Thursday, May 26, 2011

Guest Blogger: Scorpion Bowls & Punch Lines

Lucas Lewis Week continues with this piece on Boston's tradition of comedy in Chinese restaurants. - Nick

By Lucas Lewis

BOSTON — There’s something about Chinese restaurants that seems to bring out the best — and the worst — in Boston comedy.

Back in 1979, it was Barry Crimmins establishing the first full-time comedy club in town at the now-legendary — and now-defunct — Ding Ho in Inman Square. Today there’s the Comedy Studio at the Hong Kong in Cambridge, perhaps the most revered and respected comedy club in New England (see “The Studio”).

But across town, in the shadow of Fenway Park, there’s a lesser-known venue forging the Chinese comedy connection: Grandma’s Basement, an intimate lounge connected to a Chinese restaurant at the Howard Johnson Hotel. In Boston, as elsewhere, comics congregate around the shows they can get on — mostly small showcases and open mics. Grandma’s has the added allure of being a small room (a dozen people makes the 44-capacity room look full) run by one of their own, and as a result it has become one of the premier hangouts for local comedians in the past year.

Bar manager and sometimes host Benny Bosh (nee’ Boshnak), who shares booking, hosting and bartending duties with fellow comic Tom Dunlap, is happy that this happened when it did.

“We’ve grown in popularity at a perfect rate alongside our — mine and Tom’s — comedy performance,” Bosh says. “That is to say, I’m glad it wasn't this popular a year ago, because then I would've looked like a complete idiot on stage. Now I just kind of look like one.”

The insider cache — along the Chinese restaurant bit — is a marked similarity to the Ding Ho, which Crimmins designed to be a comedy clubhouse. “The secret of the Ding was that it was of, by, and for comics,” he wrote in a 1999 retrospective for The Boston Phoenix. “The Ding treated all its acts like stars. Comics didn't pay for drinks — ever. They could put anyone they liked on the guest list.”

Grandma’s Basement has other parallels to the Ding Ho, too. On Fridays and Saturdays, Bosh or Dunlap are usually behind the bar, slinging strong — and on occasion free or discounted — drinks to the comics assembled.

A typical weekend show (which is canceled when the Red Sox have a home game that starts later than 1 p.m.) will feature around 10 comedians doing 5-7 minutes apiece, though there are exceptions: Earlier this year, local comedian Shawn Donovan recorded his first album, Few Mourn, at Grandma’s Basement.

“Donovan’s album recording I still think of as one of our greatest successes as a comedy venue,” Bosh says. “He is without a doubt one of my favorite comics in Boston and in comedy, and I’m so happy he got that out there and I was able to help achieve that.”

As for Chinese restaurants bringing out the worst in Boston comedy? The Ding Ho was as notorious as it was noteworthy, with comedians nearly running the place into the ground with their bar tabs and after-hours shenanigans. Grandma’s Basement hardly ever approaches that level of debauchery, but The Phoenix did recently dub Thursday’s open mic “The Best Worst Night of Comedy” in Boston for 2011.

Bosch, who hosts most Thursdays, wears the distinction as a badge of honor.

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