Tragedy hardest act to follow

Laughter: In days like these, many find it tough to offer comic relief.

October 02, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The question of the night came without a punch line.

"How is everybody holding up?" said comic Ben Kennedy at Thursday open-mike night at Winchester's comedy club in downtown Baltimore. "Everybody take a deep breath. We're all a little uptight."

Given it's our patriotic duty to resume normal lives (i.e., shop, fly, rent movies, follow Barry Bonds' home run derby), it was time to come out of our shells and seek comedy. In New York, David Letterman had poignantly broken the ice, and others have since followed. Saturday Night Live eased back into work last weekend, with a center stage assist from New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The satirical newspaper The Onion published its post-tragedy online edition. Onion parodies, such as its story "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell," are making the Internet rounds.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about a comedy club performance that appeared Tuesday in the Today section incorrectly attributed to comic Ben Kennedy a joke about the terrorist attacks in New York. He did not tell that joke. The Sun regrets the error.

At Winchester's last week, the comics hovered around the bar like athletes hanging out in a clubhouse before a game. Since Sept. 11, Kelly Terranova, a 35-year-old comic from Annapolis, had no plans to perform Thursday but just felt like being around other comics. After the terrorist attacks, he reconsidered his career choice.

"I thought I needed to learn how to drive trucks or be a plumber's apprentice," Terranova said. "I was wondering if I'm ever going to tell jokes again."

Moments of soul-searching tend to pass, however, when you've got paying gigs lined up. He's performed a half dozen times since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but he had to shuffle his act. "I had some airline material - you don't go there. I had some cop material - you don't go there." He instead leaned on one of his favorite comedy targets: NASCAR.

"Working after Dale Earnhardt's death was much worse," Terranova said, offering one comic's perspective.

Mike Storck of Parkville pulled up a chair. Nursing a cold and a throat roughed up by too many Camel cigarettes, Storck was not a picture of comedy. He looked like he should be in bed. He was scheduled to perform at Georgetown University days after the attacks, but the show was mercifully canceled.

"I felt relieved," Storck said. He wasn't so much worried about whether the audience was ready to laugh again. "I wasn't sure I could do it. Nothing was coming to me."

With time, Storck began to feel like himself. Life was providing material to him again. Terranova, echoing something Letterman said his first night back on the air, said that sometimes pretending to be courageous is enough.

Pretending to be courageous, Terranova joined the crowd as it filed upstairs at 9:20 p.m. for open-mike night.

Deep breaths everyone.

"Big Ben" Kennedy, a US Airways employee by day ("but I can't joke about that"), was the emcee, keeper of the lineup, comedy traffic cop and a comic's best audience here. He's like having Ed McMahon in your corner. The crowd of 20 included a handful of civilians; the rest were comics at various rungs of the comedy food chain mainly playing to one another.

"We totally gave up on Chandra, didn't we?" asked a comedian named Antonio from Queens. He jabbed at the press for forgetting about missing former Washington intern, Chandra Levy. Point taken. Point dropped. "Where my weed smokers at?" The comic soon relinquished the microphone to "Big Ben" Kennedy, who flirted with - no - married disaster. Pizza Hut in New York, he said, has a new pizza out: It has a hole in it.

Another comic took the standard-issue-comedy-club stage (stool, glass of water, curtains draped over a window-less wall). His act consisted of mumbling, dropping the microphone and obsessing anatomically. If good comedy can be an elixir, a unifying human experience, then bad comedy can depress you nearly beyond emotional endurance. Thankfully, Kennedy gave the guy the hook. The night needed rescuing.

Mike DeStefano of the Bronx sometimes headlines in Baltimore. Like the other professional comics who dropped by Winchester's, he planned to watch the amateurs work and maybe try out material. In what we'd like to think was a patriotic and mercenary gesture, DeStefano took the stage and told actual jokes.

His "New York City" T-shirt alone made him welcome. His tough-Italian-guy accent hit the spot. The crowd was behind him when he suggested Osama bin Laden be set free in New York amid an angry citizenry armed with pliers.

"That was my grandmother's idea," he said, getting another laugh. In a fitting homage to the pro-weed comic, DeStefano said: "You're going to stay retarded for the rest of your life if you keep smoking weed." He succeeded in doing the only thing we can ask of comedians these days: lift our spirits. We actually wanted him to stay on stage.

Mike Storck, revived by the miracle of cold medicine, took the stage next. He auditioned bits about "Homeless Action Figures" (with wind-up businessman dolls that walk by saying "get a job, get a job, get a job") and Iraqi commercials for videos of wild Iraqi girls (" `Look, I'm voting!' These girls are out of control!"). It was funny the way he told it, and for that, the crowd was grateful.

Another comic suggested Mike Tyson should have been on any one of those hijacked planes. "Where [major expletive] was he when we needed him?" Still another said Delta stands for don't-ever-let-terrorists-aboard. Where was DeStefano or Storck when we needed him?

After a night of sporadic comedy at Winchester's, home beckoned. If we hurried, we could catch Letterman.

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