New Hampshire's alternative

December 5, 2002


Illustration by Peter Noonan

Queen City comedy is killing 'em. A look past the punchlines
at the city's famous-and not so famous-comedians.

By Amy Diaz

So, have you heard the one about Manchester?

OK, it's not exactly guy-walks-into-a bar. But Sarah Silverman, a stand-up comedian and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, has a one-liner she uses to explain her childhood home to people from outside the area.

"It's a combination of the preppy Carol Reed/L.L. Bean with the town from Boys Don't Cry," said Silverman during her visit home for the Thanksgiving holiday. "If they had babies with each other, that would be Manchester."

Silverman's description of the city (admittedly, not the most flattering) may be part of what some consider the Manchester sense of humor-a little caustic, a little self-deprecating and completely unafraid to be either.

Whatever gives Manch its yuks, the city has stronger comic roots than one might suspect. Consider this: Though Manchester does not have a five-nights-a-week comedy club, the area can, however, boast three past and present "Saturday Night Live" cast members: Silverman, Adam Sandler and current featured player Seth Meyers, a rising comic talent.

That's more SNLers calling home to greater Manchester than there are Starbucks.

The city almost always has had a few restaurants or bars that feature the occasional comedian-many in the business remember performing or watching others at Crystal's and the High 5. Now, The Chateau is trying to build a solid, regular weekend business in its comedy room. Ringed with sofa-like chairs and fitted with a stage only a few feet from the closest audience member, The Chateau at 201 Hanover St. recreates the vibe of a Boston or New York comedy studio, comics say.

And city could get a second joke factory if a North Carolina-based comedian booking agency decides to locate a club in the area. Heffron Talent International is looking at the city as a spot for one of its The Comedy Zone clubs-possibly in the proposed "Gaslight District" across Elm Street. from the Verizon Wireless Arena or as a room in an existing restaurant.

So, what's so funny about Manchester?

Opening act: Meet the Silvermans

The Silvermans are a funny bunch.

Youngest daughter Sarah Silverman takes digs at her family in some of her stand-up. A long-time "Saturday Night Live" watcher will remember a line from one of her Weekend Update essays when she discusses the marriage of her older sister Susan. Susan Silverman married a man named Yosef Abramowitz, and the pair took each other's last names and hyphenated them. The result, Sarah's bit goes, was Silverman-Abramowitz, which the couple planned to shorten to just "Jews."

That material is one of many ethnic-based jokes Sarah is best known for. (Another one-about jury duty and how a well-placed racial slur could probably get her out of it-brought Silverman criticism from some in the Asian American community because of the use of a derogatory term for a Chinese person.) Ethnic humor is a draw for Sarah and her audiences because of its edgy nature, she said.

"They crave what's taboo," Silverman said. Also: "When somebody says 'don't do this' (to me), it's like saying 'do this.'"

Sarah credits her family with serving not only as the subject of her material but the source of her sense of humor as well. She considers her father one of the funniest people she knows and said that, growing up, the sisters were very close and were always making each other laugh. Her mom opened up the world of arts and performance to them, she said.

When Sarah and her sisters Laura and Susan converged on Manchester over the recent holiday weekend, the girls met for a day-after-Thanksgiving meal at the Puritan along with their parents, step-parents, assorted other relatives and Sarah's boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel (of Comedy Central's "The Man Show" and a forthcoming ABC late night show). The vacation came just a few days before Sarah headed to New York to shoot the movie School of Rock and Laura headed back to Los Angeles where she is a stand-up comedian and an actress. (Another sister, Jody Silverman, is a writer who lives in southern California, as do Sarah and Laura.)

In addition to Sarah's featured role on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1993-1994 season, she's done guest spots on shows like "Seinfeld" and "JAG," frequent visits to talks shows such as Conan O'Brien's, and voice work on the practical-joke puppet show "Crank Yankers."

(Silverman also had a role on the short-lived Fox sitcom "Greg the Bunny"-"Puppets like me," Sarah joked.)

Laura Silverman is best known for her work as the acerbically deadpan secretary Laura on the cartoon "Dr. Katz." She also provides voices for characters on "Home Movies," which currently runs on the Cartoon Network, and is a guest host at an improv-like comedy show run by Jeff Garlin at a club in Los Angeles. Garlin is a producer and actor on the HBO comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Laura recently had a guest role as a woman who believes lead Larry David is stalking her.

The sisters said they enjoy coming home to see their parents and to catch up on the news of high school friends. (Laura said that one of the things she liked best about working on "Dr. Katz"-which filmed in Massachusetts-was that it gave her free travel home once a month.) But other than that...

