Comic relief

The newbies

Think accounting is hard? Try standup

Comic relief

The pros

It's not all giggles and rubber chickens

Comic relief

The vets

These are not the ravings of a lunatic

Comic relief

Profile: Ryan Vaughn, adjunct professor

“Comedy is more than just punch lines. There’s a cultural significance to it.”

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Profile: Matt Ritter '01

“Stage has always been my comfort zone.”

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Profile: Jen Kwok '04

“I’m lucky because I’m starting to make a living at it, three or four years into my career.”

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Profile: Aaron Gold '10

“I try to take bad things that happened to me and turn them into comedy.”

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Profile: Adam Hunter

“Literally, my job is to say whatever I want.”

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Profile: Avi Liberman ’93

“Everybody has off nights, but when it’s working, it’s a great feeling.”

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Profile: Paul Morrissey ’96

“I basically kind of failed upwards.”

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Profile: Andy Kindler '78

“When I’m elderly, please come see me when I’m playing the condo circuit in Florida.”

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Profile: Paul Reiser ’77

“I know what really good comedy should sound like now. I’m tougher on myself.”

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Comic relief

Return to the first page of the Cover Story.

The newbies

Think accounting is hard? Try standup

Comic relief
Brett Vermilyea
Aaron Gold '10 isn’t ungrateful, but when Billy Baldwin ’85 first approached him about performing at Caroline’s, it was at the end of a long Commencement ceremony, and Gold needed to use the bathroom. “It was three hours of me holding it, and I did my speech, and ... I go to walk off the dais and somebody stops me and I just thought in my head, ‘you [expletive]. This better be good.’”

Aaron Gold ’10 paces a dark, empty corner of a club, sipping a cocktail and riding a wave of nerves and excitement. He listens to the comedian onstage and laughs supportively at the mediocre jokes, then jumps up and down to release the tension. He’ll be up there next.

Gold moved to New York City two months earlier, chasing his standup-comedy dream, and he’s about to perform at one of the most famous comedy clubs in the country, Caroline’s on Broadway, thanks to fellow alumnus Billy Baldwin ’85, who knows the owner. The two met when they both spoke at Binghamton University’s Fall 2010 Commencement a few months earlier, Gold with his new English degree in hand.

Caroline’s MC introduces Gold as a “talented young guy who recently opened up for a friend of mine at Binghamton University,” and Gold strides confidently onstage to applause and yells, “Keep it going!”

Offstage, Gold says, “Oh, man, do I love that attention. I like that connection to the audience, of me writing a piece of art and seeing how the audience reacts to it. And just making people laugh is so much fun.”

Walking off Caroline’s stage, Gold just achieved a dream of every new comic, but his fun isn’t over. The MC announces a surprise guest, Darrell Hammond of Saturday Night Live.

“I just opened for Darrell Hammond!” Gold beams.

Gold never seriously considered a career beyond comedy. He first performed standup at age 16 and focused his college years on writing and performing, becoming a member of the Binghamton improv group Pappy Parker Players and taking humor-writing courses. Faculty member Ryan Vaughan says he’s never seen a student more serious about comedy.

“It’s about making people laugh,” Gold says. “But the real heart of it is all about doing it because it’s something you love to do. You wrote this thing, and you love this thing, and you are going to share this thing.”

Jen Kwok ’04 understands that. After her college career as a “rabid” School of Management (SOM) student, she joined one of the Big Four accounting firms. She lasted eight months. (As soon as she read the orientation packet that said clothes must be neutral colors — no reds, no yellows — she knew she wouldn’t stay.)

Kwok moved into the arts, working the financial side for Jazz at Lincoln Center, where, on a whim, she performed a standup set during a staff talent contest.

After her performance, Wynton Marsalis went onstage, smiled and said in his throaty voice, “Jen Kwok, have mercy!”

Soon she was performing at clubs, adding a pink ukulele to her act and writing songs skewering Asian stereotypes and youth culture.

Like Gold, Kwok tasted early success, finishing in the top 10 of NBC’s Standup for Diversity competition, which flew her to Los Angeles to perform for important industry people who flattered her with lines like, “There’s all kinds of buzz around you.”

The next Monday she was back at her day job, processing invoices.

Today, Kwok uses her SOM training to constantly market herself and manage her image and finances. She splits her days between working part-time as a bookkeeper and writing, and spends her nights honing her material into a one-hour show. She hopes to quit her day job soon.

“I’m right on the cusp,” she says. “I’m lucky because I’m starting to make a living at it, three or four years into my career.”

In talking to comedians, one theme quickly becomes clear: To be taken seriously, performers have to be devoted to making a living from their acts.

Matt Ritter ’01 took that leap a few years ago. He had a job at a big law firm in New York City, but, like Kwok, realized he had made a career mistake.

Instead of quitting right away, Ritter played lawyer during the day and comedian at night.

After four years, he quit his day job.

“It was very scary,” he says. “All of a sudden there was zero structure to my day and no guaranteed check coming in every week. I was still living in a ridiculously expensive apartment in the West Village, and that’s when it dawned on me that if I was going to do this, I was going to have to make a lot of changes and sacrifices.”

After two years of constant writing and tough New York City audiences, Ritter took the next step in a standup’s evolution: He moved to Los Angeles. Once there, Ritter’s Binghamton fraternity brother and fellow alumnus Adam Hunter introduced him to clubs and promoters. Since then he’s been in a Sears commercial and earned his first television credit.

“It’s very hard,” he says. “People tell you it’s hard, but you can’t really understand it until you are there. When people say it’s a grind, it is. And now I know what a grind is. It means every day has to be a hustle. You can’t take days off. There are no vacations when you are a comedian. When I was a lawyer, every couple of months it was time for a vacation. Now it’s like I’m not entitled to a vacation until I achieve more of my goal.”