Daily Gazette (Febreuary 22, 2009) - Stand-up citizens. Everyone's a comedian? No, but the brave can try it
ALBANY — Life is funny sometimes. Or, in local comedian Greg Aidala's case, life is funny all the time. "I get inspiration out of life," Aidala said during a recent interview at a diner in Albany. "Everything is like a comedy sense. Plus, if not, I'd be crying all the time, know what I mean?" The 34-year-old Albany native has been performing stand-up both on the local scene and across the country since his first gig opening for Colin Quinn and Nick DiPaolo in Troy in 2001. Since then, Aidala has helped to build a stand-up comedy community in the Capital Region, teaching beginning and advanced classes at the Knowledge Network in Albany and organizing local shows through his production company, Radial Gage Entertainment.
That local scene continues to grow. Numerous clubs focusing on comedy, including the Funny Farm in Gloversville, the Comedy Works in Albany and the Saratoga Comedy Club, give local and national comedians chances to get out there and perform.
A weekly open mike and variety show hosted by Aidala, "Comedy on the Park," is also giving local comedians a chance to work on material Sunday nights at Tess' Lark Tavern in Albany. The series started in December and features up to 12 performers a night with trivia and giveaways in between. According to Aidala, the shows have been averaging an audience of about 55 per week.
"I wanted a weekly series, [and] I wanted the only organized workout room dedicated to comedy," Aidala said. "You know, open mikes, believe me, I've done all those. I've had to wait till 2 in the morning in the city to get some stage time. You get there at 9 — 'I put in half a work day to do five minutes? I can't do this.' And I didn't want anyone to do that here because that happens at open mikes."
Getting laughs takes work
Clearly, the world of the stand-up comedian who's just starting out isn't all laughs — just getting stage time can be difficult. Then there's the matter of writing jokes and building a repertoire long enough (or short enough) to fit the required time slot.
"Practice and stage time [are the most important things]," said Brian Kiernan, 29, a tax auditor from Albany who just started doing stand-up last September after taking Aidala's beginners' class. "Even standing in front of a group of people, with the pressure there to make them laugh — every week I'm more and more comfortable and I can feel it. . . . You can practice as much as you want in front of a mirror, but the more time you have with a live audience on a stage with a microphone in hand, that's the practice that's making me better every week I can do it."
But before a comedian can develop and practice a routine, he or she first needs jokes. Kiernan, who took the advanced workshop with Aidala in October, ended up winning a competition at the end of the class, held at the Lark Tavern, and opened for Aidala's Loudonville Fire Department benefit show last year. His jokes usually develop from true stories.
"My comedy's more of storytelling, true stories with my own twist on it that I've been telling for years with friends and family," he said. "I take the basic story, something that really happened, my imagination takes hold, and I try to come up with a better ending than what really happened."
Crystal Burritt, 22, of Alexandria Bay has been working as a stand-up comedian on and off for the past five years, fulfilling a childhood dream. She's been writing jokes since high school by writing down notes on everyday occurrences.
"They're things that are sort of ridiculous in life in a context of the mundane," Burritt said. "No one else seems to notice that it's ridiculous until I point it out, that kind of thing. I have a joke about, instead of getting road rage, I get walk rage."
Sometimes a comedian can end up developing a persona. Joshua Sperber, 33, who teaches at The College of Saint Rose and lives in Loudonville, works in much the same way as Burritt, venting frustrations through jokes. Another veteran of Aidala's class, Sperber stumbled upon his slightly confused, frazzled persona after his first few attempts at performing in front of a group.
"I found out very quickly that I had this sort of frazzled, absent-minded professor persona," Sperber said. "I sort of used it — I started to stutter, lose my train of thought, and it became my persona. . . . People told me that no matter what I say, it's funny."
The first three minutes
Assembling a repertoire of jokes into a time-sensitive routine can be a challenge. Aidala teaches his classes how to build routines in time increments, slowly building from the first three minutes to a full feature act set, which is 30 minutes.
But it's the first three minutes that are most important to nail down, Aidala says. In this short time frame, comedians should introduce themselves to the crowd. After a base is built, the comedian can build upon it with other jokes, while maintaining a flow.
"Say we're out like this, and something happens," Aidala said. "I'll know where to plug it in to my routine, because it's constantly going on in my head. So after years of that, I've got millions of notes, so you're just dropping a note next to it, or mentally."
Deric Harrington, 29, of Schenectady, has been doing stand-up since 2002 and has performed at local comedy clubs and in Chicago and Florida. His sets are usually loosely organized, although he writes them all out at home before performing.
"My style is a little different in that it doesn't necessarily flow most of the time," Harrington said. "My set is really written out, joke for joke, at home, and my set list is the process of putting that together at open mikes, five- to 10-minute chunks."
No more stage fright
Donna LaForest, a 39-year-old legal assistant in Schenectady, took Aidala's workshop last March. Careful planning and organizing of her routines helped her to overcome her initial stage fright.
"When I was in school, I was never in the school play, I never gave a speech or performed at all," LaForest said. "The first time I got up in front of people and did comedy and got a positive reaction, that sort of — it was just something I felt very proud of myself that I made myself do that, because it was very rewarding to me."
But despite a comedian's best efforts, sometimes the audience just isn't receptive.
"Comedy is the only sort of live art where you get immediate feedback on everything," Harrington said. "In comedy, if nobody laughs, you know it's not working, and that can just be the most brutal thing, too. When everything's banging on all cylinders, and then you do a new joke in the middle and it comes to a screeching halt, that's 10 minutes of work leading up to that point that you've just lost."
The best thing comedians can do in that situation is to not let it throw them off, and keep trying.
"I've had great shows and I've had bad shows — anyone who says they haven't, they haven't tried stand-up," Aidala said. "You know, I've been on both ends of the . spectrum, haven't slept or ate for four days after because I'm, like, I couldn't get anything rolling, nothing. But going through that, and having people come in here that are just starting out and they're like, 'Ugh.' I'm like, 'Trust me, I'm here, I've been through it, you're gonna get through it.' So that's how it builds — you keep plowing through."