Boston comedy offers amateurs their chance



Paul Nardizzi, a Boston comic, questions the new containers that don’t allow sunlight inside to sour the milk.

“See, I don’t have that problem because I have this thing that I wrap around my milk,” he says.  “It’s called the refrigerator.  Yeah, then I added a second layer of insulation known as my house.”  Nardizzi pauses, looking out at the audience with a straight face.

“It cost me $200,000 to set up that little ecosystem,” he says.  The crowd goes wild.

This was just one of the many jokes Nardizzi nailed at the Boston Comedy Festival this past April.  The Ultimate Comedy Contest crowned him its winner and awarded him the $7,000 grand prize.  It may not be enough money to protect Nardizzi’s milk, but it is enough to feed his wife and children.

“The reason I’m doing this is for the money,” he said before the final event.  “I really don’t need the recognition anymore.”  He has a point.  Nardizzi has been on Late Night with Conan O’Brien three times and has also appeared on A&E’s Evening at the Improv.  He has his own website – – that lists all of these achievements and more.

He even has a published book, 602 Reasons to be Pissed Off, one of them being “discussing evolution with a jaw jutted banana eating moron who insists man didn’t descend from apes.”

And Nardizzi is no stranger to comedy festivals.  He won HBO's U.S. Comedy and Arts Festival in 1997, and was a finalist in the 1995 San Francisco International Comedy Competition.  Although he still performs at clubs regularly, Nardizzi has been branching out, doing sets at corporate functions and golf tournaments.

“Now my phone rings,” Nardizzi says.  “People call me now.”  He seems to be surprised at saying this, because it was not always this way.  Starting out, it wasn’t like this at all.  It was probably closer to what you’ll see if you go to open mike night at one of the several Boston comedy clubs today.  In the beginning, Nardizzi’s set might have looked closer to what Bill King’s looks like today.


Comedy is no laughing matter to Bill King this evening at the Comedy Connection.  It is a Monday night, Amateur Showcase at the club, and King is on stage, bombing his set.  He is, as some comedians call it, “eating dick.”

King is the first amateur comedian on stage, and he does not have it easy.  Being the lead amateur is hard enough, but he also has to follow Kevin Knox, the professional host for the evening.  Knox laid in with one joke about how the elderly in Florida couldn’t figure out the voting ballot last November but can have 53 bingo cards going at the same time.  This was part of Knox’s 15-minute opening to “warm the audience up.”

They cool off quickly.

You see, people expect to laugh when they go to Amateur Showcase at the Boston Comedy Connection on Monday night.  They shelled out their $10, and they want to be entertained.  But the comedians are not laughing.  This could be their chance to be seen and heard, their step to actually being paid for doing stand-up.  For the performers at Amateur Showcase, comedy is serious business.

            There are about 12 audience members at Amateur Showcase tonight who paid to get in, all clustered near the stage, front and center.  Another dozen or so, the performers and their guests, are nestled in the back corner of the room like some sort of estranged faction.  The venue seats about 400.  This near-empty room is swallowing people up. 

Last week national act Kevin Meaney had an audience overflowing into the aisles and busting their gut.  Meaney did a “duet” with Frank Sinatra, and acted every single part of “We Are the World.”  He talked about New York imported cheesecake – “I remember when we were kids, we used to run down to the docks to catch the cheesecake boats.  We used to sing a song: cheesecakes boats are coming, they’re coming tonight, cheesecakes boats are coming, let’s party tonight.”  There was not enough air in the club for everybody to be laughing as hard as they were, and the collective body heat had everybody sweating, especially Meaney on stage.

Not tonight.  At Amateur Showcase, good jokes get subdued chuckles from the audience and exaggerated howls from the back.  Bad jokes echo into the deafening silence and sit there festering while the performer searches for redemption through clusters of um’s and uh’s.  You would think it would be less intimidating to tell jokes in front of a few people than a large crowd.  But it is harder to debut your comedy career in front of no one.  There are fewer people available to laugh at your jokes.

King, 33, has never been to Boston in his life even though he comes from Holyoke, about 80 miles away in western Massachusetts.  He dresses in a stained sweatshirt and ragged jeans, and has unkempt hair and a thick mustache.

