Tough Crowd

Comedy legends and wannabes alike know that all roads to success run through the Garden State. The next Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld could be playing at a club near you.

When Jerry Seinfeld wanted to return to stand-up after his hit TV show finally ended, he boarded his Learjet in California and beat a path across the country to Rascals Comedy Club in West Orange, an appearance memorialized in the 2002 documentary Comedian. Seinfeld’s gig at Rascals, where he had played many times as a young man bent on stardom, confirmed his commitment to return to his comedic roots and affirmed the club’s place in the pantheon of great American comedy clubs.

For years the Garden State has served as a training ground for Manhattan’s A-list clubs like Dangerfield’s and Caroline’s and for comics with even larger ambitions as well, like selling out arenas or starring in feature-length films. Throughout the 1980s, a parade of little-known stand-up artists who soon would become international stars were playing stages from Hasbrouck Heights to Atlantic City: Rosie O’Donnell. Andrew Dice Clay. Tim Allen. Sam Kinison. Chris Rock. And, of course, Seinfeld. Those in the business of comedy remember this period as a pinnacle of stand-up’s popularity.

“There was a huge boom back then, and going to comedy clubs was the thing to do,” says Harlan Jamison, who established Bananas Comedy Club, a 250-seat club in Hasbrouck Heights, in 1988 with his wife, Arlene. “People were flocking to see shows no matter who was performing. There were sold-out shows after sold-out shows.”

Gary DeLena, a Point Pleasant comedian who has performed stand-up for 22 years, says that many clubs didn’t last because they were mismanaged or they cut corners by booking weak acts. “Once it caught on, everybody and their brother wanted to try comedy,” DeLena says. “Did you ever hear the expression,
‘Dying is easy but comedy is hard?’ A lot of the comics sucked.”

Some of those who struck it big later returned to the New Jersey clubs that helped launch their careers. Clay, whose raunchy humor earned him dates at Brendan Byrne (now Continental Airlines) Arena in 1989 and Madison Square Garden the next year (a sell-out), later returned to Rascals. Post-stardom, Allen, Rock, and Paul Reiser all returned to play Bananas. In 1989, the same week that his TV pilot aired, Seinfeld sold out three shows at Bananas in one night, moving 1,200 tickets in a matter or minutes.

“They come back to the small suburban clubs because they want to work out new material and don’t necessarily want to do it in New York,” Jamison says. “You get to see them up close and personal.”

These days New Jersey’s leading comedy clubs hope to revive a scene that in recent years spawned homegrown talent like Artie Lange and Robert Wuhl (both from Union), Bill Bellamy (Newark), and Saturday Night Live alums Janeane Garofalo (Newton) and Jay Mohr (Verona), who has hosted NBC’s hit reality show Last Comic Standing: The Search for the Funniest Person in America. Last year another New Jerseyan, Tom Papa, got his own TV show, NBC’s Come to Papa, a sitcom about, well, an aspiring comedy writer from New Jersey. Comedians who headline here get as much as 45 minutes of stage time, far more than the standard gig in Manhattan. “There is no one you could go to see in the Big Apple that we haven’t done out here,” Jamison says. “The concept of going into the city to see a really good show doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Still, only a handful of New Jersey’s clubs present nightly comedy acts. Two are in Atlantic City: the Comedy Stop at the Trop in the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, and the Borgata Comedy Club in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which has drawn 300,000 people since opening two years ago. Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and the manic Jim Norton, a North Brunswick native whose show last summer sold out in a half-hour, have played the Borgata. “Guys like Dice and Norton have their own fans and a specific audience, and they’re not for everyone,” says Ray Garvey, who books comedy acts at the Borgata. “Sometimes it has to be PG-13. And when you hear a 60-year-old woman say she loves the comedians, it’s great.”

Rascals, now in Montclair and Cherry Hill; Catch a Rising Star in West Windsor and Atlantic City; the Stress Factory in New Brunswick; and Bananas present comedy up to four nights a week. Charlie Murphy, Adam Ferrara, and Jackie “the Jokeman” Martling all have headlined in New Jersey in recent months. Hillsborough’s Rich Vos, the first white performer to appear on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and twice a finalist on Last Comic Standing, appears regularly at Rascals in Montclair. Dave Attell, whose “Insomniac Tour” recently aired on cable TV’s Comedy Central, plays the Stress Factory on the 2nd and 3rd. Jackie Mason plays Bananas on the 17th. “The difference now is people come out for specific acts or their favorites and are seeking these comics out,” Jamison says, rattling off names such as Dane Cook, Lewis Black, and Attell.

With the popularity of Comedy Central and shows like Last Comic Standing, club owners are reaching for a new generation of fans. Last winter, Craig Neier, the CEO of Catch a Rising Star, brought a stand-up competition known as the College Comedy Challenge to three New Jersey campuses—Rider University in Lawrenceville, Centenary College in Hackettstown, and Princeton University—where 33 aspiring comedians performed original material. The winner, Patrick Cunningham, a Princeton senior studying creative writing, got to perform twenty minutes of stand-up at the nearby Catch a Rising Star. “Everybody is looking to be the next Frasier or Seinfeld,” Neier says, “and there are a lot of comics out in Jersey who have a good shot at it.”

John Zawadzinski dreams of being a stand-up comedian, not writing about them.

Article from December, 2005 Issue.




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