Friday, May 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Onward and Upward

Lucas Lewis Week is almost at an end, so remember to check out Lewis's performance at The Gas tonight at Great Scott. He's taping his set, and it's always good to have a full crowd for that. Thanks to Lewis for his work this week. One more coming -- a lengthy Q&A with Mehran. -- Nick

By Lucas Lewis

BOSTON — Let's say you're a comedian in Boston. You've been at it four, maybe five years. You've started to have some success, and you're well-known to the comedians and bookers around town. You've played all the local clubs to rave reviews, entered some festivals, maybe even gotten some road gigs.

So what comes next?

More than likely, you're going to start to think about the next phase of your career, and more than likely, that's going to entail moving to New York or Los Angeles. The time frame may vary but the general consensus is that you need to leave Boston in order to succeed as a comedian.

“It’s really to do it for like 10 years and then eventually move to L.A. or New York,” says comedian Eugene Mirman. “Really it’s so much about tenacity that if you literally just keep doing and it and doing it, you’ll probably eventually get good. But you have to leave Boston. Definitely in terms of getting work, there’s just a lot more in New York and L.A.”


I graduated college with a degree in theater. And I'm unemployed...because I have a degree in theater. I just moved into my own apartment. It’s near where my parents live. It’s across their hallway...because I have a degree in theater.
— Ahmed Bharoocha

Ahmed Bharoocha, 27, spent the first half of his life in Southern California, moving to Rhode Island just before starting high school. He attended URI and, after a brief foray as an engineering major — largely to please his parents — he eventually graduated with a degree in theater.

His parents eventually came around.

“At that point I had started doing standup and they had seen it,” he says. “I think they could just tell it was something I was really serious about. After that they didn’t give me a lot of guff about it.”

Bharoocha started doing standup comedy in earnest in 2004, occasionally heading to Boston or New York for gigs but mostly staying in Rhode Island at first. He met fellow Ocean State comedian Tim Vargulish and the pair soon started traveling to Boston with increasing frequency — first monthly, then weekly, and eventually several times a week.

As an outsider, Bharoocha found the Boston comedy scene intimidating and hard to break into. That perception was turned on its head when he began attending open mics with regularity, and he was soon assimilated into what he now considers a very supportive, accommodating scene. It was a stark contrast from the “bringer” shows he did in New York, where stage time was contingent on how many people you brought through the door, and the crowds were often hostile.

“With Boston, there’s a lot of stage time where you can get up all the time, a lot of open mics where people will listen to you,” he says. “They might not laugh, but they will pay attention to you. In New York, there are a lot of really rough, angry open mics.”

Bharoocha soon came to consider himself a Boston comedian. He set goals for himself that he quickly realized, including become the Comic-in-Residence at the Comedy Studio. He earned invites to prestigious festivals, including the Boston Comedy Festival, the Seattle Comedy Festival, the Great American Comedy Festival and the Bulmer’s Comedy Festival in Dublin.

He started to get work on the road, too, but he had a nagging feeling that he needed to move to New York or Los Angeles to take the next step — or at least to try.

“I kept putting it off, and it was getting to a point in Boston where I was comfortable — I did most of the things I wanted to do, and I was worried it would be too late if I didn’t go,” he says.

Last winter the Boston comedian Zach Sherwin, aka MC Mr. Napkins, moved to L.A., where he now hosts a free standup showcase (“French Toast”) at Taix in Echo Park on Sunday nights. Sherwin had Bharoocha on the show his first night in town.


“I'm originally from Wisconsin. I used to have this crazy job there where me and all my co-workers got paid to get drunk all day. It's call roofing.”
— Shane Mauss

Shane Mauss, 30, grew up in La Crosse, Wisc., and came to Boston in 2004 in part to pursue comedy. Only, he didn't really know how one did such a thing. That didn't stop him from having an almost-absurdly fast — and certainly unusual — rise in the comedy world.

“I had no idea what I was doing so I just opened up a phone book — people still used phone books back then — and I called around all the different clubs. Rick Jenkins was the guy who was just like, come check out some shows.”

Mauss soon got himself on a bill; it was OK. Jenkins encouraged him to take a standup comedy class, which he did with Rich Gustas at the now-defunct Emerald Isle in Dorchester. (Tough neighborhood, he says; he once got mugged outside of the class.) The graduation show was eight weeks later, back at the Studio, and Mauss — as they say in the business — killed it.

He immediately started getting booked on bigger shows around town, and soon he was hosting. He made it to the finals of the Boston Comedy Festival in 2006, and on the strength of that performance he was invited to the prestigious (but now defunct) Aspen Comedy Festival, where he won Best Comic. He found management and was soon being booked all over the country.

