Joe Kashnow dreams of performing in front a packed house at Madison Square Garden.
However, on a recent Monday night, Kashnow is at Fish Head Cantina, a nondescript bar in Arbutus, sitting at a table eating a burger, reviewing his notes and planning his set. He then steps outside for a few drags on a cigarette. This is the extent of his preshow routine.
Some 30 minutes later, the audience assembles. It’s comprised of a half-dozen fellow comedians waiting their turn to perform, a Baltimore Jewish Times reporter and photographer and a small group of college-aged kids divvying up their dinner bill.
In an adjacent room at the bar, there are several other patrons, but most of them are glued to the Orioles-Yankees game. To them, the comedy is white noise.
However, unpaid gigs at small bars and clubs are to comedians like focus groups are to businesses, a crucial opportunity to accumulate feedback for their product before it hits the open market.
David Shofer, the producer/promoter who set up the show in Arbutus, explained it is performing at venues such as Fish Head that can scare people away from comedy.
“A lot of people who sit and watch comedy on TV and the Internet think they can do this,” Shofer said. “Then they come to a room, sign up, perform, don’t have the best experience for whatever reasons, and they go, ‘Oh this sucks. I’m not doing it.’ They don’t realize that someone who has made it to TV and the Internet has spent a tremendous amount of time … to get to that level.”
Shofer added that it may be five years before a comedian can be self-supporting through comedy. And even when the comedian is making a salary, it could be just enough to cover basic expenses.
Kashnow, 35, is willing to make that sacrifice.
He is among the handful of up-and-coming local Jewish comedians taking the plunge into the comedy realm, willing to endure the highs and lows of an unstable career path for the thrill of making people laugh.
“I know there isn’t going to be a talent scout in Arbutus on a Monday night. This is not where I’m going to get discovered,” he said. “But I need to have my material polished and get it to the point where it’s ready for a larger, more discerning audience.”
For Kashnow, of Pikesville, the Fish Head gig is a chance to tweak old jokes and experiment with new ones. Constantly restocking one’s cache of material is essential to making it as a comic, he said. No one gets anywhere by relying on the same seven-minute set. And no one makes it to the stage the same way.
In 2012, Kashnow, an Army veteran, was selected to be in a documentary, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” The film features five traumatically injured veterans who want to get into standup. (A cavalry scout in Iraq, Kashnow’s unit was ambushed by a roadside bomb that sent shrapnel through his lower body. He now utilizes a prosthetic on his right leg from the knee down.)
The documentary’s producers teamed the veterans with A-list standup comedians, such as Lewis Black and Bob Saget, and provided them opportunities to perform in some of the leading comedy clubs across the country.
Kashnow quickly learned that putting himself in front of a crowd is frightening.
“I was less nervous facing combat than I am facing a room full of strangers armed with nothing but a beer,” he said.
However, he said, when the jokes hit, when the crowd erupts in laughter, that fear is replaced by an unmatched, euphoric surge of adrenaline.
“When you make a room full of strangers laugh there is an incredible rush,” Kashnow said.
“It’s by far one of the best drugs I’ve found. And through experimenting with various painkillers [for his injuries], I’ve tried just about all of them.”
For his day job, Kashnow works for the federal government, but it’s the adrenaline rush that drives him to pursue comedy as his full-time career. To get there takes a passion bordering on obsession. He will have to perform countless more times in places like the bar in Arbutus. But he wants it — badly. And the beauty of comedy, he said, is that anyone can do it.
“Anybody can be funny at any given time,” Kashnow said. “You can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to the hospital, I’m going to remove someone’s appendix today, I’m going to be a surgeon.’ They really frown on that — even if you wear the scrubs. But there is no concept of practicing humor with a license. Anyone can be a comedian.”
Stressful As A Craft
“Everything was coming up roses.”
That’s how Hunt Valley native Ben Rosen describes his rookie year as a comedian in Baltimore. He won the first comedy competition he ever entered — at Magooby’s Joke House in
Timonium. He was named the Baltimore Comedy Factory’s funniest person of 2010.
That early success propelled him to New York City, where the challenge was greater.
“In Baltimore you get really high-quality shows with high-quality stage time. In New York, it’s low-quality shows with less stage time,” said Rosen, 27. “It’s a very different scene: a bit daunting and a bit more competitive and stressful as an actual craft.”
Very early on in New York, Rosen, who has performed more than 500 shows, actually doubted if Gotham was the right place for him.
A week after moving north, he was outside of a club in Times Square engaged in “barking” — the act of recruiting people off the street to come in and watch your comedy. If a comic can’t fill the room, then he or she doesn’t get to go on stage.
“I’m spending five hours barking at people,” Rosen recalled. “That was the first barrier I hit, to even question the notion I wanted to do comedy. I stopped barking and did the shows I wanted to do.”
