brian Pearce
She has just finished a high-energy set at Bicycle Annie’s in Colonie and is talking quite seriously about what drives her up on stage looking for laughs. She was all orange and white onstage – white outfit with big padded shoulders, a curly orange mane, bright cheeks. She flashed a big smile as she delivered another killer thrust: “How old are you, honey?” she asked a man in the front row. “Twenty-eight? I’m 33. I always tell my age. They say a man reaches his sexual peak at 18.” This was exhaled in a sweet Katharine Hepburn voice. “Now, a woman doesn’t reach her peak until her mid-30s. Sorry, dear.”

Stand-up comedy has been an entertainment staple for as long as people have failed to laugh for themselves. The concerns that repress laughter – careers, families, ethics – are the comic’s best targets.

“I went out after the show last night,” Vinny Montello declares from Annie’s stage. “I went to the all-night convenience store in Albany – what’s it called?” He feigns a slip of memory. Montello grew up in Brooklyn and still speaks the language of that borough. He has a plastic Belushi face with dark, nervous eyes. “Convenience!” someone shouts.

“Yeah, that’s right. ‘Convenience.’ It’s like they got the people in Albany together and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna build an all-night convenience store here – whattaya want to call it?”

Montello’s humor is a flight of the imagination. Barber mocks the comforts and obligations of middle-class life, beginning with a diatribe against babies. “I always have the urge to squeeze them,” she says affably, then screeches: “Until they pop!”

The headliner of the evening, Kelly Rodgers, is older than the other two. He brings a guitar onstage to lampoon popular music, but his opening reveals him to be in a world of his own. “How are you, good to see you, nice to be back in Albany – that’s a stupid thing to say, I’ve never been here before – where’re you from? That’s great, be playing there next week, got an uncle who lives there, toured there last summer, nice tits, what a great room this is – uh-oh. Thought I could sneak the tits thing in there without you noticing.”

His is a run-on free association, reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s anarchic Goon shows. He does a bit about cats that turns into an anthropomorphic impression of getting high on catnip.

“I used to play in a rock band,” he says after the show, “a comic band that did musical satire. Then I went on my own.” The cynicism beneath his humor informs his attitude towards the business of comedy: “It’s peaking now, more than it has in many years. But I think it’s at its peak.”

“I don’t know if it’s peaked just yet,” says Montello. “But when it starts to die it’ll be because of all the second-rate comics who are getting work right now. There’s more work right now than there are comics, so a lot of people are getting jobs who shouldn’t – and they’re going to turn off the audiences.”

The audience this particular evening at Bicycle Annie’s appears largely composed of people in their early 20s – students and young professionals. They’re dressed in baggy jackets and pastel colors and, since they’re often the targets of the comics, they’re not always sure when to laugh.
Montello insists that “we don’t want the audience to hate us. Still, we have to poke fun at them.” Their basic concerns are ridiculed because those concerns are so common. “Is this your girlfriend? Think you’re gonna score tonight?”

The show is terrific. All three performers are very professional and very funny.

“1 don’t do jokes,” Montello explains. “I’m doing a commentary. What happened to me. Christ, I grew up Catholic in an Italian family in Brooklyn. Every day something happened to me as a kid that I can use in my act.”

Barber shocks the crowd by saying exactly what you fear your girlfriend may be thinking when communication breaks down, usually about when sex first enters the picture. “I just adore men,” she croons with that disarming smile. “1 mean, they’re not at all like women, never will be. And I can understand why they don’t use their heads when they’re looking for a place to put that thing – why, they just don’t have any blood left in their brains!”

THE LOCAL COMEDY CIRCUIT includes another Albany club, The Comedy Works on  Central Avenue. And city after city is coming up with similar venues, places like Comedy Mode in Allentown, Pa., and Giggles in Tampa. And there are new television opportunities: The Letterman show is big on young comics, and cable stations are also producing new comedy shows.

“But it’s not like you can work a circuit,” says Rodgers. “You have to find the agent who books the clubs. Some guys may book 25 clubs and can send you around, but it’s not like you can do a 25-week circuit, either.”

“Most of the agents have their own little circuits,” says Montello. “And you go from one agent to another.”

Joe Murray, a husky fellow with red hair and a college-freshman face, books the comics into Bicycle Annie’s. He opens and closes this evening’s show with a brief routine of his own. “I book some acts into the Comedy Works,” he explains, “and I work for a lot of colleges, bringing comedy into the colleges here, Rochester, Syracuse.” He, too, has seen the opportunities open up and maintains a personal and professional hope that this phenomenon will continue.

It certainly pleases Jane Bellamy, who owns and runs Bicycle Annie’s with her husband, John. “We started bringing comedy in here about five months ago,” she says. “At first it was just on Thursdays, but we really couldn’t afford to bring in good talent for just one night a week. So we expanded to Thursday through Sunday.”

It’s still a risky venture. Receipts are good on Fridays and Saturdays, she observes, and they are experimenting with advertised come-ons to bring the audience in the other two nights.

Comedy was a feature at On The Shelf in downtown Albany, but it foundered after a few months. “That wasn’t really the place fpr it,” says Murray. “Too formal.”

Bellamy adapted the dance-club ambience of Annie’s to a nightclub environment with a cluster of little tables around a similarly small stage. “Waste of a perfectly good ping pong table,” as Montello described it.

“JOHN AND I FOUND THAT COMEDY was something we liked to go see once or twice a month,” Bellamy explains. “We wanted to go out, and we don’t really dance, and you get tired of going to the movies. Then we decided that the area could use a five-dollar entertainment thing, and we started bringing the comedy in here. And the dancing here is also important.”

The dancing starts around midnight, after the show, after the stage is removed and the disco lights flick on. This evening, Rodgers informs us that “disco” is back. “They’re calling it dance music so people won’t know it’s the same thing,” he says, as he begins rhythmically slapping the microphone, and singing a medley of disco hits, sequeing in mid-lyric.

Rodgers is going to Australia soon. He has made two successful tours of that continent and looks forward to his return. “But I have to adapt my material,” he says. “For instance, they don’t have catnip down there. But they have eucalyptus trees, and the koalas eat the leaves and get stoned. So I say that I smoked eucalyptus and found myself hanging upside down from a tree and doing airline commercials.”

Montello heads south soon, back to his home in Florida and some jobs in Miami Beach. Barber has been playing the South, too, but has couple of dates in New York first. “You have to be careful down there,” says Montello. “I mean, the word ‘fuck’ is actually illegal in some of the towns I play.”

“That’s right,” Barber adds. “Before I played one date in Louisiana I was told not to do any Bible jokes.”

Rodgers laughs. “They actually arrested Sam Kinison down there. But he’s so outrageous – that man is an evangelist. He’s doing what every comic dreams of doing.” Rodgers does a very credible imitation of a Kinson routine.

All three agree that they don’t pursue the controversial for its own sake, “but you have to find your hook,” says Montello. And he succinctly sums up-the essence of the comic’s art: “I’d hate to think that Lenny Bruce died in vain.”

Metroland Magazine, 9 October 1986

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