Comedian determined to laugh at life's obstacles

March 07, 2002|By Michael Olesker

"I'M FUNNY," Neal Graham says.

He shouldn't have to lobby on his own behalf, but there you have it. He's talking on the telephone from College Park, where he currently resides, while readying for a professional return this weekend to the Baltimore area of his youth. He grew up in Cockeysville, graduated from Dulaney High, went to the former Towson State University where he managed to graduate, with slight pauses here and there for a few "behavioral dismissals," after just seven years.

Did somebody say "behavioral dismissals"? Yes, kids, it is wrong to follow your girlfriend into the ladies' room, even if you are in the middle of a spat.

In those days, skinny as a stick, spaghetti-haired, he was known as Neal Graham Billingsley. But, show biz being what it is, some genius figured Neal Graham looked better on a marquee. So there he is, Neal Graham, standup comic for the past 15 years, appearing this weekend at Baltimore's new Improv comedy club at the downtown Port Discovery complex, where he'll open for Judy Tenuta.

He's in the midst of a career that has taken him to every state but Maine and Rhode Island, to some upscale comic spots and some absolute dives, not to mention "a bad decade" in which he's done some destructive drugs, gotten himself arrested, done some jail time, lost his parents, lost his last girlfriend, but kept on laughing.

Or so he says.

"I'm funny," he says again. "And that's very difficult to do when you're talking about real things."

Especially his. He says he's never made more than $2,000 in a single month from standup work, hasn't bought new clothes in 15 years, has cut his own hair for the past decade to save money, and doesn't drive a car.

"Now, there's a picture," says the veteran social commentator and comic Bob Somerby. "A guy taking the bus to his show-biz job." But Somerby, who lives in Baltimore and befriended Graham through some of his toughest times, says, "The guy really is funny."

If the old line is true that dying is easy and comedy is hard, then Graham's gotten hard-knock experience in both. "Nietzsche was right," he says. "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Great. Other comics are talking about dating rituals, and he's quoting that rollicking old German philosopher.

In Graham's standup, he makes fun of his dysfunctional family, his unfortunate drug history, and the long, strange trip he's taken.

He was still a student at Towson when he joined a campus comedy group. First night out, got himself some laughs. Figured: This is easy. Started doing standup at open-mike nights, back in the first modern incarnation of comedy clubs around Baltimore. Went, by his own modest estimation, "three years without getting a laugh."

He'd go down to City Lights every week for amateur nights. Couldn't buy a laugh. Couldn't even rent a laugh. Stood there, in all his skinny vulnerability, in the smoke-filled atmosphere of that era, with insults flying like shrapnel, and took the worst of it. And went home crying, wondering why it wasn't clicking and why he was wasting his life.

"Why did I stick with it?" he asks now. "I don't know. It was the only consistent thing in my life. It was a chance to get the love I wasn't getting at home. It was a way to meet women, to make me a better person, to make people like me. All those naive, delusionary things.

"Then, one night in Roanoke, Va., the Zen-perfect show. It was the kind of thing you talked about in philosophy classes in college, becoming one with something. With the audience. No self-consciousness, no fear. An incredible rush that I've only felt half a dozen times since. It's like a drug, and you keep trying to capture that junkie's first rush."

That's been another part of his history: arrests for LSD, for marijuana, a few short stints behind bars, a few tough guys there grabbing him and taking their shots.

"I make fun of a lot of things in my life," he says, "but not much about prison. It was pretty frightening. But, once you've had that kind of experience, standing in front of 200 people doesn't cause quite the same tension it once did."

It's all part of Neal Graham Billingsley's journey, geographically and psychologically. At its best, comedy helps get us through the darkness. Instead of whistling past life's graveyards, we march right in and do a little dance. We confront the demons, poke fun at them, and dare them to stand up to the simple force of a snicker.

"That's what keeps me going now," he says. "It's a beautiful, wonderful thing to help people see the humor in tragedy. It's not about silly stuff anymore. That's the incredibly wonderful thing about this country, that I can talk about drugs and the legal system, and it's OK, it's how we work things out. We laugh. And I'm funny."

He shouldn't have to lobby on his own behalf, but there it is. The kid comes home this weekend. Still skinny, still spaghetti-haired. Saddened, as we all are, by the darkness in life. But provoking laughter instead of tears, which is always the best defense.

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