Comedy is Making a Comeback in Rhode Island
They say laughter is the best medicine, and we're in for a hefty dose: Comedy clubs and improv venues are more popular than ever.
Sit at a high-top table at Pub on Park in Cranston, a combination bowling alley/bar/performance space with a black ceiling and minimal light. Its large front windows boast green neon palm trees flickering for faux atmosphere.
On the wall above a small stage are giant “Pub on Park” letters facing a hanging witch this October night, small white lights draped over all. It’s the regular Monday open-mic night where comics have six minutes to make the crowd laugh. “Crowd” might be overstatement; there are fifteen people, all comics, newbies and veterans, waiting to make people laugh — or wish they were somewhere else.
I’m one of the newbies, doing hands-on journalism for a story on comedy in Rhode Island, figuring if they laugh or go crickets, I’ve got something to write about. Hey, I’ve done stories on doctors before but they wouldn’t let me try brain surgery. This is safer.
They say comedy can be ugly and, honestly, some of what you see at open mics is just that: people groping for jokes they’d forgotten or delivering lines that may be funny to them but no one else.
Others are pretty damn funny, though, like Carolyn Gifford, who grew up two streets away and still lives in Cranston. Now in her sixties, she’s new to comedy and pokes fun at her large size. She says a doctor once told her that her teeth weren’t matching up right. “I said ‘Doc, do I look like I have trouble chewing?’ ”
Steve DeNuccio, a comedy veteran, sits at the bar nursing the only drink he’ll have for the night. He’s sketching Disney characters, because besides comedy that’s what he does for a living along with owning a dental lab; painting pet portraits; playing piano on cruise ships and at the Biltmore Hotel and the Venus de Milo; and performing with a jazz band.
“The comedy scene is up and down,” DeNuccio says, coloring a Little Mermaid, a box of markers next to his drink. He remembers the olden golden days of Rhode Island comedy at the defunct Periwinkles, Catch a Rising Star and Stitches. “Now it’s pretty decent,” he says.
The scene’s grown in the last eight or so years, according to David Fiorillo, who runs the Comedy Connection in East Providence with a business partner. “It’s a roller coaster but now there’s a good crop of young comedians working the scene in Rhode Island and Boston.”
I amble onto the stage at Pub on Park, grab the mic and launch into uncharted waters.
“I’m a writer researching a story on comedy for Rhode Island Monthly,” I say into the dark. “That’s not to be confused with East Side Monthly, and certainly not Cranston Monthly — you know, the magazine that runs photos of razor wire at the ACI.”
And people laugh. Not just my friend Dennis, a fellow actor who came to support me. And not just John Perrotta, Rhode Island comic legend and creator of Comedy Factory R.I., who books acts all over the place, runs this event and is a retired corrections officer who apparently appreciates a good razor wire joke. I mean the room laughs, inasmuch as you can call fifteen people a room.
And that’s the juice, the energy, the thing that keeps comics coming back for more if they bomb or if they kill. Laughs to a comic are as addictive as booze or drugs or gambling; it’s certainly not the money, which ranges from zero for open mic nights to $150 a gig, more if you’re a headliner.
“You get hooked, and you do it and bounce around, and the money you get — you’re lucky to break even,” says Kirsten Logan of West Warwick, a thirty-something veterinary technician who’s done comedy for three years. “But at the end of the day, you love it not because it pays the bills, but because you get paid in laughter.”
In Rhode Island, there are many places to cash in on the humor riches as comedy grows more popular again, thriving in forums from open mic nights to improv places to the long-running Comedy Connection, the state’s last comedy club left standing. Like sketch comedy? Try Empire Revue at AS220, a group most famous for its hit “Benny’s: The Musical.” And there are comedy nights at Newport Vineyards and stand-alone stand-up events at Asian restaurants, neighborhood bars, Knights of Columbus halls and VFW lounges.
“Basically, you get on stage, in the spotlight, the mic is on and you tell jokes. It’s one of the easiest productions in entertainment to do,” says Doug Key, a thirty-one-year-old comic from Newport and founder/director of the annual Rogue Island Comedy Festival.
“But,” he adds with a wry laugh, “it’s also one where everything can go wrong.”
Improvisational comedy goes back a long way — think Second City in Chicago, which spawned the careers of comics like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray and many more.
In Rhode Island, improv is found at places like Wage House in the Lorraine Mills building on Pawtucket’s Mineral Spring Avenue, a narrow space that, come Friday night, showcases people armed with nothing more than their imagination and ability to think funny fast.
“You do stand-up, you’re alone. You do improv, and it’s a team, and it only works when two people have complete trust in each other,” says Tim Thibodeau, who produces the popular Providence Improv Fest every fall.
Casey Calderiso and Kate Teichman are friends and improv artists who became business partners about two years ago to create Wage House, where they also teach. Both women’s husbands also do comedy; Calderiso calls hers “my free labor,” as he works the ticket counter among other tasks.
“Comedy is absolutely ramping up in Rhode Island. When I moved back here after college there were a few places like Improv Jones and the Bit Players in Newport,” she says.
“Kids know how to play,” says Teichman, who also does sketch comedy at Empire Revue with her husband. “Adults are more formal and think they have to act a certain way. But we teach them how to get back to being a kid.”
Wage House student Tony Pacitti, a magazine writer, always wanted to do comedy but was afraid. Then he came here to do a story on the place.
“At this point, the jitters are gone,” he says as he is about to finish his last class. He says he’s gained a lot of confidence and jokes, “I can’t imagine embarrassing myself with a greater group of people.”
And for the most part, the audience is forgiving. One guy here with friends calls it “our pregame” before they go out later. “It’s a great take for $10 that gets you in and one beer,” he says. “And you come a few times, they know you, it’s like family.”
Frank Fusaro, artistic director of the Bit Players at Newport’s Firehouse Theater, says the comedy scene is “vibrant in Rhode Island. We’re right between Boston and New York, and get a lot of good, local talent.”
The Bit Players’ company has regular improvisers and musicians rotating to do shows Friday and Saturday nights. Improv is definitely on the rise, Fusaro says, as evidenced by events such as the annual five-day Ocean State Improv Festival at the Contemporary Theater in Wakefield.
Bring Your Own Improv, run by Daniel Lee White out of the Warwick Center for the Arts, is a place to just watch or jump into the madness yourself.
“I say everyone can act, everyone can improvise,” he says. “Our shows are designed where you can come up and join our team who works with you to make you feel part of it. We’re good at dropping our egos and let you take the funniest lines.”
They do two shows on Friday nights, the early one family-friendly, the later one all adult. White loves both but the one without swearing tickles him to no end.
“Everyone can swear and make people laugh based on the psychology of nervous laughter,” he says. “But you get a laugh in the family-friendly show, you’ve earned it, you feel good as an artist.”
White also runs a youth collective that gives him tremendous satisfaction teaching kids “who may be on the [autism] spectrum or just socially awkward. They come and learn improv and their parents say it helps them so much. That’s just great.”
And learning improv is great for coming out of your shell, says Ayla Ahlquist of Jump! Dance Company in Wakefield, who has done a lot of stage managing for theater productions. She also had stage fright and took four levels of workshops at Wage House to get over it.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Ahlquist says. “I feel more confident in myself than I ever have.”