Since, he’s started to blossom.
“The biggest reward you get from comedy is when you think of something and write a new joke on it, and then you put the new joke in, and it works,” Rosen said. “Everyone loves laughter, but the laughs I love are the ones I don’t know are coming, the ones I hope are coming.”
Rosen’s bread-and-butter lies in pointing out what he calls “inefficiencies” — things that simply are weird or don’t make sense — in everyday life.
He’s also working on material that references his asexuality — Rosen is not physically attracted to men or women. But, he said, broaching the topic can be challenging because there is no foundation for it yet in the comedy realm.
“[Asexuality] is a big part of what makes me different from everybody else,” Rosen said. “A lot of material is just sitting there for me to write about. I would love to continue to press forward with it, but it’s hard when you’re one of the first ones talking about it.”
An advertising account manager during the day, Rosen jokes that his asexuality lends itself well to his comedy aspirations.
“Part of the asexuality is … when I get done with work I have nothing to do. I can have two jobs and not lose a step,” he said. “Comedy is really the girlfriend of that equation.”
OK To Bomb
A former writer for Baltimore Magazine and The Onion, Alison Leiby remembers having to wait for responses from her editors and stomach the lag time between when she completed a story and when it finally ended up in print.
In comedy, the feedback comes a lot quicker.
“There is something about comedy that is just so immediate, and I’m not a patient person, so it works,” she said.
A Millersville native, Leiby moved to New York City in 2007 and embarked on her comedy career two-and-a-half years ago.
A good portion of her material early on came from dealing with doctors and nurses while she endured back issues. For example, she was waiting to receive a cortisone injection when the doctor prepped her for the shot with the warning that it would feel like “getting struck by lightning.”
“Am I supposed to know what that feels like?” she remembered thinking, noting that the non-relatable jargon spewed in the medical arena was enough to make anyone laugh.
Now, Leiby, 29, performs anywhere from two to seven times a week. And if she isn’t booked for a paid gig, she’s taking the stage at open mic nights around the city to hone her craft.
Part of improving, she said, is learning how to shoulder the emotional disappointment of having a bad show.
“You’re putting yourself out there, so if people don’t like it, it can be hard to not take it personally,” Leiby said. “I bomb all the time.”
Leiby said she’s learned an occasional blip is not a reason to forego her passion; often a huge success can follow a miserable failure.
That was the case at a recent show when, just minutes after arriving at the comedy club, she found out she would be following the act of surprise guest and renowned actor/comedian Zach Galifianakis.
Taking the stage after an A-list comedian could’ve been disastrous.
“I was terrified because obviously the audience is so excited that they just saw him and then they are like, ‘Who the hell are you?’” Leiby recalled.
However, rather than wilt under the pressure, she embraced the scenario, acknowledging that after watching “The Hangover” star perform, the audience probably wasn’t on pins and needles waiting to see her. Her brutal honestly won the crowd over. Leiby was off and running.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ve got them. This is going to be easy,’ and I ended up having a great set,” she said.
Scary Is Fun
He is only 19, but Drew Landry already has six years of comedy under his belt, and that’s not even counting his illustrious career as the premier class clown of his elementary and middle schools.
A Baltimore native who moved with his family to Chicago but returned to the Charm City for the 10th grade, Landry has been doing standup since he began snatching the microphone at talent shows and coffee houses as early as 13.
By 15, he was allowed to perform in comedy clubs and bars as long as he didn’t take any alcoholic drinks and had an adult with him. He spent last summer opening for national funnyman Carlos Mencia.
One performance. That’s all Mencia needed to see before asking Landry to open for him.
Landry estimates he’s done around 200 shows; he’s steadily figured out he can get away with being a little racy. A graduate of the Carver Center for Arts & Technology, he readily admitted his material can get “pretty raunchy” but noted it’s never at the
expense of a quality joke.
“I want to make sure that even if I’m filthy, the joke isn’t funny because it’s filthy,” he explained.
Landry’s presence is energetic and aggressive. Living in Chicago for most of his childhood helped create a resounding urban drawl that commands attention on stage.
While he appears to have a supreme level of confidence in front of the audience, he conceded that stage fright is still there.
“It’s a rush. When I’m nervous I think I have a better performance because I have a lot of adrenaline,” he said.
This spring, he finished up his first year of community college; he wants to have a fallback in case his comedy aspirations don’t pan out. But if Landry has it his way, in a decade or two, he’ll be performing at jam-packed stadium events in front of tens of thousands of people.
“To me, it’s the most fun thing in the world,” he said. “When [a joke] hits well and the crowd really loves it, there’s nothing like it.”
