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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Will Joke for Food

When you’re a comedian with bills to pay, not every gig is at a comedy club.



Despite backroom deliberations among the big shots, and subtle pleas from the talent to call off the banquet and eat the losses, the show went on. The strumming harpist and the sullen mass of pale faces in black garb primed the room for a little laughter, a little reprieve from America’s recent communal kick to the groin. The day was Sept. 12, 2001.

“It was horrible,” Keith Stubbs said. Laughter remained in a limbo between giddiness and a carnal urge to eviscerate one’s enemies. It didn’t matter if Stubbs suggested that the harpist launch into “Inna Gadda Da Vida.” This was a time for perpetual CNN and American flag pins.

So it goes for comics for hire. Being a professional comedian requires compromises and obedience to the gods of income. Decisions to wring a living out of making people laugh demands diligence and a smidgen of insanity. A hard-working comedian can still skirt the poverty level, but it’s a world where only bad timing, horrible pay and a Klan rally discourages a comic from accepting a gig. “Honestly, we’ll take just about anything,” Stubbs said.

After opening Wiseguys Comedy Café, Stubbs began arranging private gigs for other comedians. “I gave local comics a chance, and I could go on stage whenever I wanted,” he said.

The concept of renting a comic instead of a band specializing in Randy Travis tunes and reworded Christmas carols eventually caught on. Maestros of middle management began to figure out that business meetings were actually boring. PowerPoint presentations just weren’t making the grade anymore—they needed a break from monotony.

Some comics shatter tedium with 20 minutes of gags. Stubbs and others tackled charades masquerading as employees. Suddenly the vice president of marketing starts making light of the boss’s comb-over.

Hilarity ensues, but ever-so-seasonally. Corporate gigs surge in number during the holiday season. Stubbs offers a blunt suggestion to event planners struggling with the choice between karaoke and comedy: “I say, pick the karaoke. If you think karaoke is an alternative to comedy, you just don’t get it.”

A professional comic for five years, Rodney Norman manages to get hired once or twice a month during the off-season, but describes Christmas as being “off the charts.” He often plays two or three gigs a night, which—combined with a very occasional road trip and a steady job emceeing at Wiseguys—allows him to support a family of five. Norman’s also a full-time philosophy student. “Philosophers are just comedians with bad material,” he said.

Norman thinks his profession enjoys the same notoriety as strippers and drug dealers, since stand-up boasts burlesque and strip clubs among its various origins. As a practicing Mormon, he has long since grown accustomed to derision. “You tell people you’re from Utah, and they act as if you had a death in the family,” he said. “You say you’re Mormon, and suddenly you have an incurable disease.”

The God-fearing man who managed to retain his virginity as a 23-year-old U.S. Marine serving stints in the Philippines and Thailand still manages to offend. “A gig in Provo reduced my pay for saying ‘French kiss,’” he said. “I work clean, but Utah requires ultra clean.”

The former jarhead soldiers on, remaining true to his beliefs. He and a partner played a bachelorette party, from which a male stripper bailed at the last minute. The women suggested the humorists serve as stand-ins for the immodest holdout. Norman waited in the car, while his partner stayed in the house. For reasons unknown, his partner took in an extra $400 that evening.

Despite the laughter factor, humor-for-hire and working clubs ultimately part ways. Clubs use signs and playbills, figuring patrons like to know what their evening will entail. Conversely, event coordinators who hire talent suppose a surprise may be a bit more fun.

Norman once fell victim to such administrative whimsy when he took the podium at a gathering of golf enthusiasts. Rumors abounded that the speaker would be a pro-golfer willing to share his wisdom and war stories. The group seemed hopeful that their emcee would be two-time British Open champion Greg Norman, only to be greeted by the unknown stand-up Rodney Norman.

Stubbs once made a last-minute arrival at a 15-year high school reunion. He took the stage and noticed old class photos on the wall behind him. Thinking they represented former jocks, prom queens and those voted most popular, he promptly poked fun at the predictably awkward images of the teens behind him. Only silence greeted his quips.

Before Stubbs went on, the crowd had sat through a recording of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” a musical tribute to deceased classmates. It was their photos that adorned the wall.

Sometimes, the pros make it look so easy.