A while back, King and his brother were scheduled to try out for a comedy troupe.  Two days before the tryout, King’s brother suffered a stroke and couldn’t do it.  King did not try out but still went to watch the event.

“They asked me to come on stage and do something for the audience, and so I went up and did about three minutes off the top of my head,” King says. “I did fairly well, and after the tryout I went home and wrote about an hour’s worth of material until four in the morning.” 

And so an aspiring comedian’s dreams were born.  King has been doing occasional stand-up at clubs in western and central Massachusetts, but never anything as big as this night.

“I’ve always wanted to be in show business, whether it was in front or behind the scenes,” King says, then telling the typical story of the comedian always wanting to entertain people.  “When I was four I used to go on the roof of my garage and sing to the neighborhood kids,” he says.

But tonight King is not doing so well.  He opens with a joke about his beer belly, and how he resembles the starving African children on television commercials.  He poses in side profile and pushes his stomach out, rubbing his hand over it.  Not a bad joke compared to the others he spouts, but he stammers through it, and it doesn’t go off so well.  Some audience members laugh nervously, others maybe smile a little, but no one is convulsing in laughter.

Yet audience members are polite at Amateur Showcase.  There are not as many hecklers here as you might see on other nights.  The audience seems to understand the plight these performers are going through.  Besides, it is just not fun to watch someone eating dick.


One of the clearest differences between a professional like Knox and the amateurs is delivery.  Some of the amateurs have funny content, but they don’t know how to convey it to the audience for laughs.  King is no exception.

His jokes are bombing, and he gets nervous.  He stutters.  He plays with his hair. Vulgarity that does not seem to have been written into his set spews out his mouth, and a lot of spittle surrounds it.  It is almost as if he is getting angry at himself up there, his eyebrows furrowed inward, his tone of voice turning mean.  He resorts to obscene bathroom humor, including one where he compares a starfish to a part of his wife’s anatomy, and another where he describes in detail the term “hot lunch.”  Both have connotations of a sexual fetish website on the Internet.  The audience is cringing.  The polite laughs have left the building.  It is one thing to be disgustingly funny like Knox can be, but it is another thing to just be disgusting.

King finishes his routine, and Knox jumps up there after him.  “Give him a round of applause,” Knox says.  “It’s tough to be the first one up there.”  Consolatory claps ebb through the club.

“I’m like the mop guy,” Knox says before the show.  “If a guy doesn’t do so well, I get up there and try to cushion the fall.  I try to get the audience going again so the next guy has a chance.”

The next person up is Paul Vogan, who first makes fun of his small stature, which gets the crowd laughing a bit.  Then he takes a turn in the wrong direction, and keeps going for the rest of his five minutes.  He mentions a place called My Ass, Mississippi (or Myass, or Miass – the spelling wasn’t made clear).  He then drones on with pun after pun. 

“The President once drove through My Ass,” he says.  “Many people die every day in My Ass.”  The crowd shuffles in discomfort.  Get off the subject, the silence is telling him, or get off the stage.

Vogan is an actor, and has never even been on stage in a club before. He has just told funny stories to his friends, he says, and he decided to give this a try.  But the audience members are not as forgiving as his friends, and he seems to be having a hard time reading them at all.

This is opposed to Knox, who has a good sense of whether the audience is entertained, slightly bored, or ready to get up and leave.  At one particularly dead point during the show, Knox looks back at the sign behind him that says “Comedy Connection.”  He scans his finger across the first word and says it loudly and sarcastically – “Co-me-dy.”  It stirs the crowd again.  He knows his way around this place.


Ten minutes before the show starts, Knox is offstage, sitting on the back of one of the chairs, his feet on the seat.  He is not exactly dressed up, with a worn out sweatshirt and warm-up pants.  His long, curly blond hair makes him look like he would fit perfectly in a 1980s rock band named Venom or something.

“Some kids suck,” he says.  Knox is not much different off stage than he is on it.  He is blunt, to the point, and does not seem to be a big fan of subtle humor.  During his set, he makes farting noises with his tongue and flashes his middle finger.  He talks about driving drunk and the laxative qualities of prescription drugs.  “There are some kids I’ve seen that have been doing the same routine for like five years,” he says.  “They need to get out.”

