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Funny business

The Baltimore Sun

Justin Schlegel can rattle off the date of his first open-mike comedy night like it's his birthday.

"June 10, 2004."

It was a Thursday. Schlegel had just quit a job in radio when he walked into Frazier's on the Avenue in Hampden for a few consolation rounds and realized it was comedy night. Schlegel had aspired to be a comedian for some time. At Frazier's, he grabbed the mike and took the first step toward a career in comedy. A sloppy step, he later recalled, but a step nevertheless.

"It was really rough," Schlegel said, now a sales associate. "It was mostly the drunk ramblings of someone who had just quit their job and was a little [angry] at life at the point. ... I just went up and had a good venting session."

While Baltimore is not New York City, it is possible to find a comedic footing in the area. Schlegel's spiel got the Frazier's crowd laughing, which led to more open-mike nights and eventually paying gigs. In November 2005, he opened for Bob Saget at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Later this month, the 27-year-old Cockeysville resident will headline the Baltimore Comedy Factory on Light Street.

Most amateur comedians follow a similar path to becoming professionals, said comedian Joe Robinson.

Robinson, a judge in the 2006 Baltimore's Funniest Person contest at the Baltimore Comedy Factory, said most people try stand-up comedy because of its accessibility.

"Almost every single person in the world needs a creative outlet," said Robinson, 37.

On any given day, there is at least one open-mike night in the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia area. Schlegel, Robinson and other local comics use the Web site as their comedic Yellow Pages.

Schlegel said his success came through a mixture of networking with other comedians, constantly writing new material and performing it at open mikes. All three are essential for starting a career in comedy, he said.

"Go to open mikes as much as you can, as often as you can," Schlegel said. "The most important thing is constantly being out there. That's why I'll try to do two or three times a night, if I can. If I don't get on stage 20 times a month, I'll think I had a crappy month."

Open-mike nights give aspiring comedians the chance to meet and network with other local comics. Cards are exchanged, jokes are tested, and coming gig opportunities are discussed at these occasions.

Comedians also get the chance to promote themselves and make a good impression with bookers and club owners at open-mike nights.

"A comedian should bring energy and draw people with their creativity and their own style of comedy," said Chip Cucchiella, general manager of the Baltimore Comedy Factory.

The majority of the comics in the area work day jobs and perform on weekends. Becoming a full-time local comedian with no steady source of income is a risky move, some say.

"Don't do it for the money," said "Big" Ben Kennedy. "I probably will always have a day job until I wind up maybe doing Last Comic Standing or something that pulls me away from this area for an extended period of time."

Schlegel said he and most other comedians he knows keep joke books or BlackBerries with them at all times to jot down ideas. The inspiration for a good joke could come at any moment. Sometimes it might not come for a week. When Schlegel's muse is silent, he trims the fat off his existing jokes or tries to retool an old one.

Anything from a conversation with a friend to a parking ticket is potential open-mike material. Sometimes, a mundane story with the right flourishes can become a gold mine. The more realistic, personable and fresh a comedian can make an act seem, the funnier it is, Robinson said.

"The best comics are the ones where you go, 'I wonder how much of it was his act and how much he was just saying off the top of his head,' "Robinson said.

One of the biggest hurdles for an amateur comedian to overcome is the first step onstage for a five-minute set on open-mike night. Stage fright can only be conquered by performing as much as possible, comedians say.

"It's a real trial by fire," Robinson said. "There are a lot of people that just think they're the cat's pajamas off stage yukking it up, and they'll get on stage and lock up and just stare out like a deer in the headlights."

Hecklers and obnoxious audience members are also a big challenge for stand-up comedians. If the club management makes it clear that disruptive customers will be thrown out, it can help stop heckling, Schlegel said. But heckling is an aspect of the business comedians must face.

"There's always going to be people heckling," Schlegel said. "It's just a part of comedy. There's injuries in football, there's crashes in NASCAR and there's hecklers in comedy."

Though methods of dealing with hecklers may differ from comic to comic, all stand-up performers must develop a thick skin and the right response, he said.

"Everybody's got a different way to go about it, but you have to have a way," Schlegel said. "Michael Richards - not the way."

But the benefits of stand-up comedy far outweigh the negatives, comedians say. Having the crowd on their side gives them an incredible sense of pride and validation.

The night he came home from Frazier's, Schlegel drew an "X" on his calendar, marking the first time he did live comedy. He has added another for each performance since. In the 2 1/2 years since he started, Schlegel has racked up more than 860 "Xs" doing what he loves.

"I'm basically a peddler of happiness," Schlegel said. "It feels fantastic doing it. It's unlike anything you've ever felt."

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