What's So Funny

If the birth of American comedy could be traced to an instant, it wouldn't be the night of capering vandalism that was the Boston Tea Party. Nor would it be the moment Cotton Mather shrugged and mumbled that he might have been mistaken about all those witches. It would date to 1787, when a young army officer from Boston named Royall Tyler chose to write a play. The result wasn't very original, apart from the comic relief of a character meant to symbolize the straight-talking American Yankee. But it was an inspired effort. He titled it The Contrast, as in the contrast between America and Europe, and even George Washington owned a copy, over which the father of our country liked to chortle and spit up his dentures. Tyler had penned the first comedy in American history. A Boston comedy.

Boston comedy. The words sit together uncomfortably, as if wary of a bad smell. In the great cocktail party of American cities, Boston is the drawing-room bore. She stands stiff in her grandmother's frippery, sipping cold gin from a Wedgwood teacup while droning on about her girlhood fling with Oliver Wendell Holmes. Then a heavily rouged New York sweeps in on the arm of drag queen San Francisco, and Boston bolts, offended, for the powder room.

Or so it would seem. But long after Royall Tyler found a quiet grave in theater history trivia, Boston gave America its nightly chuckles with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. It spawned Denis Leary's rabies, Steven Wright's alien weirdness. Bad boy Adam Sandler's first night on a stage was at a Boston comedy club — at age 17. And, of course, there are the Harvard grads behind the National Lampoon and sitcoms like The Simpsons, and the long list of cast members on Saturday Night Live who stretch out their As and drop their Rs.

Boston may well be the funniest city in America. But how? And what the hell's so funny?

Leno blames our fair town's “general quirkiness.” New England, says the Andover-raised king of comics, “is sort of a breeding ground for comedians. Just the fact that Massachusetts is the only state that tried to appeal the seatbelt law. You can't make us wear it! To this day I find that the best comedians come out of New England, at least the ones with the most original thinking. I mean, it's just the funniest place to be.”

Jimmy Tingle thinks it goes beyond humor. “It goes to the roots of New Englanders,” says Tingle, a comedian who came of stature in the standup heyday of the early '80s and now does the Andy Rooney spot for 60 Minutes II. (He also runs his own theater, Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway in Somerville's Davis Square.) “You've got a very highly educated population — the academic forces and the literary forces and the political forces — and at the same time the city of Boston is very working class. It's this mix that comes together.”

Standup is, after all, a working-class art form, says Steve Sweeney, a Charlestown native and host of Steve Sweeney's Neighborhood, the morning show on radio station WZLX. “It's an ethnic thing,” he says. “For people who don't have a lot of dough, humor is a part of a defense. You learn your chops on the street corner. Humor is part of the makeup of being from the neighborhoods of Boston.”

That's why City Councilor John Tobin says he and his friend Jim McCue founded the four-year-old Boston International Comedy & Movie Festival. “We have the best breeding ground for comedians in the world,” says Tobin. (He goes on to note that Boston is also “the greatest city on earth,” and his eyes water at the memory of the ball that rolled through Bill Buckner's legs. Here is a man born for public office.) A former standup comic himself, Tobin sees the root of Boston humor as “part chip on our shoulder, part inferiority complex.” He subscribes to the theory that this inferiority complex “comes from the fact that we haven't won a World Series in 85 years.”

Or the truth could be more elemental. “The weather's so unpredictable that you have to make your own sunshine,” says Kelly MacFarland, a young comic who opened for last spring's Puppetry of the Penis spectacle at the Copley Theatre. “That, and there's a lot of drunk people here.”

In popular memory, the history of Boston comedy begins in the spring of 1978. Punk music was about to go the way of Nancy Spungen; disco was already wriggling into irrelevancy. Young people with an itch to abase themselves were looking for an outlet, a spotlight under which to act badly. Then the Comedy Connection opened for business, and, soon afterward, Barry Crimmins set up a stage in the back of a Cambridge Chinese restaurant called the Ding Ho. It became one of those rare places that, 20 years on, evokes a level of nostalgia usually reserved for first loves or the womb. Every standup worth his patter sprang out on its stage, frothing at the lips and flipping the bird at the Reagan era. Local boys like Lenny Clarke and Kenny Rogerson. Mike McDonald. Don Gavin. Paula Poundstone. Transplants including Bobcat Goldthwait and Janeane Garofalo.

