Chris Kamsch waits for a jolt of courage or madness to propel him from his safe table to the smidgen of a stage at Winchester's Comedy Club. Under the club's dangling shamrocks, it's open-mike night. Contestants, please keep your day jobs.
"How many are you from California?" Chris, 21, asks the 28 patrons, picking at molten nachos and cuddling their Samuel Adamses.
There's not a sound in the comedy club. Either no one is from California or no one cares.
"Me neither. How ironic!" Chris says.
He resembles Jim Carrey -- in the hair. Chris, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, paces the stage, trying to find a purpose in his decision to stand here.
"I don't know what I'm saying up here," Chris says, searching for jokes in his head, searching for them in his pocket, searching for the door.
"You people just don't get it because I'm way above you," he says. Chris then whiffs away at a harmonica. He's got one more joke. "How does a bus driver get into the bus?"
You know, Chris says, the bus driver pulls the handle to open the door to let people in, but how does the bus driver get in?
Magically, the joke takes. People applaud the comic as he walks back to his table, girlfriend and beer.
These days, everybody's a comedian.
For all the weekend wise guys, Baltimore's comedy club scene remains thin. Slapstix Comedy Club is the full-time comedy club, and a few other clubs offer comedy on the weekends, such as the Comedy Factory at Burke's Cafe, Mo'Nique's on Liberty Street and Winchester's on Water Street.
Other clubs were in business long enough to get listed in the Yellow Pages, but their phones have been disconnected.
"That's certainly indicative of the state of comedy in Baltimore," says Chris Cahill, 38, owner of Slapstix, which has headlined such comics as Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres over the past five years.
Comedy clubs sprouted like fast-food restaurants in the 1980s. Amateurs practiced shock comedy -- they used a lot of dirty words.
"People slapped up comedy signs over their restaurants. They paid the cheapest and that's what they got -- the cheapest acts," Mr. Cahill says.
Bad comedy doesn't sell. And maybe too many comics are out there. Forget the clubs, for a minute. Television is packed with stand-up comics with their own shows: Allen, DeGeneres, Seinfeld, Roseanne and Brett Butler. But they got their start working local clubs, and their success keeps the dream alive among fledgling comics -- the ones who show up for open-mike nights.
Not all club owners like open-mike nights.
"We tried it and it's just a flop," Mr. Cahill says. "You end up getting the lowest common denominator. Just another guy saying the F-word."
At Winchester's, the "lowest common denominators" sign up with emcee Paula Casagrande, who takes names of the folks willing to expose their humor for 10 minutes.
Many of tonight's comics are open-mike regulars. They comprise a small fraternity of comics, who support each other by listening to each other, critiquing each other, even taping each other's acts. It's surprising, given that comedy is not a gentleman's sport.
Searching for material
One of the regulars, Cindy Heidel of East Baltimore, rests her notebook on Winchester's bar top. She writes HON, CATHOLIC and SELF-DEFENSE. New material for when the starving artist ** goes on later tonight.
Just last Friday, Cindy picked up food stamps to help supplement her odd assortment of part-time jobs. That night, she watched herself on "Homicide: Life on the Street." A one-time speaking part earned her $525 three months ago. Food stamps and national television in one day didn't strike her as funny at all.
"The latest thing I'm doing [for employment] is a cat-allergy study -- and I count cars with her," Cindy says, pointing to Paula.
Paula Casagrande of Baltimore also counts cars part-time. For traffic surveys, that is. Paula, 32, also pitches an anti-static solution at weekend trade shows. But her business card says comedienne, specializing in "Bridges Burned, Barrooms Cleared, Home Wrecker . . ."
Paula has been the emcee here for about a year, making $15 each show. The emcee gets to do stand-up in between introducing the other comics. She wants to work at a better club, where she can make $25 a show. A place like Slapstix.
"I'm anxious to get to the middle position so I can stop counting cars," she says. "But everybody needs to go through hard knocks."
At 9 p.m., she bounds to the stage to warm up the crowd:
The Loud Table: Three couples (including a first date) and everyone laughs very loudly at every eighth joke.
The Quiet Table: Eight guys eating steaks and much of the rest of the menu. They give no inch to the comics. The group includes the evening's lone heckler, who calls himself Anchor Steam.