Less than three years from the time he started doing doing comedy, Mauss appeared on Conan.

Even though he’s from Wisconsin and lives in Austin, Mauss considers himself a Boston comic. He's not the only one. Mauss was recently one of six nominees for The Phoenix’s Best Comedian award in the Best of Boston readers' poll — something his doesn’t realize until I tell him.

“I'm in the running for best comic in Boston right now? That's funny, I had no idea. Well, that's a mistake on their part.”

While he had enough work to move wherever he wanted, he thinks for most aspiring comics, the road still goes through New York or L.A.

“I feel like if you've been doing standup and have been doing well for like five to seven years, and maybe been in some festivals and done fairly well, and maybe are featuring a fair amount, then I'd say there's going to be a point where you might have to seek out New York or L.A. to catch a break,” Mauss says.

But Mauss' story, while an interesting case, is hardly representative.

“I don't know, my path was different just because I got seen in a festival and invited to another festival and things just sort of blew up for me. So I never needed to go to New York or L.A. to be discovered.”


Bethany Van Delft was born in New York but moved to the Boston area when she was little, ultimately ending up in Dorchester. She always loved comedy but was “debilitatingly shy” growing up, and it wasn't until she had a quarter life crisis more than a decade ago that she mustered nerve to try standup.

“I was a restaurant manager, I had a three-story townhouse in South End and an awesome boyfriend — and I was so incredibly bored,” she says. “I thought when that time comes, you’re just happy, and I was miserable.”

She signed up for a comedy writing class at the Boston Center for Adult Education and was the only woman — and the only person who wasn't white. She dropped out after three classes, frustrated with feedback that either seemed non-applicable or like a double standard. But she still showed up for the graduation show at The Comedy Studio and actually had a decent set, good enough to earn a monthly spot from Jenkins.

Van Delft continued on this path for a few years, writing a new set each time and generally just maintaining but not improving. Jenkins would always tell her she needed to go to open mics, but she never did.

“Obviously you know you can’t get good at comedy doing that,” she says. “I didn’t really get what you had to do to become a comic.”'

But about six years ago, something clicked. Van Delft made the rounds, introducing herself at all the clubs and performing nearly every night at open mics or feature shows. She killed. She bombed. All of it made her better. And now she has a decision to make.

“I know that I have to go somewhere,” Van Delft says. “Probably New York, I would think. It’s just really hard. I started comedy later in life, like I wasn’t 19 and in college or anything. I wonder how much that has to do with a comic’s success…

“It’s a tough decision I’m trying to work out right now. I have to do it. To be at the next level, I have to do this. I’m at a crossroads right now.”

Boston is a starting point, but it's never the endgame.

“Boston isn’t where you 'make it,' says Mehran, who last year was named Boston's Best Comedian in The Phoenix Best of Boston readers' poll. “That takes a certain pressure off of development. A comic can discover her or his voice with less pressure and temptation to compromise to more formulaic templates here.”

Kaplan, Sherwin and Mauss — who not all that coincidentally share management — represent the last exodus of great Boston comedians. Josh Gondelman, Van Delft and Mehran are perhaps the next wave.

And if there's one negative to the Boston comedy scene, it's this: The place can't retain its talent. Seems like as soon as someone gets really good, they leave.

But the void never lasts long.

“One of the amazing things about the Boston scene is how it replenishes itself constantly,” says Nick Zaino III, who has covered comedy for more than a decade and runs the Boston Comedy Blog. “Every few years, a bunch of people leave, and you wonder, who’s going to take their place? Who is going to step up? And it might not be obvious who that is, but there is always someone there who gets good and starts really building and getting hot.”

That next someone might be Matt Donaher, aka Matt D, a New Hampshire native whose ascent in the Boston comedy scene has been downright Mauss-like. Last month he was voted Boston's Best Comedian in The Phoenix readers' poll — just two years into his comedy career.

Donaher's razor-sharp one-liners (ex: The important thing to remember when committing a the order) have earned him slots at big clubs and festivals, and there's more on the horizon. But the 25-year-old says he's not going anywhere at the moment.

“I don’t really feel the itch because Boston’s been so good to me,” he says. “I’m happy with what I’m doing and I know for a fact if I left right now it would be to my detriment.”

Ultimately he'd like to be a writer, perhaps for one of the late-night shows, and he thinks skipping town before he's developed more would be a mistake. Still, he already knows that at some point he'll probably need to leave.

“It’s more that I don’t want to hit one of those lulls, so that would require a move to jump start it all,” he says. “If a year from now, nothing from this conversation has progressed, that wouldn’t be good at all.”

But if — or, more likely, when — he does leave, one thing seems certain: There will be someone else waiting in the wings.

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