Jay Black knows how it feels to kill. He’s done it many times, destroying packed college auditoriums and theaters in more than 40 states. With more than 1,000 stand-up comedy shows under his belt, Black has lit up hip clubs in major cities and was named the country’s top college comic by Campus Activities Magazine a few years ago. He’s been on Showtime, A&E and Fox, and has opened for headliners like Bobcat Goldthwait.
Black’s career has been gaining momentum since he quit his job as a South Jersey high school English teacher in 2007 to pursue comedy full time. But on this late-winter night, pacing outside a rowdy Northeast Philadelphia sports bar, Jay Black is about to enter the gates of hell.
None of the comics at Whitman’s Tavern have done well tonight. Not because they weren’t funny, but because Whitman’s is a stand-up’s nightmare. Consider the setup: blaring televisions, a shaky stage, a malfunctioning microphone and a restless roomful of drunk and disinterested patrons.
“I can’t imagine this is going to be good,” says Black, 36. “If I can even make this tolerable, I have to be the Evel Knievel of comedy.”
Inside the club, Jason Pollock, a short, nervous funnyman and booking agent from Burlington County, waits for his friend to take the stage. The show is not Pollock’s doing and he knows the booking is all wrong. Pollock would have stuck to the turf he knows best: South Jersey. That’s where it’s happening. That’s where comedians are being shown some respect.
Pollock has reasons to be bullish about South Jersey. Over the last five years, it has developed a solid circuit of venues and blossomed into a hotbed for stand-up. In addition to two well-established venues in Atlantic City—the Comedy Stop at the Tropicana and the Borgata Comedy Club—new outlets for live hilarity have cropped up in Cherry Hill, Marlton, Toms River and even as far south as Gloucester County. Moreover, stand-up nights have become a draw for local restaurants like Bogey’s Club & Cafe in Sewell and community theaters like the Surflight on Long Beach Island. Yes, it’s a good time to be funny in South Jersey.
Ask almost any veteran comic or club owner and you will hear the same thing: The last 15 years have been less than kind to stand-ups.
Oh sure, people still want to laugh, but unless you’re talking about New York City or Los Angeles, getting audiences to fill a comedy club has been a struggle for promoters ever since standup’s heyday faded in the late 1980s.
For most of the ’80s, live comedy was all the rage. Small clubs opened left and right. Restaurants and bars began hosting stand-up nights faster than you can say Janeane Garofalo (a Newton native). Ironically, it was this unchecked ascent that many believe brought on the dark times.
“I have a pet theory I like to call Comedy Inflation,” says Brian McKim, a South Jersey-bred comedian and recent transplant to Las Vegas. His website, SHECKYmagazine.com, launched in 1999, covers all things stand-up.
“By the late ’80s and early ’90s, I think there were too many stages chasing too few comedians,” McKim says. “And when that happened, the talent at the very top of the bill was suddenly someone who was only ‘featuring’ just weeks before. The talent at the middle was someone who was only opening just months or weeks before. And the person opening had no right to be on stage in front of a paying audience. As a result, what you had were a lot of bad experiences, and that’s when things started to cool off.”
Even as it rebounds, stand-up must live down those bombs. And it must do so in the face of new competition for attention from multiple cable channels and on-demand media.
Regardless, insiders like Pollock say the continuing appeal of live entertainment can be seen in the South Jersey comedy revival.
“South Jersey feels like a make-believe place to me,” says Pollock, a lifelong area resident and former manager of the now-defunct Rascal’s Comedy Club in Cherry Hill. These days, in addition to occasionally performing, Pollock books talent for local venues, including Bogey’s, Andreotti’s Viennese Cafe in Cherry Hill, the Comedy Cove in Springfield, and the Comedy Cabaret in Marlton.
