“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland.” Talk about a guy with no sense of humor.In New Hampshire, when a sunny day of gardening can end with reports of imminent spring snowstorms, we know April is the “foolest” month. Fortunately for us, in New Hampshire, a sense of humor is a natural resource. To prove the point, we got three of the state’s most resourceful comedians through an unseasonal snowstorm and into one tiny booth. We served them coffee, scrambled eggs and pie, and just said go. The rest is history.
Meet the Cast
North Hampton native Jon Rineman is a rising performer, playing clubs and colleges all over New England. He’s a contributor to Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologue and the “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update. Jon is a regular at The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square.
You may remember Lauren Verge from the “Morning Show” at WZLX Boston or midday maven at 96.5 The Mill, but you may not know that she’s been one of New England’s top female comics since 1998, performing nationally at venues like the Hollywood Improv, Caroline’s and the Laugh Factory.
Jimmy Dunn travels the planet making people laugh. He has performed from Bangor, Maine, to Beijing, China, and recently headlined a show on the largest cruise ship in the world. When he’s home in New Hampshire, you can usually find him surfing at The Wall.
And Our Host for the Evening:
Nancy Robbins was an Air Force Reserves public affairs specialist, serving as an editor, writer and photographer in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She has hung up her headphones after a 20-year radio career and now keeps busy as a freelance writer, mother and ranch-hand at her suburban farm.
Once upon a time the granite hills and concrete alleys of New Hampshire echoed with laughter. No, not when the stock market was booming but before that. During the last economic downturn, believe it or not, there was a bull market for humor. Comedy venues were popping up like dandelions on a newly-mown lawn. Since then, as real estate soared and 401(k)s grew fat, the comedy scene grew stagnant.
Maybe it’s just plain old supply and demand at work. When the country most needs a few laughs is in the hard times.
So, just in time to provide a comedy bailout to the depressed masses, stand-up stages and open mic nights are once again rising to the occasion.
To get the scoop on the local scene, we invited three of the best locally based professional comedians to an iconic venue, Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner, for an exclusive performance, MC-ed by local media personality Nancy Robbins. The audience consisted of a couple of waitresses and some late-night diners. Our trio swapped jokes and stories from the road, but to anyone eavesdropping it offered a rare look inside the brains and backgrounds of those who make a living by making other people laugh. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have been listening in at the Red Arrow that night, we recorded the whole thing and boiled it down for posterity.
Here’s a little bit of how it went:
Nancy: It’s great to have you all here. Let’s dig right in. Looking at stand-up comedy from when you began to now, how has it changed; or has it changed?
Jimmy: Significantly. Back in the day in the early ’90s there would be a comedy show going on right now in that booth next door. There was a comedy show every night. Now it’s become more of a weekend thing. It’s just the economy. There’s still some comedy clubs around the country, like some bigger ones in big cities, that go all week. But generally there’s no cocaine so people aren’t going out on Wednesday night.
Lauren: Cocaine basically killed comedy. When we just said no, we were done.
Jimmy: But it also launched comedy, it paid for comedy.
Nancy: I’m glad you brought up the economy. Everybody has been around to ride the wave of the good times. So what do you think about being in this distressed economy? Do you think there’s more of a demand for comedy or do you think it’s hurting us.
Lauren: I think it’s coming around. I don’t know about you, but in this area of New Hampshire there are more rooms now within half an hour of me than there’s ever been. I know there are some on the seacoast where there are at least five shows going on.
Jimmy: And there’s a lot more of an independent vibe to it. People are going, OK, if these big clubs aren’t going to do it, let’s just get something going.
Jon: Well, the shows I’ve done on the weekends, they still get good turnouts, it’s actually pretty impressive, but you notice a different vibe. Before, when I would do jokes like, “Oh, I’m looking for a day job,” people used to be like “Oh, yeah.” Now they are like, “What? Me too.” So you kind of have to adjust. Instead of playing “Oh, look at me I’m a loser” it’s like “Oh, we’re all in the same boat.”Jimmy: You have to be careful not to over do it because a lot of people coming out on Saturday night don’t want to hear about your problems. They have their own problems. Make me laugh. Dance, joke boy.
Nancy: How do you get around that?
Lauren: Fire jokes at them. I mean, especially if you’re female. You’ve got one joke to get them a lot of times. And especially in this economy with people’s moods being different. There’s a Friday night crowd and a Saturday night crowd. And Friday they are tired and they’ve been looking for a job or working two jobs. They come in like, “OK, give me something that will make me laugh and feel better.”
