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Comedian Donnie Sengstack juggles school and stand-up

Sengstack's comedy has taken him up and down the East Coast, from New York down to Florida, and he has just returned from a show in Los Angeles. Friday, he will perform alongside Justin Schlegel of the 98 Rock Morning Show at the Carroll Arts Center.

Comedian Donnie Sengstack has had a busy couple of years. Since starting his stand-up career the summer after high school graduation, Sengstack has juggled earning his communication degree at the University of Maryland with evenings in bars and comedy clubs honing his craft. The path to the stage has not been easy, Sengstack said, as he's had to battle a fear of public speaking, general anxiety and a lifelong stutter.

Sengstack's comedy has taken him up and down the East Coast, from New York down to Florida, and he has just returned from a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Los Angeles.

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Friday, he will perform alongside Justin Schlegel of the 98 Rock Morning Show at the Carroll Arts Center.

Donnie Sengstack's path to the stage has not been easy; he's had to battle a fear of public speaking, general anxiety and a lifelong stutter. (Ulysses Munoz / BSMG)

Sengstack, of Damascus, said he's been interested in comedy for his entire life, with Comedy Central's stand-up specials and Mad Magazine serving as iconic parts of his childhood. He said he began writing his first stand-up material in middle school, but wasn't comfortable enough to get up in front of an audience yet.

"I wrote mostly one-liners and nothing but puns," Sengstack said. "It was pretty much just ripping off Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin and jokes about stuttering. I still have the journal to look back over, but I try not to look over them. It's pretty embarrassing."

He first performed stand-up just after graduating high school at an open mic in Washington, D.C. He said he knew it was something he wanted to do in college, and he wanted to get an early start on his future career. He began performing regularly at shows around the area, and said he included a lot of material about his stutter to help put the audience at ease.

"When you're six months into stand-up, nobody knows who you are, so when you get up there and you start stuttering, they think you're very anxious," Sengstack said. "It's hard to watch someone struggle, because that's what they think is happening. So you tell a joke to ease the tension. I didn't have a lot of other life experience, so it worked."

As Sengstack gained confidence on the stage, he said he relied less and less on jokes about his stutter. He said it's an inherently limiting topic and he didn't want to narrow his style of humor to just the one set of jokes. Today, he said he focuses more on life experiences and stories about what he's going through, with a smattering of political humor interspersed with the show. He said if he stutters during a show, he'll make a quick joke about it, but it's no longer the focus of a set.

Sengstack said his stutter is partially based on anxiety, and as he has become more comfortable on stage, it's faded from his performance almost entirely. He said he first made the connection between the stutter and anxiety while he was learning Spanish.

"When I was speaking Spanish in the U.S. to English speakers, I wouldn't stutter at all," Sengstack said. "Then when I spoke to a Spanish speaker, I would start stuttering on every word. I called speech pathologists trying to figure out what was going on."

The show came about while Sengstack interned at the 98 Rock Morning Show over the summer. He said Schlegel specifically asked him to join the lineup.

When writing, Sengstack said he rarely sits down to think about topics he thinks will be funny, but instead relies on his subconscious to present something that is strange or bizarre. He said it's weird comparisons and offbeat metaphors that make him laugh the most. Right now, his favorite bit is one about the current election.

"I compare voting in America to buying a hot dog at a gas station. You find yourself staring at a touch screen and saying to yourself 'I don't want any of this,'" Sengstack said. "I wrote it about a year ago, and it just keeps getting better reactions."

Sengstack said moving away from his stutter has had both positive and negative effects on his act, but he's not sorry that he's done it.

"I lost a bit of my uniqueness. Every comic wants something unique or a hook about them," Sengstack said. "On the other hand, I've gained so much more and I'm so much truer to who I am."

If You Go

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What: Justin Schlegel of 98 Rock Morning Show Comedy Show, featuring Donnie Sengstack

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7

Where: Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster

Cost: $20 in advance, $25 at the door

For more information: Visit www.carrollartscenter.org or email chesdadrising@aol.com. Tickets are not sold by the Carroll Arts Center and can not be bought in advance at the box office.

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