“It was Camelot,” says D. J. Hazard, a veteran of that fabled stage, and a man whose size and aggressive baldness make him look like the enforcer for a suicide cult. “We were rock stars. People came to see what trouble we'd gotten into and what we were going to say about it. There was a great deal of drug humor. A great deal of drug humor. And drinking and driving was still funny back then. OD'ing, setting ourselves on fire, smashing through walls. . . . That's what we were working toward.”

Fran Solomita, who was himself a comic in this giddy time, has written and directed a valentine to Boston's comedy gold-rush days — a film called When Stand Up Stood Out. “Those guys became the yardstick of what a Boston comic sounded like,” says Solomita. “The sarcasm and the attitude. They basically created a Boston style.”

The opening scene in Solomita's movie shows a wired Lenny Clarke demolishing the honey-dipped affability practiced on Cheers. “[Cheers] isn't Boston. You see The Boston Strangler?” he asks the crowd. “That's Boston.”

It was a time of cash and debauchery. Fortunes bubbled up as fast as one-liners. Comedy clubs pimpled the landscape. “They swore, they broke taboos,” says Tingle. “They goofed on everything from the president to their own upbringing. There were no rules.”

The pay had its appeal, too. “Boston was the first city where you could make a whole bunch of money doing standup,” says Solomita. “In other cities you could get discovered, but in Boston you could actually make a living. There was so much stage time and so many people doing it.”

But every spree ends with its court-ordered rehab, every binge with its bottle of Valtrex. Sometime after Eddie Murphy's Raw and before Another 48 Hrs., standup imploded in a puff of coke dust that didn't clear until long after Andrew Dice Clay went slouching toward Vegas.

“It was supply and demand,” says Hazard. “There was a comedy club on every damn corner, and there weren't enough bodies to fill these stages. Open mikers became opening acts, opening acts became middle acts, and middle acts became headliners.” Quality declined. Three-quarters of the material was common denominator, base humor that would make people laugh — but wouldn't make them come back.

Then again, there's nothing better for clearing the sinuses than an expeditious hemorrhage. The survivors trooped on, trudging forth under the banners of inhalation, gays in the military, and O. J. Today we're deep in the Bush, and as America swings in the rude gusts of the times, our need for laughter has never been more urgent.

“There's been a resurgence,” Solomita says. “The Boston scene has picked up steam. Now the people who are comedians at heart are thriving again.”

On a Wednesday night at the Comedy Connection, Don Gavin is headlining. The room is half-empty (not half-full, comedy being the cross-eyed child of pessimism), with a string of indifferent acts lobbing out a tired hail of clunkers. They show an intense interest in gender differences and the weather. One of them says, “How many single girls are out there tonight?” You can almost hear the whine of deflating expectations.

Finally, it's the professional's turn. Gavin springs onstage like a sprinter off the mark. True, he's a middle-aged, Hawaiian-shirted sprinter with a barroom paunch, but in the spotlight he looks more vital than the comedians half his age. It's his delivery that distinguishes him: the pacing, the fidgets, the practiced twists of voice and eyebrow — marks of a lifetime under the spotlight. Even a line about Mexican luggage (“it slithers”) gets a roar, reflected as it is in his experience and polish.

Boston is one of the best cities in the country for seeing blue-ribbon acts like Gavin or his peers Steve Sweeney and Kevin Knox. “Sweeney should have moved on and become a movie star by now,” says “The Reverend” Tim McIntire, a young local headliner conscious of the competition. “He's got that kind of clout, but he's in town headlining dates. So I have to perform at my very best or I'm going to stay where I am.” This means that Boston audiences are fed only the choicest punchlines.