Jimmy: At the same time I think there’s a sense of they can also be more attentive. I did a club in Boston a couple of Fridays ago and I thought the crowd was better just because of that. Whereas Saturday, people had been drinking so it’s noisy and it’s different. So if you can, you capitalize in a different way. I mean, I think any energy is good.
Jon: We’re all pros and we can make people laugh. That’s what we do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in the whole racket. If people are going to sit down and listen to us, we’re going to get them to laugh.
Nancy: When you perform for a paying crowd and you’ve got people who are paying 10 or 20 bucks for a comedy as opposed to them just walking in off the street and it’s an open mic night, what’s the difference?
Lauren: You pay for the show and you’re in that mentality. It’s like when you go to a movie. You know if you pay $8 to get in and see a movie, you’re much more likely to go and sit in your seat and watch the show. Whereas if you and your friends all go and there’s a night club with a movie playing you’re just going to sit and talk. It’s like they’re watching TV and they’ll just talk while the show is on.
Nancy: How does that make you feel when people are not focused on you?
Jimmy: You grab the little guy in the front row and smack him around a little bit. They’ll come right around.
Lauren: Well, to me, I might just be too passive but if I see someone in the back room talking to someone, they’re not disrupting the show. You know, fine, because I was always that kid. I still am when I go to the movies.
Jimmy: But the good clubs will police it. The guy running the club will come over and be like, “You know we’re running a thing there so shhh, and if I have to ask you again you’re going to have to take it outside. Ninety percent of the people here are here to see the comedy show. They don’t want to hear your yapping.”
Nancy: As far as the business of comedy, is there a dark, ugly side?
Lauren: That’s the fun part.
Jimmy: How much time do you have?
Lauren: Well, comics are very unusual personalities for one. And different people have different demons that drive them. I mean, some people don’t have any. Some people are just there having a good time and yet you’ve got people that are just barely holding on because they might have a drug problem or a drinking problem. I always used to say I’d like to hear one comic tell me a story that doesn’t start with, “Back when I was drinking …”
Jimmy: Ha ha. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of those stories. Back when I was drinking we went down to the Cape so hammered that we couldn’t get off the cape ...Lauren: And it just goes from there. But I think that there’s less of the drink-till-you-drop culture.
Jon: I don’t think there’s as much of a drug culture. I think the alcohol culture is still there. I mean, I don’t drink. I haven’t had a drink in 10 years, personal choice. But I know a lot of comics ...
Jimmy: Back in the day, when I was checking it out, they weren’t trying to get famous. They were in there to meet women, get drunk and be the life of the party. And for some of those guys who were my comedy heroes, the party went on for 10 years.
Nancy: So who is your comedy hero?
Jimmy: Lenny Clarke.
Lauren: I got interested in it in the ’80s so it was Sam Kennison, Roseanne Barr, Rich Shydner, people like that. And they were so good. They were so tight.
Jon: I would say Louis CK. For people of my generation, he was kind of our guy. You had either Dane Cook people or Louis CK people and I kind of grew up with him, because he seemed so natural. I like “Seinfeld,” but that always seemed so high level for me. So sophisticated. I could never do that. Then I saw Louis and he was the kind of guy that made you say, “Hey, there’s a new way of doing this.”
Nancy: What about the “Last Comic Standing,” these reality shows that make you a star overnight. Do you think this has helped your industry or hurt it?
Jimmy: I think both. It made people go out to comedy clubs again but it made them go out for the wrong reasons to see the wrong guy. It made some people famous that maybe deserved it but there are some people that got famous that just didn’t do the legwork. They shouldn’t have gotten that famous that quickly and if you pay $40 to see this guy for an hour in a theater and he’s been working for 2 years — It’s going to be a long hour.
Lauren: You can’t do it … it takes longer than that to learn how to do it.
Jimmy: That’s the demon in our business — fame.
Nancy: So what advice would you give somebody that wants to break into comedy?
Jimmy: Don’t do it for the money.
Lauren: Take your time and hone your craft. It’s as much a science as an art. Learn the ropes.
Jimmy: There are a lot of great comics that started in New Hampshire and there are a lot of comics that still live here and just travel around the world. There are a handful of men and women that we wanted to get to join us here tonight. They’re out working. Yeah, we’re unfortunately not working tonight.Nancy: How about some road stories?