Knox tells the story of Ray Romano, now the star of the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Romano was nominated for an Emmy in 1999 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, a far cry from his start in New York – at an open mike night in a comedy club. 

Knox did the stand-up circuit with Romano and became friends with him.  He talks about how close Romano was to quitting before he got his break.  “He was ready to forget it all,” Knox says.  “He thought he wasn’t going anywhere.  Now look at him.”

“Sometimes you see a kid that’s on his way to greatness,” Knox says.  “But for every one that makes it, there are a million that don’t.”  Tonight it looks as if Vogan and King might be two parts of that million.

But you never know.  The first time is always hard, and rarely does anyone flat out succeed.  The first time most people try writing fiction, they don’t pen The Catcher in the Rye.  Like most art, good stand-up comedy takes practice, and lots of it.  You need funny ideas, funny writing, and –probably the hardest of all three—funny delivery.  Most comedians cannot hide behind a guitar or props, making the experience even more harrowing.  It is them and the microphone.  You cannot get much more intimate than that unless you start taking your clothes off.

In Boston, there are not as many television producers looking over your shoulder, as in New York City and L.A., who are trying to groom you for a primetime network sitcom.  Knox says that this allows you to fine tune your performance the way that you want it.  You can tell jokes that might not be suited for youngsters, like trying to get the audience to follow your twisted logic that “the more people that get shot, the less people that get shot.”  You can perform a sketch at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge where you play Jesus singing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.  This is the freedom that Boston comedy allows you.

And it is never too late to start.  Larry Lee Lewis, who hosts open mike night at the Chops Lounge in Boston on Wednesday nights, started only two years ago.  He is now 54.  When Lewis turned 50, he started playing the piano.  Now he uses that skill in his comedy act as a novelty item.

“I see some guys with guitars,” he says, “but there aren’t too many anymore with keyboards.”  Lewis considers himself a throwback to the comedians of yesteryear.  He plays a little tune on his keyboard and then comes out with something like, “My father was so cheap, I went to him one time and I said, ‘Dad, can I borrow $50?’ He said ‘$40? What do you need $30 for? I can’t afford to give you $20.’” Then he punctuates with his own piercing laugh – “Ha, HAA, HAAAAA!”  You cannot help but laugh along.

In the spectrum of stand-up comedy, Lewis stands about halfway between King and Knox.  He is on the verge of becoming a full-blown professional.  He started, like so many others, at an open mike night.

“All my friends said that I was funny, but it’s really tough to get up on stage and actually do it,” he says.  “Now I’m hooked.”  Lewis tries to perform three, four, even five times a week.  He is usually the opening or middle act in a sea of stand-ups that have about the same experience as him.  He says that the Comedy Connection may soon bill him as an opener on the weekend for one of the national acts, something he has never done.  You can sense the excitement in his voice.

The open mike night that Lewis hosts is one of the more wild ones, and according to him, the “only true open mike.”  At the Comedy Connection, you have to arrange for a five-minute slot.  Same deal at the Comedy Studio.  But at the Chops Lounge, you can walk in and do any bit you want.  The microphone is at one end of the lounge, and the bar is at the other.  There are about 30 feet between the two, tops.  The microphone does not always work so well, but the place is so small it does not matter.  The lighting shines evenly, less like a spotlight, and so the comic does not feel the weight of the entire room.  The comics are more relaxed, and there is more of a team atmosphere here.  People staying at the hotel come down and have dinner in the lounge.  Some have no intentions of hearing stand-up comedy.

Next to the microphone is the piano where Lewis begins the night.  He soon starts introducing people, dozens of them.  The show launches at nine on a Wednesday night and winds down about three hours later.

The majority of the audience, meaning 99.9 percent, is the other performers, and almost all of them know each other.  Newcomers use this to see if they can get a few laughs.  Regulars hone their skills.  You do not have to pay to get in because you have no idea what you will be getting.  These are testing grounds.

“We put oddballs on,” says Lewis.  “We’ve had 80-year-olds get up and do Jack Benny impressions.”