"The foliage?" Sarah Silverman said after a beat when asked what she misses. The girls grew up in Manchester and Bedford. (Their mom still lives in the home Sarah lived in as a teen, and Sarah's bedroom still bears a pencil-drawn heart on the ceiling with the words "I love Steve Martin" in it.) Though Sarah has memories of cruising Elm and Second streets and hanging out the Space Center in Hooksett, she, even then, spent much of her time looking elsewhere for her future. Sarah performed in many school and community plays and frequently went to Boston or New York to get a flavor of the entertainment business in the big city.

Both sisters talk about having an outsider's perspective when it came to their hometown.

Laura said that when she first started stand-up she used to tell a joke about how, when she attended West High School, one of her fellow classmates taunted her by throwing pennies at her.

"We were so not Jewish.... We were such bad Jews that I got the flack, but I didn't get the other side of it, which was like a Jewish life," Laura Silverman said. "I didn't even know what it meant. I had to go home and ask my mother 'why is he throwing pennies at me?'"

In her act, Silverman said acted out her mother's response in a sweet, singsongy voice and said "well, sweetie" before explaining the stereotypes surrounding Jewish people and money.

Both Silverman stand-ups see the Manchester sense of humor as a reaction to the city. Growing up, Sarah Silverman said she took her comic cues from Woody Allen and her beloved Steve Martin as well as her family and a high school best friend. While Silverman said she tends toward the cerebral, "nothing makes me laugh more than the basest, most intelligence-arrested humor."

Laura credits her Queen City upbringing with giving her a background that-outsiderness aside-was very normal in comparison to those in show business who grew up in industry towns like New York or Los Angeles.

And though Manchester may not have been the inspiration some New York comedians say their city is, Manchester did provide the girls with motivation in another way.

"I have a lot of drive to succeed... so I don't have to move back here," Laura cracks.

Second act: Central High's class clown

Michael Clemons admits that he gave Adam Sandler some bad career advice.

The former history teacher and current Central High School assistant principal said Sandler-a Manchester boy from early elementary school through high school graduation-told Clemons of his ambitions to be a comedian. Clemons responded by telling the future star of several feature films that there are a lot of unemployed comics out there.
Clemons laughs now at the fact that this former class cut-up is a world class star.

"He was a pretty unforgettable kid," Clemons said. "He was definitely the class clown." (Actually, Sandler won the title officially before his graduation in 1984.)

Like Sarah Silverman, Sandler is an "SNL" vet. He joined the cast as a featured player in the 1989-1990 season and became a full-fledged not-for-prime-time player in the 1993-1994 season (the same year Sarah was on the cast). Sandler left after the 1994-1995 season and has gone on to a wildly successful film career.

He's an actor with a million-dollar-ability to please the crowd (million-dollar literally-Sandler could get about $25 million from his upcoming release Anger Management).

While Sandler grew up in Manchester, he spent his early career telling people he was from New York, according to a recent Boston Globe article (Sandler was born in Brooklyn). Lately, however, he's been spotted in Manchester gear-such as the Manchester Fire Department shirt he wore for photos that appeared in Time and the Globe, and the Central High shirt he's wearing in a shot on his Web site. (Sandler "does not do press," according to his California public relations firm. "Unfortunately, this is going to be a pass," was the response to requests for an interview for this story. His family also declines interviews on the if-you-do-one-you-got-to-do-'em-all theory.)

Whether purposely or not, Sandler's Manch roots show in some of his recent flicks.

In Mr. Deeds, Sandler plays a simple country guy who becomes a sudden billionaire due to the death of a distant relative. Sandler has to leave the town of Mandrake Falls, N.H.-where the people are quirky but goodhearted-for the big city of New York. Though rather clumsily adapted from the Frank Capra original, Mr. Deeds did show Sandler's basic affection for the small town. Sandler also shows the glimmerings of a genuine oddball decency. (He plays on this to perfection in the less-mainstream Punch-Drunk Love, released a few weeks ago.)
Sandler's true ode to his Manchester roots might be the Hanukkah-themed Eight Crazy Nights. An offshoot of Sandler's popular "Hanukkah Song," the movie tells the heartwarming tale of a mean-drunk-screw-up who finds friends and love and learns the true meaning of Hanukkah.

(It both is and isn't as irksome as it sounds.) From the accents of many of the supporting characters to the brick buildings and the very Red Arrow-like diner, the look and feel of the cartoon is very much that of an animated, slightly smaller, slightly screwier Manchester. Whether Sandler's unconsciously similar idea of an ideal hometown or an in-joke for his high school buddies, Eight Crazy Nights' Dukesberry, N.H., has lot of Queen City shout outs.