“You see people in South Jersey coming into Starbucks and Barnes & Noble every day who want to feel like they’re living in a city, but don’t, because they’re comfortable in suburbia,” he says. “It’s like their own little version of Los Angeles down here, and I’m like, well, if that’s going to be your attitude, why don’t I bring you some comedy?”
South Jersey has no great historic connection to comedy. It can’t lay claim to the likes of Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, Ernie Kovacs, Flip Wilson or Uncle Floyd Vivino. All of these Jersey-bred legends of laughter—and contemporary brethren such as Joe Piscopo, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Richard Lewis—have their roots further north. Yet today the South Jersey scene is enjoying a high yield of yucks, thanks to locals like Black and Pollock.
Then there’s Dena Blizzard, a South Jersey mother of three and contestant in the 1995 Miss America Pageant, who for nearly a decade has been making a living with her quirky brand of domestic comedy. In addition to regularly performing her one-woman show, One Funny Mother, locally and across the country, Blizzard has been shopping a late-night talk-show pilot and occasionally warming up audiences at Anderson Cooper’s new Anderson Live daytime talk show.
Other South Jersey comics on the rise include Collingswood’s Carolyn Busa, Tabernacle’s Charles Kuski, and Pat Barker, a Mount Ephraim native who has made a local name for himself with his endearingly caustic observations.
Why South Jersey? Why now? It’s never easy to pinpoint or explain the emergence of a scene, whether comedy, music or theater. South Jersey seems to have benefitted from a confluence of appealing venues, fresh local talent and receptive audiences. Steve Trevelise, who owns Sarcasm Comedy Club in Cherry Hill, says the seminal spark is attitude—another elusive concept. “People in this state get it,” says Trevelise.” And that’s what Sarcasm is all about. It’s for people who get the joke.”
It’s a Saturday night in early March, and the Comedy Cabaret in Marlton is packed. The room—a dedicated space off the Casa Carollo restaurant—holds 75 guests and swells with laughter as two warm-up acts set the stage for the evening’s headliner: Jay Black.
“We’ve come a long way from Whitman’s, haven’t we?” Black jokes backstage before the show. “This should be pretty good.”
It’s an understatement. For nearly an hour, Black brandishes his signature energetic observational humor peppered with the occasional R-rated rant. The audience devours it.
The night is a triumph, and not just because Black is a local favorite. His success also has to do with the setting. Comedy Cabaret’s lighting is professional, the stage is elevated and flanked by exposed brick walls, and the atmosphere feels more like a hip, cozy tavern in a major city than some room off an Italian restaurant in small-town Jersey.
“This was a really good night,” says the cabaret’s manager, Tony Conaway, who started doing stand-up in Texas during the 1980s boom. Dressed in a purple and white striped shirt accented by a black vest and tie, Conaway sits in a folding chair near the club’s exit, watching with a wry smile as the satisfied audience files out into the chilly evening. Comedy is best when it’s cold outside, he says. In summer, there’s just no competing with the Shore.
Seasonal vagaries notwithstanding, Conaway is optimistic about the scene.
“Stand-up was on the decline for a while, but it definitely seems to be coming back,” he says. “You see a lot of venues making a go of it down here. Not only because South Jersey is a great spot, being so close to Philly, but because people are more confident about the economy, and they’re willing to spend a night out to see some live comedy.”
To be sure, an evening’s worth of standup does not come cheap. The Comedy Cabaret, for example, typically charges $20 at the door. Bring a date, have a few cocktails and perhaps dinner at the neighboring restaurant, and you’re looking at spending three figures. Still, those in the business, like Sarcasm’s Trevelise, think comedy is a bargain.
“This isn’t like going to the movies,” Trevelise says. “You go to the movies—which isn’t cheap either—to sit in a dark room for about two hours and go home. That’s not terribly exciting.” Trevelise, a New Jersey native and radio personality for NJ 101.5, opened Sarcasm in 2010 after serving as general manager and house emcee at Catch A Rising Star in Princeton. Sarcasm, which is housed inside a large banquet space in the Crowne Plaza Hotel off Route 70, hosts two live stand-up shows every Saturday night. Attractions have included local acts and national stars such as Gilbert Gottfried and Sherman Hemsley, who performed his last show there before his death earlier this year.
