The Jokers Are Wild in Clubs: Comics Brighten Local Nightlife

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 4, 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Jokers Are Wild in Clubs: Comics Brighten Local Nightlife

Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

With his dimpled, Chip Douglas good looks and authentic referee's stripes, Jeff Menkin stands confidently before his captive audience on the small stage in Alexandria's Fun Factory.

A whistle dangling from his neck, he peers into the dark, seeking suggestions for the next round of action in ComedySportz, an improvisation show in which two teams of comedians battle for laughs using suggestions from the audience. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins, and the audience gets to go home.

"I need a place you would not want to take a first date!" he announces.

"Uh . . . ComedySportz!" someone calls out hesitantly.

Mr. Menkin doesn't miss a beat. "Thank you to the single man who's sitting with the couple at the table over there," he replies. Even the victim has to laugh.

Yes, Virginia - and Maryland and Washington - there is comedy in this area, from the competitive, audience-participation fun of ComedySportz to the national acts that come to the District's Improv to the biting political satire of Gross National Product.

"They're an interesting breed," says Improv manager John Xereas, rubbing his chin and smiling. "There's sort of a dementia about them. A lot of them are very personally closed off people, but yet they can get in front of hundreds of people and speak their minds.

"For a lot of them, it's almost therapy."

Seeing comedy live differs completely from watching it on cable or video, and stand-up comedians will tell you that. That's why many TV comedians seem so unfunny.

"You have to be in there, in the crowd, watching their delivery," says lanky local comedian Bobby Singfield. "Watch someone on cable, and they're talking to other people in the room.

"And laughter is contagious. It would be like going to the Improv and looking in the window. You kind of feel like an outsider. You've got to be there when they make fun of the guy next to you."

Most cities aren't thick with comedy clubs the way they were in the 1980s, but Washington has a smattering that can fill up the weekend. And more often than not, it's the out-of-town comedians who want to carry on about Bill Clinton, the Redskins or Marion Barry.

"Comics love to come here, especially the ones that are more on the clever, witty side, because people get their jokes," Mr. Xereas says.

* * *

Jerry Terlitzky ambles about Fun Factory, his half-glasses dangling from a string around his neck. His two teams of comedians are in the parking lot, psyching themselves up for the 8:15 p.m. performance of ComedySportz.

All of the actors' caricatures are posted in the back of the room. The Red Team's Bob Garman, a dead ringer for Dana Carvey, steps out beforehand to play a shell game with two girls in the front row.

"This is covert," he says as they giggle. "I'm not allowed to be here."

Behind the stage is a faux brick wall lined with hooks holding various costumes the performers will don for the competition. Suddenly, the comedians burst out from the back room, screaming like banshees, getting in people's faces and leaping around the room like Senate pages.

Mary Lou Massey walks around with a catatonic stare, holding a sign that says simply, "Blank Stares." Harry Stone shoves a huge sandwich in his mouth, screaming as the remnants spill out, "Anybody want some?"

At the sound of the whistle, the seven comedians scamper to their places on each side of the stage. (A "designated jokester," in this case the hilarious Ceci Stephens, switches sides when either team performs, giving each team a total of four comics.)

"Mr. Ref" then explains his coaching signals to "tonight's loyal fanz"


* A circular motion with his index finger means "delay of game" (i.e., if either team is stuck on a scene and must pick up the action).

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