Lauren: My favorite one is when I first started doing comedy and I was working with [Mike] McDonald at the Portland Comedy Connection and there were eight wheelchairs in the front. McDonald is really good off the cuff so he picks one of them out and says, “You all here together?” The guy says, “Yeah, we’re a league.” “Well, what kind of league?” The guy says, “A bowling league,” and Mike says “Oh, what’s your handicap?” And everyone just kind of looks around. The guy didn’t even hesitate and goes, “Spina bifida,” so he gives the punch line. It was hysterical and that’s a true story.
Jimmy: Who says you can’t do handicap jokes?
Jon: I haven’t been on the road as much as these guys, but the first paying gig I ever had, probably about five years ago, I got a call two hours before the show in Haverhill and they need a fill-in last minute. So I say OK, I take a friend and we go down. Turns out it’s a gay bar, not a problem. Whatever. So this woman comes in with about 20 other women and I don’t mean to sound like a prude or anything but they were all clearly lesbians. They had mullets and looked like they could kick our ass — and I’m going up first. So I go up and have to do 15. At the seven-minute mark, one of these women starts heckling me. I’m like, OK, just have to get through it. Then she starts making sound effects like snoring noises and things like that. Goes on for like five minutes. So my time is up and I’m like, “OK, thanks a lot,” and I get off stage.
They’re like, “OK, we’re going to bring up the next comedian, Linda whatever …” and it’s that lady. The lady I’m opening for is the one heckling me. Here’s the thing. She goes on for a minute and she passes out drunk. So they carry her off stage and then these 20 women who were there with her all get up and just leave together and that’s the audience. I got my money and I left.
Nancy: Is there anyone, family members, etc., for you guys that is off limits for your material?
Lauren: Well, a lot of these guys, they have their real wife and then their comedy wife. I have a comedy sister who does things my real sister would never do — but I need someone to blame it on.
Jimmy: One hundred percent of what you hear on stage is fake. It’s all lies. We’re professional liars …
Lauren: Shoot! I didn’t know that! I’ve been telling the truth this whole time!
Jimmy: It’s so much funnier to lie. If something really happens with your uncle and you tweak it a little bit, you turn it into a story. We’re storytellers. If you were to watch some comic’s act and you were to make a mental picture of their family and then you met their family …
Nancy: They wouldn’t look the same.
Lauren: You’ll see a comic and he’s got this beautiful, gorgeous wife and he makes these horrible comments about her and she’s always at the show. And so at the end of the show people will walk up and be like, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry he’s so mean to you.”
Jon: I mean, I think there is something to be said for honesty. A lot of my stage persona is “awkward single guy who can’t get a date.” Well, that didn’t go over so well when I wasn’t single and the girl I was dating showed up.
Jimmy: I hate doing shows with a whole bunch of friends and family. I’d rather be in a town where I didn’t know a single person.
Nancy: What about New Hampshire humor? If you travel out of the region can you poke fun at New Hampshire?
Jimmy: They do that before we get there. You tell someone you’re from New Hampshire and they’re already making hillbilly jokes about you.
Lauren: I mean there are things that everyone knows. Like that we hate everyone from Massachusetts. Except for the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins … but we hate everyone else. We make jokes about the way people talk. Like how everyone always says “wicked.” Like if someone from out of town comes in and says, “It’s wicked,” we get annoyed and say, “Wicked what? You have to be wicked something. You can’t just say it’s wicked, that’s like saying it’s ‘very.’”
Jimmy: If you go around the country, Boston comedy is very well respected. So when you say, “Oh I’m from Boston,” and they say “What part?” You’re like, “Uhhh, Hampton, New Hampshire.”
Lauren: Our crowds are tough.
Jon: When I’ve met comics from New York they’re impressed that we can go up and do seven minutes of jokes. Well, what else do you do? Talk to the audience? We don’t go up and just tell a story. We tell jokes. There’s a downside, too. If you have two jokes in a row that don’t work, that’s all it takes, it leaves you a big hole to crawl out of.
Lauren: If your first joke doesn’t work some crowds will dismiss you. Boston crowds in particular.
Nancy: Are they a little more forgiving here in New Hampshire?
(All): No, no. no.
Jimmy: It’s all of New England.
Nancy: How do you sell yourself?