One could call Alex Braslavsky’s sense of humor out of the box, only it would be a tremendous understatement and a geographic inaccuracy. See, if “the box” were in Baltimore, Braslavsky would be somewhere in northern Canada.
Braslavsky, 26, emphasizes that much of his experience comes in the sketch-comedy/improv realm. Just a couple months ago, he joined the Baltimore Improv Group. However, he performs his highly alternative form of standup as a secondary project.
A Franklin High School and University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate, he’s always been interested in comedy, but he’s never really been able to wrap his head around crafting the standard comedic material. So, instead, he has embraced the awkward.
He’ll often take the microphone and play the role of a completely inept comedian, thus putting the audience in a curious, and sometimes uncomfortable, position.
He’ll sweat, he’ll drink awkwardly from his water. Sometimes, he’ll instruct the emcee to introduce him as a renowned, polarizing comedian only to have him get up on stage and have the jokes fall flat.
“There’s something so funny to me about being the worst comedian in the world,” said Braslavsky, who also co-hosts Chucklestorm, a once-a-month comedy show at the Ottobar in Charles Village.
Braslavsky employs a character named Hector Arroyo, in which he takes on the role of what he calls the “hacky Hispanic comedian” — a satirical tribute to comedians such as George Lopez, Paul Rodriguez and Mencia. He’ll get up and tell clichéd jokes in a subpar Hispanic accent.
“I think the quest of trying to craft the perfect joke — and I totally respect comedians who can do that — takes a great deal of effort,” Braslavsky said. “Personally I don’t think that’s who I am. I can’t do that.”
Noah Halle has accepted the fact that his memory is liable to fail him during his standup routines. So, as a contingency, he’ll keep a notecard in his back pocket, which serves as a lifeline to the jokes he has planned.
However, even when he turns to the notecard, he’ll sometimes struggle momentarily to regain stable footing during the set. He’s comes to terms with, and will warn the crowd that, he’s “not the brightest candle in the menorah.”
Early on, Halle, 22, a Pikesville High School graduate, felt he was a good fit for standup comedy because he always made his friends laugh and he enjoys being the center of attention. He’s also learned that he has a real knack for self-deprecating humor.
With two doctors for parents and an older brother in medical school, finding the positives for his career calling can often be tough.
“I’m not good at math, I’m not good at science, and my mom says, “But you’re so good with people.’ I said, ‘What’s that going to lead to, a hosting job at Chili’s?’” Halle said.
In addition to Baltimore’s comedy clubs, Halle has performed at Gotham Comedy Club in New York and Beantown Comedy Vault in Boston. However, he’s currently in Los Angeles working for a production company. Still, standup is something he plans to pursue.
“It’s hard to put yourself in such a vulnerable situation. That’s the hardest part about doing it,” Halle said. “But there’s something so gratifying about having a room full of people who don’t even know you, agree with what you’re saying and think it’s funny.”
Halle added a new element to his comedic repertoire just a few months ago when he came out as gay. The subject has long been something he’s wanted to air out on stage. Now, he said, talking about his homosexuality is arguably his best material.
After finishing law school this spring, Shua Bier, 28, is gearing up for a career as a lawyer, but in the past couple years, he’s also found a passion for standup he’s going to cultivate.
Is he worried that his comedic nature is going to lead to him cutting up in the courtroom?
“I went to yeshivas all my life,” Bier said. “So if I can control myself in front of the head rabbi, I think I can control myself in the courtroom.”
Bier draws his material from everyday life. He keeps his smartphone with him at all times, and when anything intriguing happens over the course of the day — even if it’s not necessarily funny — he writes it down. Then, every few days, he’ll sift through and process all of his notes and form them into stories to be used as potential jokes.
The father of three children, much of Bier’s material relates to parenthood and the silly things kids do. He has bits on things that only kids can get away with. Likewise, he has lines on things that only parents can get away with.
“Imagine if you didn’t have any children and you picked up a kid and smelled their [behind],” Bier said, providing an example.
A Talmudical Academy graduate, Bier acknowledges there are not many Orthodox comedians. He explained that by getting up on stage, a comedian is essentially exposing himself to complete strangers in a manner that may not be considered modest.
“I’m not speaking on behalf of any rabbinical council, but I think a part of the general theme of Orthodoxy is being a little more modest and introverted in comparison to the rest of the world,” Bier said. “Not that its’ frowned upon, not that there is anything wrong with getting up on stage and making people laugh, but I feel like it goes against the very nature of what we’re taught as children.”
So far, Bier has performed about a dozen times at open mic nights in Baltimore clubs in addition to a couple gigs at assisted-living facilities.
And, although he’s prepping for life as a lawyer, comedy is the itch he’ll always need scratched.
“My goal is to have a career in law, [but], if Comedy Central were to call me tomorrow and say, ‘We want you for a weekly set’ … I’m going.