Clemons got a shout out of his own in Sandler's Billy Madison. Sandler told him that as a tribute to one of his favorite teachers, he named a character in the movie after Clemons.

"I was flattered," Clemons said. And then he actually saw the movie. "His" character was Mean Old Mr. Clemons, who appears in underwear and boots to stomp out a flaming bag of poop left on his doorstep.

"He couldn't have picked a worse character," Clemons said.

While some Central teachers didn't take too kindly to Sandler's school hijinks (many thought he was a pain in the butt, Clemons said), Clemons appreciated Sandler's quick wit and the energy he brought to a class.

"It's a lot easier to learn when you're having a good time... when you laugh more than you frown," Clemons said. And Sandler's humor was usually of the self-deprecating flavor. "The humor that he used was never malicious."

Undoubtedly, Sandler's friends and family are not the only Manchester area denizens watching his career. Seth Meyers, a Bedford native, probably hopes for some of the success won by his Manchester neighbor.

Meyers grew up in Bedford and graduated from West High School in the early 1990s. He joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" as a featured player in the 2001-2002 season, and he continues to write for the show and appear in sketches. Like Sarah Silverman, some of Meyers' best known "SNL" moments have occurred during monologue-type essays in the show's Weekend Update segment. His bits have included references to his beloved Boston Red Sox and the deadly rivalry with the New York Yankees. One rant at Yankee Derek Jeter included the line: "Jeter, you suck in three very specific ways. So hard, so bad, and wicked bad."

(Meyers is such as big time star that a request to interview him for this story went unanswered. Also, despite attempts to harass his mom and dad and a West High counselor, his peeps could not be reached for dish either.)

Clemons finds it hard to believe Sandler will meet his match in the talent department, though.

"There might be kids that aspire to be another Adam but, no, I think he's one in a million," Clemons said. "He had a tremendous wit."

An example? When discussing Abraham Lincoln, Sandler told Clemons that Lincoln had been the country's first Jewish president. Clemons responded that Lincoln wasn't Jewish but Sandler kept insisting that he was. Clemons finally asked his student what proof did he have that Lincoln was Jewish.

"Well," Clemons remembered Sandler saying, "He was shot in the temple."

Headliner: A night at the Chateau

Tony Moschetto is looking for some love.

Unlike most guys who think that on any given Saturday night in Manchester, Moschetto is specifically looking for a connection with the crowd of 60 or so people at The Chateau Restaurant's comedy room on Nov. 30. Moschetto is the middle act of the night's three-performer comedy line up.

"Basically, my act is food and sex," Moschetto said. A native of Massachusetts, Moschetto said he doesn't worry about changing his act when he comes north to Manchester. Each time he gets on stage, Moschetto said he tries to convert his audience to his way of thinking.
Audiences at the Chateau on Hanover Street have an opportunity to get converted one or two nights per week. The restaurant started booking comedians a little less than a year ago. The shows, usually featuring two or three comics per night, include an opener who does about 15 minutes, a middle act of about 25 minutes and a headliner who does 45 minutes to an hour. Rob Steen, owner of North Shore Comedy Productions, books the acts for The Chateau owner Yash Pal's room.

Steen and Pal say the room-which can hold about 90 people-does an average of 50 to 60 customers per night.

Steen has been a comic for 20 years and a booker for 17. He feels the growing city can support a more regular comedy scene and, with the help of Yash and his son Raji Pal at The Chateau, Steen hopes to build one.

"I'm trying to create a little Boston as far as comedy," Steen said.
Charlie Foss, the room's bartender, has been serving drinks to this mini-Beantown since Steen's shows began.

"I think they're all pretty funny," Foss said of the comics who've played The Chateau. And when the comedians get too rough, the crowd lets them know it and the comedians back off, he said.

"I really enjoy comedy shows... sitting up front and harassing them as much as they harass me," said Christopher King, a Manchester native who now lives in Candia. As the comics take the stage, King-true to his word-shouts out answers to comedians' rhetorical questions. He even scores a pretty big laugh from the crowd by making a joke during opening act Todd Andrews set.

"It doesn't take much to get a laugh out of people," King said. He characterized the city's sense of humor as being of French origin.

"There's so many different cultures in Manchester and they're so strong," said King's brother Paul, who has joined him for the show. A person's background-like Paul's childhood experiences at St. George's school on Pine Street or growing up watching local personality "Uncle Gus" on television-forms the basis of the population's humor, he said.

Yash Pal thinks the Manchester melting pot has changed the city's comic sensibilities. Maybe 10 years ago the city had a common sense of humor, but the influx of new residents has made the city more cosmopolitan, he said.

While comedians differ on how and by how much they have to tailor their act for the Manchester market (cerebral humor, for example is a tough sell, Steen said), he thinks that the key is the filth-quotient.

"You can be dirty but you can't be filthy," Steen said. On the other hand: "You can be more risquÈ up here."

Over at Derryfield Restaurant on Mammoth Road, where comedy shows will run on Thursdays starting Dec. 5 at 8 p.m., general manager Caroline Ciechon said her audiences also get a charge out of comedians who talk about stuff everybody deals with such as family and holiday pressures.

"What the people enjoy is like what goes on in people's everyday life," Ciechon said. Her shows will run until at least the beginning of February. The Derryfield hosted these shows last year and she saw an average of 80 to 100 people a night.

"You get to come out...have some drinks, have some dinner and you get to laugh," Ciechon said.

The Chateau, Derryfield and the handful of other local spots that book comedy in Manchester could get some company. Heffron Talent International is a booking agency out of North Carolina. The company, which franchises the name The Comedy Zone for comedy clubs, has been looking to Manchester as a possible location for a new comedy venue.

"There's nothing like a live comedy show," said Joel Pace, head booking agent at Heffron. "They can say a lot of things in the clubs they can't say on TV." The company will probably decide before next summer whether or not they'll be bringing The Comedy Zone to the Queen City, he said.

Back at The Chateau, Steen hopes to increase attendance to his events when Pal opens the Tenderloin Room-a restaurant and adjoining martini lounge at The Chateau. He's also considering starting up a Thursday night open mike session.

Steen's opener on Nov. 30, Todd Andrews, begins his 15 or so minute set with some jokes about being Irish-bits about his pale skin. True to predictions that the crowd likes both personal humor and material that's a little off-color, Andrews gets laughs with some jokes about penis size, saying that Irish men aren't going to brag about being hung like a broken pencil. As he moves into jokes about his family and his wife, Moschetto prepares for his act-which immediately follows-by hanging out in the relative quiet of the breezeway outside the room.

"They wanna laugh... I found them to be very warm, very generous," said Kelly MacFarland, a Boston-based comic in the crowd during the Nov. 30 show. She and fellow comic Caroline Plummer-also Boston-based but originally from Wolfeboro-agree about the good nature of Manchester crowds. Plummer theorizes that New Hampshire audiences may be easier not only to laugh but to laugh about themselves than their big city neighbors.

"I just think people are more comfortable because it's a smaller environment," Plummer said. New Hampshire residents might be more comfortable in their identities and less threatened by humor directed inward, she said.

Moschetto launches into his about-27-minute set with material on dating and moves into bits on weddings, childhood, some material about wanting to be Swedish (he argues it's sexier than being Italian) and, of course, lots of food and sex jokes. A reference to the soda Moxie gets a big laugh, as does a line about how breakfast turns him on. (He compares egg yolks to breasts, pancakes to a girl's backside and... er, you had to be there.)

"Bickfords is my whorehouse," he said, getting a good response. His act is fairly physical, as he mimics the expressions he makes during a passionate moment with a girl (or a particularly good early bird special).

He gets a few "ew" groans when he puts a little too much tongue into a mime of a make-out session.

After his set, Moschetto gets the congratulations of audience members during the break before headliner Dave Andrews (no relation to Todd). Despite these good wishes, however, he feels the set was only mediocre.

"It wasn't great, it wasn't bad," Moschetto said

"They're not an easy audience but they're nice people," said Bob Marley, a Maine native. Marley, a comedian who has performed all over the country including a recent show at the Palace Theatre, said New Englanders have a sense of humor that comes from enduring cold winters, low-paying work and small towns.

"I think they're judgmental in a fair type of way," Marley said. "They're good-spirited people and they want to have a good time." Marley-who is currently developing a sitcom for ABC about a New Englander who moves back home after living in Los Angeles-hopes to draw on some of the wit displayed by his friends for his show.

Marley tells a story about a time he wore a fancy suit and a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes home to Maine. Perfectly acceptable in Los Angeles (where Marley now lives with his wife and child), the suit got him some funny looks from childhood friends. One man asked him "did my sister call you?" When Marley said no, the man replied that he thought she might have wanted her shoes back. Marley said he was impressed not only with the remark but with his friend's dry and quiet yet quick delivery.

"It's not only mean, it's accurate," Marley said.

Amy Diaz can be reached at hippo@hippopress.com.


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