Jimmy: Craig’s List mostly…
Nancy: No, not on the adult section on Craig’s List. How do you get bookings?Jimmy: We book a lot of stuff on our own and a lot through agents. On any given day I can get 10 calls from agents that book for cruises or specialize in corporate stuff. And we work as our own agents — fielding our own calls. Like, OK, I think I’ll go to Atlantic city this week. So we’re always on the phone.
Nancy: Are you guys happy that you are where you are?
Jimmy: Yes, every day.
Jon: Not yet. I’m working on it, we’ll see. But I mean it’s funny because, for me, I still feel like I have such a long way to go that I try not to look back. You know what I mean? I still have such a long way to go. It’s like climbing a mountain. You don’t want to turn around and be like, “Oh, look how far I’ve come…”
Lauren: Well, things have changed since the ’80s. Back then, if you got on Johnny Carson and Johnny liked you, then you made it. You were in. I mean, now you can be on the “Tonight Show” or Conan 10 times and still no one knows who you are.
Jon: I knew a guy who got his first TV spot and the next day he was looking through classifieds for a temp job.
Jimmy: If you’re not looking to move up, what’s the point? If you’re working writing for the “Tonight Show” and you’re not thinking I want to do more, then you’d be crazy.
Jon: But at the same time it’s funny that you talk about writing because other comics I’ve worked for have said, as nice as comics can of course, that when you do a lot of writing for someone else, it can eat away at your stand-up if you’re not careful.
Nancy: It must be frustrating too. You have to make ends meet.
Jimmy: I honestly didn’t know there was money involved. When I first got involved with comedy, I knew they were getting paid but I thought they were also getting free beer and chicks and that was more important to me than money. Then I ran into a guy who was headlining for someone and he was making a nice chunk of money and he said “You know, I haven’t had a day off in 11 nights.” I went “Wow! This guy is making more than my dad! I’m in!” It took years for me, working odd and end jobs and driving a Volkswagen Rabbit. The driving is the worst. It’s the hardest part of our gig. There’s your first piece of advice — If you’d like to be a comedian, get yourself a good vehicle.
Jon: It’s Murphy’s law, too. No fewer than four times in the last year, maybe even more, I’ve been double parked trying to get to a gig. Cars blocked in driveways. When I have an easy time getting to a place, I seem to have a worse set because I’m used to the frustration.
Lauren: You have to get a small car but big enough that you can sleep in it.
Jon: I drive a Jeep so I’m killing the world I’m sorry. People are always like, you’re wasting gas, but I tell them, you know what — it works.
Jimmy: And I’m not going to die on my way here in a snowstorm. That’s the other part of New England. If it’s a Saturday night and you’re booked at a resort and there’s already people there, they don’t care if it’s snowing. You have to get there.
Lauren: Like the Balsams on a Friday night after work.
Jimmy: Oh, The Balsams is like nine hours from anywhere. It’s like I’m going to die getting up there.
Lauren: It’s a great gig, though.
Nancy: What about when you were in high school? Were you class clowns?
Jimmy: I wasn’t. I was the kid that sat next to the class clown and was like, “Here’s what you should do …” and then when he did it and I’d be like “Ha, ha.” I was the class clown’s joke writer.
Lauren: I was just a huge smart ass. They always told me I wouldn’t get anywhere.
Jon: I was, but it was kind of different. In high school, when I started to get interested in comedy, I was like a Dane Cook. I was very loud and outgoing. Wore funny shirts. When I got to college, Sept. 11 was my first day. Then I fell in love, got dumped, had my first bad professor …
Lauren: They beat the clown out of you.
Jon: They did. And by my sophomore year I had developed a different thing. Someone said to me that you become who you are between the ages of 18 and 23 and I think I was living in the city during a confusing time and people were making rash decisions and judgments about things and I just kinda developed this sort of humor.
Lauren: I was really quiet when I was young. I was really shy. I’m not like that now, but maybe that’s where some of it comes from. You wake up one day and have something to say.
Jon: The other thing is I think it’s about having a contrasting view. I went to Winnacunnet High School in Hampton and …
Jimmy: Did you get to meet Pam Smart?
Jon: No, I did not and that’s why I’m here with you guys … but, uh, it can be a tough school — pretty blue collar, but they’re honest people. I was kind of the Andy Kaufman goofball. But once I got to college everyone was the goofball and I think that’s when I kind of took on my comedy. Toward the end of my senior year is when I got into the monologue stuff. I didn’t have an awareness of the news, really. Things had been good all my life. We weren’t at war, there was no economic crisis, we didn’t have Katrina.