The material is ever evolving. Jerry Seinfeld's mental noodling was once thought clever, but no one wants to wallow in the slough of minutiae anymore. “The database has changed,” says Hazard. “We live in a world where you've got to hurry up and write a joke before we blow up. People want gutsy, observational stuff.” As Alana Devich, a young half-black, half-white lesbian comic says: “The more mullets I see in the audience, the earlier I bring out the gay material.”

Of course, there are traditionalists. “Alternative comedy?” says Gavin. “Kevin Knox has a great line about it. What's the alternative? You don't laugh?”

Another constant is Boston's famous appetite for judgment. “If you tell a Michael Jackson joke here, it had better be more original than, 'Poor black boy grows up to be rich white woman,'” says Deb Farrar-Parkman, who gave up an Emmy-winning career as a television producer so she could pitch bon mots from the stage of Aku-Aku in Worcester. “People here expect a lot for their money.”

Conan O'Brien, a Brookline boy, says, “There's a comic Darwinism in Boston. It's a tough town. If you can be funny there, you can be funny anywhere.”

And, of course, there is that continuing drive for splash, the ambition to flip the scene upside down and send a rush of life to its head. Like any art form, comedy needs to keep moving forward, or else it risks being embalmed on public television. Youth must have its day. A comedian named Rick Jenkins understood this and saw the need for a training ground, a place to fire salvos, even if they turned out to be duds. In 1996 he opened the Comedy Studio above the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square.

Often described as “intimate,” the Comedy Studio's décor of plum-sauce velvet and take-away dragons gives it the feel of a sleepover in Charlie Chan's attic, a chumminess that Jenkins encourages as emcee. His comics are relaxed, his audiences dutiful. On Wednesday nights they trickle in, nodding to each other, patting the performers' shoulders. For the most part, the crowd's a youngish, bespectacled set, and almost everyone in it wears significant tattoos or bookbags. Near the spotlight, a table of older ladies harries a pu-pu platter.

“If you're playing a biker bar, you have to do whatever they want so they don't kill you. At the Studio, there's not the immediate priority of survival,” says Sam Walters, a Cambridge native and former schoolmate of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (“They won Oscars and I'm telling dick jokes in Brockton”), who hosts on Sunday nights. “It's a good incubator for young comics.”

This is no exaggeration. The first comic tonight is a 17-year-old high school kid from New Hampshire. Of course he's woeful, but he's brave, and his mother's in nervous attendance. The crowd applauds, not wanting to be faulted for a trauma. Then Kelly MacFarland gets up and talks about her breasts.

Something else of note at the Comedy Studio: The face of standup is undergoing the slow displacement of the pink-skinned, blue-collar wiseass — that irreverent Italian or Irishman who's become as stock a figure as Royall Tyler's self-righteous Yankee. Farrar-Parkman, who is black, sees more women and minorities chasing the shame and glory of the stage. (Her own offering: She jokes she won her Emmy for a documentary on adultery called Who Dat Ho?) In the past, she says, “I would go out, and not only would I be the only woman of color, but I would be the only woman.” There's a telling weathervane in Rick Jenkins's annual “Women of Color” show at the Comedy Studio. In its three years, participation has nearly doubled.

Regardless of hue or provenance, there's no dearth of Bostonians happy to stand up and air their most squalid intimacies for money. This is a city that prides itself on its swinish driving and its fanged sarcasm. Even more than a parade, we love a lout, so it's inevitable that the tinkle of the jester's cap will draw many of our brightest and most shameless. Somewhere in Boston tonight, the next Adam Sandler is fine-tuning a bit about lemurs, or Velcro, or seminal fluids, certain that it will make the hacks on Saturday Night Live quake with holy wonderment.

As Sam Walters says, “Comedy's real Jedi bullshit. You're causing people to have an involuntary reaction to words, which is pretty mind-bending. It's fascinating psychologically, and challenging as a craft.”

He pauses for moment, remembering his profession.

“But mostly I just like to drink a lot. Yeah.”