Try stand-up for a second act
A funny thing happened to Rich Madzel on the way home from Brooklyn one night: He decided to open a comedy club.
The idea came to him about a year ago on the New Jersey Turnpike, as he and his wife were returning to Columbia, Maryland after visiting their daughter.
“It occurred to me that I was bored and needed more to do,” said the now 81-year-old businessman and theater impresario. For the past 20 years, he has been producing the “Try It Out Theater” in Columbia, where readings of new 10-minute plays are given.
So last September, Madzel opened the “Try It Out Comedy Showcase.” Its monthly 90-minute shows feature stand-up comedians from throughout the Washington/Baltimore region.
The comedians who take to the stage, located in the 18th & 21st supper club on Grantchester Way in Columbia, are of all ages, Madzel said — from teenagers to 70-plus jokesters. Their routines last from three minutes for the newcomers to 30 minutes for the headliners.
Madzel has found stand-up comedians to be a breed apart.
“Stand-up is an art form,” he said, “and the people who do it are fascinating. I have one woman comedian who drives 150 miles from Delaware to do a three-minute bit. It’s like a drug for them. They have to get people to laugh.”
First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me. — Steve Martin
One big difference between the routines performed at Madzel’s club and in many other comedy venues: The comics are required to tell clean jokes.
“There is enough funny stuff going on in life, and I do not want to hear language I used in the street as a kid” in Brooklyn, he said.
On the other hand, he added, “we are not quite Sunday school, and our audience appreciates our level of comedy. We have been fortunate to perform before sell-out crowds of 75 people, mostly older than those attending typical comedy shows. “At a recent show, we had in the audience four judges, 15 attorneys, and former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.”
One of the most senior stand-up comedians to have appeared at the club is Sally Craig (stage name: Sally Love). Craig, a longtime Washington, D.C. resident and a widow, started doing standup this January, not long after celebrating her 75th birthday.
What led her to the stage?
“A year ago, I took a friend who had been through a sad time to a stand-up show to cheer her up, and it just came upon me: I want to do stand-up!
“I like to make people laugh. I loved Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Carol Burnett, all the TV greats,” Craig added.
She only got the confidence to actually prepare a stand-up routine after taking a comedy writing class last summer with Alan Zweibal, an early writer for Saturday Night Live.
She recently appeared at the Columbia club, where she told the audience all about her current “social life.”
It’s fine and dandy she said, if she meets a guy with conditions such as sleep apnea, macular degeneration and even erectile dysfunction, as long “as he’s not a Yankee fan or goes full Anthony Weiner on me.”
Craig also performed on June 8 at the Wooly Mammoth Theater in downtown D.C. Hearing the laughter from the crowd “was certainly intoxicating,” she said.
Why can’t you explain puns to kleptomaniacs? They always take things literally.
If not an addiction, stand-up has certainly become “a passion” for Ken Watter, who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. When he’s not making them roll in the aisles at the Columbia club, he’s figuring out their finances as a CPA.
Watter took to the stand-up stage in 2007, following his divorce. “I went into walk-in comedy shows in the area, looking for laughs,” he said. “A lot of the stand-ups were horrible.
“I decided, ‘I can do that.’ When I started out, I was horrible, too.”
Then came classes at the famous DC Improv on Connecticut Avenue south of Dupont Circle, whose stage has hosted performances since 1992 by the likes of Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld, among other headliners.
“I learned how really to do stand-up there, from holding audiences to constructing jokes,” Watter said.
Becoming a stand-up comedian has helped him in his CPA business, Watter said. “Now, I can actually make people laugh when I talk to them about the IRS,” he said.
Benjamin Franklin may have discovered electricity, but the man who invented the meter made all the money. — Johnny Carson
Another comedian who hasn’t quit his day job is Bob Jeffers, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Like Watter, Jeffers also started doing stand-up later in life — a year ago, when he reached his 60th birthday. He did it, he said, “to fulfill an item on my bucket list. I’m not getting any younger, I told myself. Let me try it.”
The stand-up urge started when he was about seven years old, listening to Bill Cosby records. Now that he’s finally living his dream, Jeffers said he lives “a double life. I sell long-term care insurance by day, then I step into a phone booth at night and come out with a tight-fitting outfit with the letter C (for Comedian) on it.”
Why did the belt go to jail? Because it held up a pair of pants. — Laffy Taffy
Errol Krass is a recent retiree who discovered a new life on the stand-up stages in the area. Krass, 68, who has been “telling jokes my whole life,” is also a recent graduate of comedy courses at DC Improv.
After retiring as a patent lawyer two years ago, the longtime Olney resident decided to start telling his jokes, if not for a living, at least for some extra change. His first stage appearance was in a Columbia warehouse, where Madzel was putting on his first comedy shows.
So far Krass has picked up a few tricks, he said. “For instance, the rule of three — it’s always funnier when a rabbi, a priest and a minister enter some place rather than just two of them.”
Krass, a Brooklyn-bred comedian, says his comedy has its roots “in the Borscht Belt,” the nickname given to a group of resorts located in New York’s Catskill Mountains that had their heyday during the 1940s and 50s.
The hotels catered to New York City Jews, and featured comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar and Henny Youngman.
Krass said a lot of his routine for the older crowd in the audience is also geared to early TV shows, such as the Western Have Gun, Will Travel.
“I tell the audience, if they know of other possible gigs for me, ‘Have large prostate, will travel.’”
Tickets for Try It Out Comedy Showcase are $12 ($15 at the door) and are available at EventBrite.com. The next performance will take place on Nov. 4 at 18th & 21st Restaurant, 10980 Grantchester Way, #110, Columbia, Maryland. For more information or a schedule, call (443) 745-0332.