Lauren: I think it can be scary and it takes a lot of people a long time to actually process getting up on the stage. Like some people will write jokes for two years before anyone hears them. And you can always tell someone is trying to build up the courage when they say, “Ya know, maybe I don’t want to get up on stage and do it. I just want to write it up for someone else.” And you just have to say, “Get your butt to the club.” And a lot of time they end up being very funny.
Jon: Most great comics like Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, they started by writing jokes and the guy couldn’t tell them right so they went up and were like, “I’ll show you how.” What I really wanted to do was write for the WWE and “Monday Night Raw” because that’s what I grew up watching as a kid.
Jimmy: And your parents wrote you a tuition check for that?!
Jon: They didn’t know. There’s a lot of money in that. It’s just a terrible life.
Nancy: How did you tell your parents what you wanted to do? You know a lot of American families want their kids to be the doctor, the lawyer, but the stand-up comedian? Come on.
Jimmy: My parents knew they had no shot of me becoming a doctor or a lawyer. As long as I had a plan they were happy. My dad came to my first gig and until he died about a year ago, every time I was in Vegas he’d be in the front row for three out of the seven shows.
Nancy: That must mean a lot.
Jimmy: It was awesome! He loved it! He loved it because I found a scam that kept me off ladders and painting houses.
Lauren: My parents were horrified. My father has never been to see me. My mother’s been a couple of times. She’s like, “Wow that was interesting …”
Jon: Well, I think my mom is just happy to see me doing something positive like that. ’Cause when I was 18, 19, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I went through some dark times. And my dad, I think he was skeptical at first, but then he saw that I was really good at it. I think it really took a turn when the SNL episode came along and my dad saw my joke on it. I think that brought us closer. Like most bratty kids in college my dad and I didn’t see eye to eye. I didn’t appreciate what he was doing for me and I don’t think he appreciated how hard I was working. But ever since I got out of college and started this Leno thing, I write the jokes more for my dad to laugh at, and if Jay tells them, great. But more than anything every day I always see my dad …
Jimmy: My dad always called and was like “Hey! You’re in the paper!”… Yeah, I know dad. It’s from the show I did the other night.
Nancy: Parents love that. Think about their generation. If you were in the newspaper you were a big deal.
Jimmy: First time I ever worked in Vegas I got out there a few days early and met up with my dad. So when you’re working at the Riviera, the sign with the fountain lights up like every seven minutes and says your name for about eight seconds. Eights seconds later it’s “ham and egg breakfast for $3.99,” but for those eight seconds, your name is there. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. So I went and got my dad and brought him down and I had him looking the other way. I’m looking over my shoulder waiting for the other shows to pass and then there it is. So I’m like, “Hey, Dad! Holy Sh*t! Jeez look at that!” And he just stood and looked. Then came the “ham and eggs” but he was still just stunned. Then he goes, “How long is that up there?” I said “Every seven minutes.” So he said, “Then we’re staying another seven!” We stood out there for about a half hour just watching it.
Nancy: That’s so cute!
Jimmy: Then I was like, “All right, Dad, I have to get back to work,” and he says, “You don’t work, you tell jokes.”
Nancy: So to wrap things up I want to ask you all, where do you want to be in 10 years?
Lauren: I want to be on a beach somewhere. You know, I don’t think I’ll ever stop. That’s the nice thing about comedy, you can be as old and wrinkly as you want and still be a comic. The more you change, your comedy can change, too.
Jon: I’d like to be a staff writer for a late night show or at least say I’ve done it by then.
Nancy: Jimmy, where do you want to be in 10 years?
Jimmy: Right here at the Red Arrow Diner!
Nancy: OK, then. We’ll all meet back here in 10 years. NH
About the Venue: Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner is a local landmark, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our “comedy night” wasn’t the first high-profile event at the diner. Adam Sandler eats there regularly. Diane Sawyer loves their homemade “twinkies” so much she sent an assistant up from New York to buy a batch. Bill Clinton signed a twinkie while campaigning for his wife. It’s there on display with other valuable memorabilia. When pop-rock group the Bare Naked Ladies played at the Verizon Wireless Arena, they “discovered” the Red Arrow, ate there twice and promptly wrote an ode to the place which they played to hometown cheers at their show. Now the song can be heard on speakers outside the diner. You can also stream it from the Red Arrow Web site: www.redarrowdiner.com.
This article appears in the April 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine