Friday, May 21, 2004

Laugh lines: Standing up for a thousand bucks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s fitting, really, that a postal worker who mocked her own profession’s tendency to go ballistic was the one best able to get a rise out of the audience at the Comedy Connection last week.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. It was the final round of the Portland’s Funniest Professional competition, with six top laugh-getters vying for " fame, fortune, and one thousand dollars. " For a shot at one-fiftieth the dough you can get for eating cow innards on Fear Factor, these folks got up and did what strikes true fear into many people’s hearts: Talking in public, and trying to make people laugh.

The " host " for the evening was local funnyman Shane Kinney, whose warm-up banter involved personally insulting members of the audience. It made me wish he would take on the woman three to my left, who insisted on talking the whole night.

Amy — her friends told me her name — is a blond fortysomething surgical nurse who seemed to think she was on the stage. Not so, though her droning drunken monologue and four — count ’em — cell-phone conversations during the show made her the focus of attention for many in the back of the room. (And netted nearby paying customers apologies and gift certificates from the management.)

Amy, needless to say, did not win the competition.

Neither did Scott Davis, the first real competitor, who seemed to follow in the Kinney mold. Beyond laughing at his own corny jokes and sort-of-gross, but not-quite-dirty interjections, his best line was to describe rap music as " sneakers in the clothes dryer. " His audience — mostly white folks who appeared not to be rap fans — ate that one up. Amy, nonplussed, yammered on.

Next up was Tim Hofmann, who had a shot at winning, if only he weren’t so awkward on the stage. Clad in startlingly clashing clothes, he delivered funny laugh lines and showed deep, if offbeat, thought into the ways of the world. (An example: He told the crowd he tries to eat based on the FDA’s Food Guide Pyramid. He had a question: " How many mummies am I supposed to eat? " )

He also suggested a revolutionary diet that had the crowd in stitches and even momentarily drowned out Amy’s nonstop blather. It was the Tapeworm Diet. Simple in its application, and easy to adopt: Eat what you want. " With tapeworms, you’ll shit rivers. " No reaction from Amy.

Next up was Sheila Jackson, who went straight to work targeting her postal co-workers. Fortunately, it was with jokes about guns and not actual guns. Here is a woman who knows what she’s talking about and — forget poking fun — is not afraid to ram fun down people’s throats.

She had great presence and a wonderful " I’ll tell you the inside scoop " rapport with the audience, and everything she told us confirmed our worst fears about mail employees. A former postal worker walks into a post office with two pistols and 34 rounds of ammunition. The death toll? Two. " That’s what we call an underachiever, " she said, as the building nearly fell down around itself and Amy continued to discuss — something vital.

Jackson, who had a sizeable cheering section, far outshone last year’s champ, Mark Mathewson, a guy from New Hampshire whose " intermission " routine was slow and based on clichéd admissions of his shortcomings with women.

The first competitor in the second half of the show was either Ann Harvey or Ian Harvey — I’m still not sure. This strangely androgynous being played off the gender-swapping thing, making people laugh with discomfort when she said she was " the youngest of three brothers. " Amy was momentarily silenced, stunned or confused, it’s hard to say.

Next up was Tuck, a teacher who talked about chaperoning dances and violent games. " Remember Jarts? " he asked. " Now there’s a violent game. " He reached a wide group with his everyman humor, showing new twists on things we could all relate to, and won second place for his efforts.

He got big guffaws by taking on the old favorite, drug commercials. But he did his homework. Some legal prescription drugs have been found to cause renal failure as a " side effect, " he announced. Pot remains illegal. You choose, he said: " A taco and a nap, or renal failure? " Amy roared with laughter and clapping at this one. It made me wonder what those nurses are really smoking as they stand outside the hospital doors.

The last of the competitors was Karen Morgan, who had just a few days before graduated from the 11-week stand-up comedian class at the Comedy Connection. She’s a stay-at-home mom of three kids, aged 5, 3, and 2. A lot of her work was based on that, and while baby humor may seem bland, it was nothing of the sort.

Her biggest line came at the end of a story in which she related her role as arbiter of an incident in which her daughter, 3, played " doctor " and lightly bit the penis (which in their house, for reasons unexplained, they call a " tally " ) of the 2-year-old boy. Her final ruling, after a hilarious account of her own thought process on the subject: " We do not bite other people on the tally. " Her twist on potty humor was that it was inspired by people who actually still use potties. Amy, though, didn’t seem to notice. She had another phone call to make.