There is some humor mixed throughout the night, and things you might not see elsewhere.  Two guys perform a parody of “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton where they sing about getting in touch with their feminine side – “if you saw me in P-Town…” 

As the night wears on, the acts miss more.  One man who seems to be either high or drunk will not stop.  He has been on stage for ten minutes and is missing every cue Lewis is giving him to stop.  Lewis walks from the back to a table in front of him, and sits down.  Lewis stands up again.  Lewis puts his hand on his face.  The guy isn’t telling jokes anymore, he’s just chatting with people in the audience.  He finally asks for one minute more and finishes his routine.  The other comedians still here are grimacing.

But overall this is a good atmosphere.  Even if the jokes are bad, the laughs still come, though forced.  The Chops Lounge is a place for amateur comics to hang out with one another.  They chat with each other, share a drink.  One comic is talking to the bartender before the show about the recent Holyfield-Ruiz fight, a big one in Beantown because John Ruiz was an underdog and a local boy from nearby Chelsea.

“See, Holyfield was backing down, he kept backing down,” said the comic.  “If you want to win, you’ve got to get right up there, right in his face.”

Another overhears him and leans over.  “Just like stand-up comedy,” he says.


There is a companionship here that performers like Kevin Knox don’t always see.  Because the Comedy Connection is known as the premiere comedy club in Boston, Knox thinks that a lot of amateurs try to use it as a stepping-stone rather than an outlet and a source of enjoyment.

That is not to say Knox does not support the event.  He repeatedly compliments the amateurs for their bravery to perform on stage. And he is not the only one who tries to encourage the amateurs.  Joe Santagate, the booking agent for the Comedy Connection, offers King advice after the show.

“You just need to expand a little,” Santagate says to King.  “Once you do that, give me another call.”  Santagate started as a doorman at the club, and has been booking acts for six years.  He says that he receives about 20 calls per day from amateurs who want to have their five-minute shot on stage.

When they perform, Santagate considers the size and reaction of the audience, as well as his own feelings about the routine.  He is generally forgiving.  Santagate says that it is always good to find new talent, and he sometimes sees an impressive amateur.  When this happens, he refers them to the Comedy Connection’s sister club in Providence, R.I., who pay their comedians to perform.

None of the amateurs tonight will be paid money for their performances.  Hope is their only compensation.

“Comedy is tough,” says Santagate.  “Everyone is looking for their dream shot.”

This is one of the problems that Knox sees with Boston comedy.  After hitting the California comedy scene, he came back with a different perspective on Boston.  “It’s not as friendly, there’s not as much camaraderie,” he says, leaning forward in his chair and speaking lower.  “One thing I noticed about the scene here was that it changed.  The love is out of the game.”

Knox describes the comedian that television producers are looking for: hip, young, and good looking, but not necessarily funny.  “The show can write the material for him,” he says.  “He won’t even have to come up with any jokes.  He just has to look cool.”

Maybe the “love” that Knox says is gone is just on the surface, or maybe Knox had a few bad experiences that dominate his outlook.  He laments, but later in the show he jokes with the other comics, and seems to be having some genuine fun.  The comics that Knox talks with are more experienced, and the manager intersperses them among the amateurs during open mike night.  He does this to keep the crowd on its toes and laughing.  Then they tend to laugh at the amateurs, even when they aren’t funny.

The true lack of camaraderie seems to be among the amateurs themselves, and not the comedians of Knox’s caliber.  They come by themselves, sometimes with a friend or girlfriend, and tend to stay isolated from one another.  Instead of being a team, they may see this event as a competition.  Knox sees it another way.

“I just like making people laugh,” he says.


Laughter might get you free drinks at the club, and even a free meal.  But it will not pay the bills.  Many of these stand-ups live paycheck to paycheck, and struggle day-to-day just like anyone else.  The profession’s glamour survives the 10- or 15-minute set.  After that, it disappears.

            Most are regional comics.  They stay in the New England area.  They travel to Rhode Island or Connecticut.  They will go as far north as Maine.  They have not reached the national status of a Meaney or a Miller or a Rock.  And for some of them, that is fine.

