On open-mike night, everyone's a comedian HUNGRY FOR LAUGHS

January 20, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Chris Kamsch waits for a jolt of courage or madness to propel him from his safe table to the smidgen of a stage at Winchester's Comedy Club. Under the club's dangling shamrocks, it's open-mike night. Contestants, please keep your day jobs.

"How many are you from California?" Chris, 21, asks the 28 patrons, picking at molten nachos and cuddling their Samuel Adamses.

There's not a sound in the comedy club. Either no one is from California or no one cares.

"Me neither. How ironic!" Chris says.

He resembles Jim Carrey -- in the hair. Chris, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, paces the stage, trying to find a purpose in his decision to stand here.

"I don't know what I'm saying up here," Chris says, searching for jokes in his head, searching for them in his pocket, searching for the door.

"You people just don't get it because I'm way above you," he says. Chris then whiffs away at a harmonica. He's got one more joke. "How does a bus driver get into the bus?"

Say what?

You know, Chris says, the bus driver pulls the handle to open the door to let people in, but how does the bus driver get in?

Magically, the joke takes. People applaud the comic as he walks back to his table, girlfriend and beer.

These days, everybody's a comedian.

For all the weekend wise guys, Baltimore's comedy club scene remains thin. Slapstix Comedy Club is the full-time comedy club, and a few other clubs offer comedy on the weekends, such as the Comedy Factory at Burke's Cafe, Mo'Nique's on Liberty Street and Winchester's on Water Street.

Other clubs were in business long enough to get listed in the Yellow Pages, but their phones have been disconnected.

"That's certainly indicative of the state of comedy in Baltimore," says Chris Cahill, 38, owner of Slapstix, which has headlined such comics as Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres over the past five years.

Comedy clubs sprouted like fast-food restaurants in the 1980s. Amateurs practiced shock comedy -- they used a lot of dirty words.

"People slapped up comedy signs over their restaurants. They paid the cheapest and that's what they got -- the cheapest acts," Mr. Cahill says.

Bad comedy doesn't sell. And maybe too many comics are out there. Forget the clubs, for a minute. Television is packed with stand-up comics with their own shows: Allen, DeGeneres, Seinfeld, Roseanne and Brett Butler. But they got their start working local clubs, and their success keeps the dream alive among fledgling comics -- the ones who show up for open-mike nights.

Not all club owners like open-mike nights.

"We tried it and it's just a flop," Mr. Cahill says. "You end up getting the lowest common denominator. Just another guy saying the F-word."

At Winchester's, the "lowest common denominators" sign up with emcee Paula Casagrande, who takes names of the folks willing to expose their humor for 10 minutes.

Many of tonight's comics are open-mike regulars. They comprise a small fraternity of comics, who support each other by listening to each other, critiquing each other, even taping each other's acts. It's surprising, given that comedy is not a gentleman's sport.

Searching for material

One of the regulars, Cindy Heidel of East Baltimore, rests her notebook on Winchester's bar top. She writes HON, CATHOLIC and SELF-DEFENSE. New material for when the starving artist ** goes on later tonight.

Just last Friday, Cindy picked up food stamps to help supplement her odd assortment of part-time jobs. That night, she watched herself on "Homicide: Life on the Street." A one-time speaking part earned her $525 three months ago. Food stamps and national television in one day didn't strike her as funny at all.

"The latest thing I'm doing [for employment] is a cat-allergy study -- and I count cars with her," Cindy says, pointing to Paula.

Paula Casagrande of Baltimore also counts cars part-time. For traffic surveys, that is. Paula, 32, also pitches an anti-static solution at weekend trade shows. But her business card says comedienne, specializing in "Bridges Burned, Barrooms Cleared, Home Wrecker . . ."

Paula has been the emcee here for about a year, making $15 each show. The emcee gets to do stand-up in between introducing the other comics. She wants to work at a better club, where she can make $25 a show. A place like Slapstix.

"I'm anxious to get to the middle position so I can stop counting cars," she says. "But everybody needs to go through hard knocks."

At 9 p.m., she bounds to the stage to warm up the crowd:

The Loud Table: Three couples (including a first date) and everyone laughs very loudly at every eighth joke.

The Quiet Table: Eight guys eating steaks and much of the rest of the menu. They give no inch to the comics. The group includes the evening's lone heckler, who calls himself Anchor Steam.

The Cozy Table: Plotting threesome that includes Chris Kamsch, who later will stand up and commit comedy.

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