Comic riffs offer the life of laughter in Baltimore

July 07, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FOR A LIVING, Larry Noto works for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. For a laugh, he joined 14 other folks, some of them snapping one-liners like wet towels in a locker room, some of them wading through Comedy Vietnam, all of them finalists downtown at The Improv the other night to determine The Funniest Person in Baltimore.

"This is a lot like the first time I had sex," Noto said, gazing at the packed crowd sitting out there in the dark. "Except, tonight, I actually want the laughs. And tonight, you paid the $10."

He deprecated himself within an inch of some early Woody Allen anxieties. If comedy reflects our national neuroses, then last week's gathering seemed a group therapy roundup of most of our obsessions: race and sex and drugs, Oprah and al-Qaida, and even those strange people who strike it big in the Maryland Lottery and insist this won't change their humble little lives.

"I ain't gonna quit my job down at the wastewater plant," said a guy named Mark Voyce, mocking those folks whose lottery number hits for $40 million but cling to their pitiful, toothless, pre-miracle lives. "But I am thinking of getting a new screen door."

The culmination of six rounds of comic riffs in which about 50 funny men and women from the area strutted their best stuff competitively, the final winners were selected by a distinguished panel of judges that included Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd, WMAR-TV reporter Jamie Costello and Mark Rosenberg, the guy who shakes his whole body when he sells lemonade at Oriole Park.

Out came a fellow named Dorian Gray -- not the painting, but this skinny young guy out of West Baltimore. (And what was with the comics' names? Five of the 15 finalists used only first names, like actors in a porno flick worried their mothers might find out. One was a black guy, Mustafa. "I never seen this many white people in one room before," he said, "unless I'm in court.")

Dorian Gray had his sensitivities focused on race, too. We communicate what lurks just below the surface, and ease the tension by making fun of it. Right away, Gray asked, "Do I look like a criminal? An old lady saw me on the street and acted like I was gonna rob her." He paused a moment for mock indignation. "I said, `Damn. ... How did she know? Just because I'm a black man ... wearing a ski mask ... carrying a lead pipe."

Kirk McKewan, a jock on 98-Rock FM radio, mined some of the same turf. He told the crowd he's moved out of the city to Hunt Valley. He mimicked anxious white neighbors peering through binoculars as he made his way home: "Yup, he's coming up I-83 now ..."

How far can we go when we talk about our sensitivities? A white guy, Ian Gary, an occasional voice on WHFS-FM, said that politicians hungry for that huge 18-34 age demographic will have to start giving speeches in rap and hip-hop rhythms.

He pictured Al Gore doing it. Much hilarity. He pictured George W. Bush doing it. Much more hilarity. Then, imitating an inept Bush trying too hard to patronize young blacks, he said: "My [politically incorrect term for African-Americans] is wit' it."

The Improv crowd, more than 300 people jammed in the place, was maybe 85 percent white. Gary quickly said, "Look at this, the blacks are laughing, and all the whites are ..."

He gestured for all those nervous, politically correct white people catching themselves the instant before lurching into a laugh, to worry: "Wait a minute, could be a trap ..."

At its best, comedy delivers more than punch lines. It lets us look in the mirror, examine our anxieties and find places where we share the same emotional turf. And those anxieties reach far beyond race.

The only woman among the comic finalists -- Brenda O, who finished second in the final judging -- said, "I told my husband to treat me like a Playboy centerfold. He shoved me under the mattress."

And there was Mike Stork, who grew up in Parkville and finds himself hopelessly lost in the maze of Washington streets, "hydroplaning on crack vials" and imagining the Founding Fathers laying out the streets as some kind of cosmic joke on generations yet unborn.

The contest winner was Voyce. He is a cabinetmaker with wild, prematurely tangerine hair. His persona was that of the angry, half-high, half-crazed malcontent. He talked about the penalties handed out for drug offenses: not just prison, not just fines, but that all-important revoking of licenses, including driving licenses -- and hunting and fishing licenses.

"Yeah, 'cause nothing ticks off a crackhead more than missing trout season," Voyce said.

Each comic performed for seven minutes, but the laughter will echo for a long time. The Improv is at the Power Plant Live complex, at Market Place. For a lot of years, the area was pretty lifeless. Now it jumps with young people, with restaurants and taverns and dance clubs -- and with the sound of people laughing through the night.

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