            “I’m not willing to go to L.A. to get on T.V.,” says Nardizzi.  He has also been out west, and decided to come back.  Now he is settled down and has no intentions of breaking up his family.  Besides, he says that Boston is better to make a living than L.A. or New York.

            “The longer you do it here, the more your name gets out,” Nardizzi says.  “The more you get known, the more gigs you get.”

            Nardizzi may say that he makes a decent living, but he did enter in the Boston Comedy Festival, which is normally for more amateur comedians.  Others of his caliber questioned Nardizzi, who says that money was the determining factor.  An extra $7,000 is something that these comedians need whether they’re professionals or not.

            They are reluctant to say how much they’re making for being funny, but some of them have second jobs.  Dave Russo, the winner of last year’s Boston Comedy Festival, is still a substitute teacher.  He teaches during the day, and travels around the region at night, doing shows.  Nardizzi’s path to stand-up comedy was odd enough.  After graduating from college in 1990, he got a job as a banker.

            “There was an open mike for just bankers,” Nardizzi said.  “And so I tried it out and it went well.”  But these amateur comedians are not dropping what they have and diving into stand-up comedy.  The money isn’t there at the beginning, and when it comes later on, after years of experience, it still isn’t that much.

            Which is why these comics are protective of their material.  Another reason why Nardizzi entered the Comedy Festival was he wanted to see if any of the comics from out of town were stealing his material.  When asked if people really do that, Nardizzi stares and nods.  His straight face shows that there are no jokes about this subject.

            “Most of the time it’s the people that are close to you that are stealing your shit,” Nardizzi said.  “They don’t even realize they’re doing it half the time.  Or they think that we’re buddies and so I won’t care.”

            But Nardizzi does care.  He said that when you start hanging out with other comics a lot, you start acting the same, sounding the same, and generating similar material.  He said that it is hard to keep separate the material you have heard from the material that you have created yourself.

            Jokes get recycled.  This is the way comedy works.  Most comedians got hooked on the profession from watching someone else.  Nardizzi memorized Dennis Miller’s first HBO special, for instance.  The subconscious stores these jokes, and the conscious might use them later without realizing what it’s doing.  This goes on and on, and no comic is immune.

Nardizzi rants about a new product with peanut butter and jelly in the same jar:  “Is that for people who own one knife? Why don’t I cram bread and milk in there, let these morons tongue their lunch out of the jar?”  Brian Regan, the 1996 Male Comedian of the Year and a national touring comic, does a bit that is oddly familiar: “If you’re that lazy, why not put some croutons in there, get the whole sandwich with a spoon?”

Regan talks about the Step, a piece of exercise equipment: “People are sending away for them in the mail.  Bing-bong! It’s here! They run down the stairs and get it. This is going to be great!”  Comic Denis Leary talks about the Stairmaster: “Have we turned into gerbils, ladies and gentleman? People are paying money to go into a health club and walk up invisible steps for an hour and a half.  What’s next, the Chairmaster? I sit down, I get up, I sit down, I get up.”

Leary talks about cocaine: “I’d like to do some cocaine.  I’d like to do a drug that makes my penis small, makes my nose bleed, makes my heart explode, and sucks all my money out of the bank, is that possible please?” Robin Williams: “What a wonderful drug. Anything that makes you paranoid and impotent, give me some of that.  There’s a wonderful thing called freebasing. It’s not free, it costs you your house, it should be called homebasing.”

Finally, Williams talks about alcohol: “I had to stop drinking alcohol because I kept waking up nude in front of my car with my keys in my ass.”  A few years earlier, comedy genius Richard Pryor: “I had to stop drinking because I got tired of waking up in my car doing 90.”

            Who stole from whom?  Who knows?  It might not have even been intentional.  It is hard to monitor who is stealing your material when the thief doesn’t know he’s doing it.  Then again, a lot of comedians have a similar sense of humor.  Who is to say they didn’t create their own jokes, separate from one another?  Similar jokes come with the territory of being a stand-up.  Most comedians realize this, and try to keep it to a minimum.  What they want the most is to make the crowd laugh.


And laugh they do.  The audience at the Comedy Connection is as diverse as the performers on stage, with a mix of tourists, aspiring amateurs, and friends of performers.

