Seven Minutes to Kill

Ray Stearn doesn’t have much time to make a skeptical audience laugh. Good thing he hasn’t quit his day job.

Forget Andy Warhol and his fifteen minutes of fame. Ray Stearn, pacing past the bar at New Brunswick’s Stress Factory Comedy Club, is begging the emcee for just seven. Two days ago, Stearn coaxed the club’s booking agent, Lori Forsman, into giving him a short but coveted Saturday night slot, alongside the sort of A-listers you see on Comedy Central and Jay Leno. Stearn is not that kind of comic—which makes life especially difficult tonight, when no one on duty claims to know about the last-minute schedule change.

The emcee, a lanky, mildly menacing comic named Julian McCullough, is getting irritated; Forsman isn’t answering her cell phone and Stearn isn’t backing down. Finally, after a minute of hushed conversation near the kitchen, Stearn gets his seven minutes, albeit during the opening slot between McCullough’s warm-up and the Comedy Central veterans. But Stearn knows that the crowd filing into the dimly lit club didn’t shell out $15 apiece (plus a two-drink minimum) to laugh at an amateur.

A wide-eyed 32-year-old, Stearn looks like a young, doughy Michael J. Fox. “I look very clean-cut, very boy-next-door,” he says. “That’s part of my act. People expect me to be very PG—then they’re shocked by some of the things I say. I try to get the audience thinking in one direction, then bring them back 180 degrees.” He’s worked rooms at the Dunellen Theater and Rascals. Across the Hudson, he’s performed at Stand-Up NY and has done “bringer” shows at the Gotham Comedy Club, in which young comics who bring the most guests win the most stage time. But Stearn took his first stab at comedy five years ago, when the New York ad agency where he worked held an employee talent show in the office cafeteria. “I brought a beer with me onstage, and you could see the bottle shaking in my hand,” he recalls. “But that was a long time ago.”

Not that long ago. Stearn still commutes daily from his Hoboken digs to the same ad agency, and some of the jokes he christened during that premier performance endure in tonight’s script. The Stress Factory is in typical Saturday-night mode. Under a cloud of cigarette smoke, the waitstaff slings orders of jalapeño poppers, cheese steaks, and cocktails to a packed house cackling over McCullough’s warm-up. If the place had a greenroom, Stearn would be in it. “I try to stay away from the crowd before a show,” he says. “It’s a really intense time. It’s like the starting pitcher before a baseball game. No one’s allowed to talk to him.”

He perches at the bar—the club’s makeshift bullpen—with his back to the stage and an Amstel Light in his hand. He hunches over his script as if cramming for an exam, mindlessly fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. Is he nervous? “I’m totally nervous,” he says tightly, without missing a beat. His fiancée, Laura Casing, is in the audience, as usual. On this occasion, his parents, who have come from their home in Piscataway, are sitting with her. “This place holds 260 people, and there’s still a line out the door,” Stearn says, “but I’m trying to turn that nervous energy into positive energy. Hopefully, no hecklers.” He breaks into a high, thin laugh, swallows one last long swig of beer, and waits for his cue.

“Your guest set this evening is a very, very funny man,” McCullough announces to a crowd that’s still laughing from his act. “He’s a local guy who’s just starting out doing comedy. Let’s put our hands together for RAY STEARN!” Stearn jogs to the microphone wearing tailored gray pants, a blue dress shirt, and a Boy Scout’s grin. There isn’t a trace of sweat on his round face.

Stearn starts off mildly enough. He elicits sympathy moans when he mentions that his fictional girlfriend broke up with him—before adding, “two years ago.” The crowd laughs, though not as heartily as they did for McCullough. “I’m getting over it,” he continues. “I’ve stopped calling her…names.” He moves on to the jokes he wishes his parents weren’t there to hear, the same jokes that stopped fazing his fiancée long ago. He relates more tall tales about his bisexual girlfriend (“I have to buy her something before she becomes sexual”), admits that men really are after one thing (“your younger sister”), and recalls the time he asked a girl to wake him up with only her mouth (“She screamed right in my ear, ‘Get a job, you lazy bum!’ ”). Pockets of the room buzz with restless chatter, but the rows horseshoed around the stage erupt in frequent chuckles, guffaws, and an occasional yeah!

A red light flashes in Stearn’s eyes, cueing him that he has two minutes to wrap up. He cuts to a skydiving joke he’s been cracking since his employee-cafeteria gig, then thanks the audience before dashing outside for some air. “Do you think it went alright?” he asks, his voice climbing an octave. Stearn is too wired to sit, so he paces instead. “I usually get more laughs than that. I was a little disappointed,” he says.

He blames the lukewarm reception on McCullough’s introduction: “He shouldn’t have mentioned that I’m just starting out, because I’m not just starting out.” He pulls from his pocket a thin, slightly damp strip of paper summarizing the night’s script in bullet-pointed shorthand, then mourns the jokes he couldn’t cram into his seven minutes.

“I had some pornography jokes that every comic has, but I had a different twist on it,” he says. “I wish I could’ve done it. It’s a good one. I had a joke about going to a massage parlor—one of the few things that actually did happen to me. I make fun of the French a little bit—you’re not French, are you? Well, I never ask permission to tell a joke anyway.”

Cara Birnbaum is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

Article from December,  2005 Issue.

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