“When you come here, you have a few drinks, maybe something to eat, and laugh your butt off for an hour and a half,” says Trevelise. “From an economic standpoint, I don’t know where else you can get that.”
“Round Boy” Jimmy Graham has played the comedy game for almost two decades. At 48, the Gloucester County native has been a stand-up comic since he quit his truck-driving job with Pepsi after a bad accident in 1998 left him with a broken femur and a year’s worth of painful recovery. Wheelchair bound and growing increasingly depressed, Graham was encouraged by friends to sign up for an open-mic comedy night near his home in Pitman. Everyone had always told him how funny he was. Graham figured he had nothing to lose.
“When I got that first laugh, it just mesmerized me,” he says. “From that moment on, I was hooked. I went home that night, threw away the Zoloft and said to my wife, ‘This is what I have to do.’”
Graham spent the next decade touring the country, sharing bills with the likes of Artie Lange and “The Reverend” Bob Levy. But life on the road was a grind, so Graham came home and opened a club in 2010.
“People are tired of just going out to the bar on a Saturday night,” he says. “They want something different, and I wanted to offer that.” Since opening his first location—a 200-seat room inside Kegler’s Bar in Glassboro—Graham’s LOL Comedy Club has expanded to include a biweekly comedy dinner show at Lacasa Fratello’s, a 300-seater in Franklinville. Graham also hosts open-mic nights for aspiring comics as well as a family-friendly stand-up show one Sunday a month at the Italian Affair restaurant in Glassboro. In the next few years he hopes to have eight LOL locations saturating some of the most thinly populated reaches of South Jersey.
“I’ve been a Gloucester County resident my entire life, and this is something we’ve never had,” Graham says. “If you wanted to see a good comedy show, you had to go to Philly or AC, and a lot of people don’t want to do that. Now there’s something here, and it’s growing.”
The trend has also reached the Shore. For the second year in a row, Catch A Rising Star, the renowned chain of comedy clubs, partnered with the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island this summer to offer weekly stand-up comedy from late May through early September, booking the likes of Jackie “the Joke Man” Martling and Robert Klein.
“I firmly believe that comics are the rock stars of the new millennium,” says Catch A Rising Star president and part owner, Suzy Yengo. “There are so many bars and restaurants scattered about South Jersey that the opportunities are endless. I only see it flourishing, and I don’t think anyone has even scratched the surface yet.”
Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.
Garden State of Stand-Up
Here are some of the key venues where comedy is king in South Jersey:
Borgata Comedy Club
1 Borgata Way
Casba Comedy Club
3810 Atlantic Avenue
The Comedy Cabaret
200 N. Route 73
Comedy Stop at The Trop
2801 Pacific Avenue # 306
503 North Delsea Drive
Knuckleheads Comedy Club
955 Hooper Avenue
La Casa Fratello’s
4140 Tuckahoe Road
LOL Comedy Club
503 North Delsea Drive
Sarcasm Comedy Club
(In the Crowne Plaza Hotel)
2349 W. Marlton Pike
(Route 70 East)
Cherry Hill; 856-382-6253
201 Engleside Avenue
Uncle Vinnie’s Comedy Club
518 Arnold Avenue
Point Pleasant Beach
Elsewhere in Jersey:
Bananas Comedy Club
283 State Route 17
Catch A Rising Star
102 Carnegie Court
The Comedy Shoppe
Locations in Asbury Park (Tim McLoone’s Supper Club), Montclair (Just Jake’s) and Rockaway (Brick 46)
Scotty’s Steak House & The Comedy Cove
595 Morris Avenue
708 Cookman Avenue
Vinnie Brand’s Stress Factory Comedy Club
90 Church Street
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