The Cozy Table: Plotting threesome that includes Chris Kamsch, who later will stand up and commit comedy.
The Brooding Table: Five young guys wearing their caps turned around. They barely move, much less laugh. Before the night is over, they will be labeled the Seattle Grunge guys.
'This is grueling'
In her act, Paula jokes about women not having the right underwear to go with a new outfit. There should be soundproof pantyhose, so people can't hear the sound of friction. It's a little better to hear her tell it.
"This is grueling," she tells the listless crowd.
Paula does score with a bit about guys who still live with their mother, but who quickly add how they have the whole basement to themselves.
Cindy Heidel waits to go on. She practices her stand-up sitting down. She hands out sixth-grade pictures of herself; she keeps having them made. The picture is her prop. "My mother could work a comb like no other," Cindy says. And: They put a bow on me so you could tell my gender.
Before Cindy goes on, John Haugh, 27, of Baltimore goes to work. He does voice-overs for radio and TV commercials. In his act, John has a joke list. What wine goes with Spaghetti-O's. It's not a good time for the bran to take effect when you're on a Ferris wheel. And what's the deal with the ad saying it's so much easier to drink Red Dog beer?
"I know beer is so complicated to drink," says John.
People laugh. It's a new sound.
At the seven-minute mark, Paula flashes her Bic lighter at John -- the wind-up sign. John ends with a funny imitation of wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage selling a feminine product and Bullwinkle delivering a typical limerick.
Cindy is introduced -- tall, artsy-looking Cindy. The awkward girl in the picture is now a recently separated 37-year-old woman on food stamps. She's now on stage wanting that tremendous rush of making people laugh.
"I'd kiss you but I have a fever blister," she says, for openers.
Following her notes, she does a bit about "Hon" and being from East Baltimore and being ignorant and then something devoutly personal about the Catholic nuns who taught her.
"I got to do something now . . ." Cindy says. "I got to take out my retainer because I'm really lisping."
She's not kidding. She wraps her retainer in a tissue. It's so quiet you can hear the Dow drop.
Regrouping, Cindy scrambles into a bit about why guys are always grabbing themselves. The guys at the Loud Table erupt. They know about men grabbing themselves.
"What's going on in there -- a three-ring circus?" Cindy asks.
She forgets her self-defense joke and sits down. She wishes she had her blown-up picture of herself in sixth grade. Next time, next time.
By 10:30, Cindy has to leave. She's working at a costume shop in the morning. She says good-bye to Paula. "Love you, baby," she says.
Cindy breaks down her tripod and video equipment. She has taped the shows for John and Paula and herself. And this guy named John Payne, who Cindy couldn't stop laughing at.
John Payne, 24, is from Columbia and waits tables at the Olive Garden. This is his 11th appearance at Winchester's. In his white dress shirt and tie, he looks like a rookie life insurance salesman. John calls people "sir" a lot. It's that Alabama in him, he says, sir.
On stage, he sweats and jitters like a handsome Dangerfield. He takes a glass of water with him on stage, leans against the red brick wall, and looks at the Serious Table. They are still eating.
"What's your name?" John says.
A serious man says Anchor. Anchor Steam.
It's a joke.
"I'm going to leave you the hell alone," John says.
But smart John logs this moment and comes back to Anchor Steam throughout his act. Smart John has himself a foil -- someone to go to if his stuff crashes.
Chris Cahill was right: About every comic tonight has used the F-word. This wasn't a night of dazzling political satire. Paula wonders why anyone bothers to use the F-word because if you make it to TV, you won't be able to say the word anyway.
John Payne, now on stage, uses the P-word (think private part). People are laughing. He's at least thought a few things through ** in his routine. And when he gets stuck, "Not another word out of you, Anchor!" John says.
He owns Anchor, and he owns the crowd. They can not hurt him. Even the Brooding Table perks up.
Cindy Heidel is howling, video-taping and howling. Paula, after flashing her Bic, hugs John as he walks off the stage. The regular comics are sincerely happy for him. People at the Loud Table pump his hand. It's as if Johnny Carson himself had asked John the Waiter to come over to his couch.
"This was my best performance," John says.