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Stand-Up Comedy Thrives in Hartford


April 20, 2008

DJ Hazard, a burly road comic for 20 years, coined one of the road comic's creeds, "Never buy a car you can't push."

He has performed for audiences, big and small, in just about every U.S. city. Here's what he thinks of the Nutmeg State: "I always got the feeling that Connecticut can't figure out whether it wants to be New England or New York."

The idea that Connecticut or the Hartford area has an identity problem is nothing new. Look no further than the XL Center (which most are still calling the Civic Center) where the banners still hang for a hockey team that left town 11 years ago. (Memo to management: If your girlfriend walks out on you, don't leave her picture on the wall.)

But comedy is solid in the capital city. This should come as no surprise in a place that cherishes the home of the man many feel was America's first stand-up comic, Mark Twain.

Comedy rooms in the suburbs of Connecticut have flourished — The Hartford Funny Bone Comedy and Dinner Club in Manchester, Mohegan Sun & Foxwoods in Uncasville and Treehouse Comedy in Wallingford.

Hartford has two cornerstones that draw well and have for some time. While Hartford night life is rarely described as bustling — even on Friday and Saturday nights the wide city sidewalks are fairly quiet, almost desolate — the "Ha! Ha! Hartford!" series at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Artsand, and the Brew Ha Ha room at City Steam Brewery Café have succeeded even when their performers aren't household names.

At The Bushnell

"Ha! Ha! Hartford!" is in its sixth season. It's held in the Bushnell's Maxwell and Ruth Belding Theater which also features off-Broadway shows, jazz trios and corporate events. It would be an oversimplification to call it a comedy show for people who don't go to comedy clubs, but the nature of the house (over 900 seats) and the scheduling of shows every few months rather than every night, gives each show the feel of an event. The audience tends to be less raucous and listens more intently than in clubs. Comedian Joe Matarese, who recently appeared on the stand-up comedy show "Comedy Central Presents," put it succinctly, "I actually prefer a crowd that listens and shuts up!"

"Comedy does really well in that space," says the Bushnell's Megan Fitzgerald. "It's one of our best-sellers after Broadway shows. There was a feeling at first that we had to be careful about the performers we bring in due to the nature of their material. This show is for mature audiences, like a nightclub, but a more pleasing experience."

Carole Montgomery, a veteran comedian who spent many years performing in Las Vegas and headlined a recent Ha! Ha! show with a set balancing family life and sexual content, said, "I usually don't change my act [for Connecticut shows]. I find that what I talk about is pretty universal. Sometimes if I do a private gig I will ask for 'show boundaries' but most of the time if they've hired me, they know what I do."

At City Steam

Across town, Brew Ha Ha is entering its 21st year in the cozy confines of the Brown Thompson Building on Main Street, near some tony new restaurants and the old Sage Allen clock. As you wind down the stairs of the City Steam Brewery Café, the club has a traditional setting similar to the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan. The closer proximity to the stage gives a more inimate experience and waitress service means more readily available refreshments and hearty laughs. With the passing of time, the smoke-filled haze redolent of film-noir speakeasys has evaporated. The City Steam environment is welcoming, with framed autographed prints of comedians and vintage ads for Charter Oak Bourbon and Imperial Whiskey adorning the walls.

A recent show there opened with a dance re-mix version of Brass Bonanza (the Hartford Whalers' theme song that you can hear the UConn pep band play at basketball games). Then manager Anthony Sousa got up to explain the rules which include a clear message about heckling. "Folks, your next act is phenomenal. He needs your undivided attention."

Sousa explained, "'People paid to get in here. Let's not ruin it.' It's more of a scare tactic. We showcase the comedy package, not the names."

Brew Ha Ha produces comedy Thursday through Saturday nights, and is planning some Sunday shows. The age of the crowd is skewed older. This point wasn't lost on Tom McTiernan, a quick-witted performer whose smooth observational style was the highlight of a recent evening.

"I think you're seeing a bit of a comedy boom where a slightly older crowd, one that supported the growth in the '80s, is coming out to clubs. They're fans of stand-up, are excited to come out and see it in person, and it translates to a better show."

The Promoter

Brad Axelrod, who has booked comic acts through Treehouse Comedy for the Bushnell as well as rooms in southern Connecticut and New York and has 25 years in the business, said, "It's the 28 to 50 crowd. It's a natural transition that reflects the true spirit of full-time comedy clubs. Besides that, 21-year-olds can't afford a $15 ticket with two-drink minimum and dinner."

Axelrod got his start working for his uncle at the family's restaurant in Westport. "I was running Axelrod's San Francisco Emporium at the New Englander Hotel," he said. "We were doing cabaret theatre and jazz shows and it was going really well. So, I pitched to [my uncle], let's do comedy."

For Axelrod, his biggest challenge — because his shows are staged in restaurants or theatres primarily, not comedy clubs — is having to work with clients on everything from staging and operations to food and beverage.

"I know the elements of success it takes to make a comedy event work," he said.

"All my rooms are contracted on paper. Even though there's a handshake, it's all in writing. You make that mistake and it can be huge. I've spent a lot of time over the years putting together a contract that's good and fair for everybody. It points out what my role is and their role is up front. It's something I've learned over the years."

Axelrod's Treehouse Comedy business now is a talent agency along with a production company. He's also the producer of the Connecticut's Funniest Comedian Contest.

"This is the first year we're doing it," said Axelrod. "I thought it would be a good way to generate revenue for my venues and good PR for our talent. It gives them a chance to be seen by some people who haven't seen them before." The contest finals are Saturday night at Trinity-on-Main in New Britain. (See TreehouseComedy.com for details.)

Vincent McElhone, who grew up in Brookfield, has been a comic for 14 years. When he prepares his material, he draws a distinction between the folks who come see him at a metropolitan comedy club and those who come to lodges or benefits in small towns. "There's a big difference," said McElhone. "City crowds are more up on worldly events so you have to be more astute. In small towns, I bring out stuff with more of the local flavor."

Comedian Carl Yard, who moved from Barbados to southern Connecticut, pointed out that New York audiences see so many comics that they can be jaded. Out on the road, he said, audiences are more willing to laugh and want more of the rough stuff — sometimes. "In certain states," Yard said, "especially in the South, they can be sensitive about religion and frown on jokes about it."

DJ Hazard's first road gig many years ago happened to be in Connecticut at Mad Murphy's on Union Place, with Bobby Gaylor and Steven Wright.

It shows how the funny and unpredictable the business of comedy can be. "The manager [of the club] introduced us to his girlfriend, Peaches," recalled DJ. "She said she had been doing open mikes in NYC and wanted to do a guest spot. I thought we [the featured acts] would warm up the crowd, then bring give her a set in between. She said, 'No! Nobody follows Peaches!'"

So, DJ and Steven took their turns getting the crowd to laugh, then turned the show over to the manager's girlfriend to close. "I brought her up," said DJ. "We left while she was onstage. As far as I know, she's still up there."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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