Laughing Matters

BIG Ben Kennedy takes his comedy seriously as he competes to be declared the Funniest Person in Baltimore

July 15, 2002|By Tori Campion | Tori Campion,SUN STAFF

On this night at the Baltimore Improv, BIG Ben Kennedy knows this could be his big chance. He's reached the final round of the competition to declare a "Funniest Person in Baltimore."

Backstage at the comedy club, Kennedy deals with his usual pre-performance woes -- clammy hands and dry mouth -- with his "quiet time." "He definitely changes [before a show]," says his No. 1 fan, his mother, Jenny Mehsling. "He gets real quiet."

In June, Kennedy, 24, earned first place in the semifinals at the Improv, beating 10 others. It wasn't the first time he had set foot on the Improv stage -- he was once pulled from the audience by actor-comedian Brad Sherwood of Who's Line Is It Anyway? and The Drew Carey Show to perform sound effects for a skit -- but it was the first time all eyes were on him.

For Kennedy and the other comics hoping to be named the "Funniest Person," the competition's grand prize of $300 is welcome. But much more coveted is the chance to open for the Improv headliner of his or her choice. Recent acts included actor-comedian John Witherspoon and MAD TV cast member Pablo Francisco, someone Kennedy admires and wants to emulate. He opens his wallet and proudly removes Francisco's autograph, signed on a clean and barely wrinkled napkin that he carries as a good-luck charm.

Kennedy, whose "day job" is driving a van for a nonprofit agency that finds work for the developmentally disabled, has been doing stand-up comedy for about two years -- no time at all for a young performer chasing his dream. He would be happy to become a touring comic. "To make me euphoric, though -- sitcoms and movies," he says.

No stranger to the limelight, Kennedy had a comedy song on 98 Rock last Christmas called "Santa Claus Just Hit On My Hon." He has also appeared as an extra in a few movies, including The Replacements, which starred Keanu Reeves as a football player and was filmed in Baltimore in 1999. More recently, he played a young boy in a Severna Park Pizza and Sub commercial that aired on cable in Anne Arundel County.

His next work includes a summer song for 98 Rock (working title: "Redneck B-B-Q"). He plans to release a compact disc, the introduction of which will be performed by his 3-year-old nephew, Devon.

Kennedy, of Glen Burnie, performs at clubs two or three times a month but would love to do so more often. One of the reasons he feels he has done so well, thus far, is he always accepts constructive criticism from other comics. A headliner will watch Kennedy's 8 p.m. show and tell him to incorporate something, or stop doing something, "like running my fingers through my hair," and by the 10 p.m. show, he's done it.

Kelly Terranova, a touring comic, interrupts Kennedy to say, "That's why he's risen through the ranks so quickly."

People, not politics

A self-proclaimed class clown, Kennedy was born in Baltimore and grew up in various places around Maryland. Mehsling, who now lives in Glen Burnie, went where the work was to support her children. ("God bless her! She kept us fed and clothed," Kennedy says.)

Kennedy began performing early and was in every school play starting in kindergarten, according to his mother. "He has a great singing voice, and he can draw and write, too," she adds.

Mehsling, who has never missed one of Kennedy's shows, says that they are very close and that he often tests his new material on her. "He bounces everything off me," she says.

Like most comics, Kennedy draws his material from people, events and pop culture, but he steers clear of politics. He thinks that people are hit with political news all day, from television newscasts to late-night talk shows, and he wants to offer an alternative. To see what kind of jokes an audience responds to, he listens to the act that precedes him. Then he makes the necessary adjustments to his routine.

What about the foul language favored by many comics? "It's almost like a second language now," Mehsling says. "I tell him, `Why are you cussing so much?' " However, she doesn't think her son curses frivolously, but as the audience's response dictates. And he agrees, "I read my audience and see if they want it."

To his mother, Kennedy is a cut above the rest because "he is so intelligent, and he puts that intelligence to good use." But Kennedy thinks it's not necessarily his material but his physical presence -- he is tall and heavyset -- that plays a big part in his appeal.

"I'm big. I'm teddy-bearish. These are things I've been told."

His teddy-bear frame could lead you to incorrectly assume that the BIG in BIG Ben Kennedy refers to his size. In fact, BIG is an acronym that stands for, as he puts it, "Brian, Gabriel, and I am in the middle." Brian and Gabriel Kennedy were Kennedy's father and half-brother, respectively. They died in November 1995 in Severna Park, when Brian Kennedy shot 7-year-old Gabriel, then turned the gun on himself.

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