E.J. Murphy sits in the audience. He drives a tour bus. A native Vermonter, he now lives in South Boston.  He orders a draft and sits back to watch the show. 

“I’ve never tried going up there,” he says.  “But I’ve thought about it.  That’s why I like to check it out.”  It’s not a surprise that many who go to these shows have at one time entertained the idea of trying it themselves.  They just don’t have the guts.

One comic discusses his overweight girlfriend as Murphy watches.

“I don’t want to come out and say she’s fat, so I try to be more subtle,” he says.  “So I’ll be like, ‘Hey, do you want to go take a walk on the beach?  And then do 500 sit-ups?’”

Murphy laughs, but he is also studying.  He is discovering what kills and what bombs, what gets the laughs and what gets the uneasy hush.

“I’ve written down some stuff,” he says, “but that’s as far as I’ve gone.  I try it out on my own, maybe in front of some friends, but that’s it.”  Murphy says that he got the idea from his job, where he drives tourists around and tells them the history of Boston.  He says that he usually throws in a few jokes here or there.

“But it’s a lot different than getting on stage,” he says.  “When I’m driving the tour bus, I don’t have to face the audience when I tell my jokes.”  A security wall pops up when you’re not face-to-face with your critic.  But to look at them and see the contortions of disgust, the occasional dead face of quiet, can be vexing.  Then you have to keep going.

There are a few strongholds in almost every audience.  There are the hysterical laughers, the ones who make every joke the funniest thing they have heard.  These are the ones who are crying, leaning their chair back and forth in spasms.  Their laugh starts loud and strong, fades to a high-pitched wheeze, and finishes with a cough or a deep breath.

Then there is the challenger.  This person dedicates himself to not laughing even though he paid $10 to do exactly that.  It is almost as if he is trying to impress the people he came with by showing them his power to keep a straight face.

And when they leave, the audience is a lot like the one outside a movie theater.  Instead of recalling parts of the movie, they’ll retell jokes, recreate the funny situations, and laugh all over again.  They’ll try to make up jokes of their own, or tell ones that they had stored inside somewhere.  After a good show, there is a certain unity among the audience.  Everyone’s smiling outside the club.  Everyone’s stomach hurts from laughing hard.

Amateur comedy is like sex in that if it’s good, all your troubles are put on hold.  That bad day at the job disappears.  The headache you had this morning is only a distant memory.

But if sex is bad, it’s still pretty good.  Comedy cannot say the same.  If comedy is bad, it is often tense and embarrassing, for the giver and receiver alike.  It leaves both parties uneasy and shifty.  The events unfold and everyone involved wishes they had stayed home and rented a movie, maybe even a comedy.  You know that you’ll at least get a few laughs for $3.50.  With stand-up comedy, you have no idea. 

This is the situation that every amateur wants to avoid.  They may have dreams of grandeur before they get on stage, but once the microphone is in front of them and the lights shine down, they’re not thinking about their own Thursday-night sitcom.  Like Kevin Knox the professional, they just want to make people laugh.


But for now the night is over and dreams are put on hold.  After the last guy, Knox gets back on stage, thanks everybody, and says goodnight.  The exit music gets thrown on and people get ready to leave.  Five minutes later, Bill King is still sitting in the back, finishing his Budweiser.

“Good job,” I say to him.  He nods at me and says thanks, but does not smile.  Instead, he throws the bottle back and finishes what is left of his beer.  He stands up and puts his coat on and looks around the club.  There may be two or three others still here, but mostly it’s just King and I.  This place, which last weekend was so full, and even earlier tonight was at least brewing a little, is now dark, almost hollow.

“This place sure cleared out fast, didn’t it?” King says.  He says it like he didn’t want the night to end, like he wants what Paul Nardizzi got when he won the Boston Comedy Festival. 

When Nardizzi was announced as the winner, he took the stage and hugged his fellow comedians.  Everyone called for a speech at the microphone.  The entire place stopped, their attention centered on him.

“I’d like to thank God,” Nardizzi said, “for putting a lot of weird shit in my head.”  It is one of those strange gifts that few people besides a comedian would be grateful for.