Being Funny Is Serious Business For Fledgling Troupe Full-time Workers Are Moonlighting In Restaurant Show

December 09, 1990|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff writer

During the week, they work as waiter, banker, salesman, business owner and at other occupations.

But on Saturday nights, after the work week is done, they band together to do what is truly important to them -- comedy.

Two months ago, a dozen area comedians, writers and producers achieved what some of them had talked about for years. They brought comedy to Howard County in the form of a troupe called "Contents Under Pressure."

The group started performing in September on Saturday nights at Baxter's restaurant in historic Ellicott City to full houses -- which at Baxter's is about 50 people.

Since then, attendance has dropped by about half at each of the two nighttime shows, performers said. But troupe members hope that with time, they'll develop a loyal following and a secure place in Howard County night life.

With the ticket price at $10 for the show and two drinks, the troupe is hardly getting rich. Ticket sales are split between the troupe and the house, so even on nights when both shows sell out, the troupe clears about $500.

Troupe members said they aren't currently performing at Baxter's for the money. But they love comedy and the theater and hope their exposure will lead to better-paying jobs in the field.

"I think everyone is doing it because they love it. It's similar to your local band," said troupe producer Richard Diehl of Elkridge. "We're barely making gas money from it now. But, hopefully, we can get bigger houses eventually."

Troupe director Herb G. Otter Jr. of Baldwin said he has done mostly drama during his 20-year theater career and really wanted to do comedy.

"I've always had a desire to be funny," he said.

Otter said the challenge of creating their own show is also attractive to troupe members. "When we go on stage, it's really our own," he said.

Diehl, who owns a computer software company in Ellicott City, said he has been involved with the theater since college. During college, he had his own comedy troupe, he said.

When he found out that a group of local comedians wanted to get a troupe going, he agreed to produce the show for next to nothing. "I was really interested in helping these people realize their dreams," he said.

On a recent Saturday night, the audience seemed to enjoy the show.

"It was fun, but they could use a little work," said Carol Anne Callahan of Bowie, who was called on to participate in one of the skits.

"It was a good night out. It's a lot different from the usual stuff," said her husband, David Callahan.

Polish aside, the troupe has no lack of energy and enthusiasm.

Playing to such a small house allows audience participation in several of the skits, a technique that consistently produces good results, said Otter.

The troupe's brand of comedy follows in the tradition of Saturday Night Live and Second City Television, said Diehl, one of two troupe members who live in Howard County. Bill Bradford, who primarily does technical jobs such as lights and sound, lives in Ellicott City. Other troupe members are from Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Eight of the 12 members perform regularly; the others work as producer, assistant director, business manager and technician.

"Contents Under Pressure" differs from what's done in Baltimore's comedy clubs, Diehl said, because the focus is on skits rather than stand-up comedy. However, troupe members do a little stand-up, too.

Troupe members pitch in to write the ever-changing material. Diehl and Otter said each show is a combination of old and new material. They hope by adding fresh material regularly, the troupe will encourage patrons to return frequently.

Diehl said the group grew out of the dream of Baltimore actress and troupe member Judy Bach to have a local comedy troupe with a permanent home base. Bach was involved with another comedy troupe three years ago that performed in several Baltimore clubs, but ultimately failed because it never had a base from which to work.

Diehl said that after eating a few times at Baxter's, he thought the lunch spot would be a perfect place for a comedy group.

"Ellicott City seemed to be crying out for some sort of entertainment other than the bar scene," he said. "We thought if we could get in on the ground floor, it would be great to offer something different here."

Diehl and other members approached Baxter's co-owner Robert G. Costella, hoping he'd let them perform on weekends. After considerable cajoling, Costella finally agreed to the plan in early August, Diehl said.

Costella said he was reluctant at first because the troupe was young and did not have an established track record. He also was hesitant to extend his hours every Saturday until after midnight. Baxter's currently sells breakfast and lunch and closes in midafternoon, except during the pre-Christmas season.

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