It's not all giggles and rubber chickens
Adam Hunter remembers a few bad shows: “Having a rabbi pull me from a stage at a temple; opening up for Too Short, the gangster rapper in Oakland; opening up for all kinds of bands where the crowd thinks I’m the sound guy testing the microphone; doing an all-Bible college when they didn’t tell me they wanted a clean comedian; doing comedy for special-needs kids and using the word lesbian and they all start running around the room yelling, ‘lesbian!’”
Only a pro could be as bored as Adam Hunter looks. It’s that special boredom, unique to people who travel 250 days a year, living in chain hotels and eating at chain restaurants.
He’s sitting alone in a large, corner booth of a cowboy-themed comedy club outside Rochester, N.Y. In what seems an effort to stay awake, Hunter types away at a laptop and picks at a plate of cold fried food. A warm-up comedian is in the middle of his act 25 feet away, but Hunter doesn’t appear to hear a word.
Soon he gets up, stretches and walks toward the stage yawning. He waits his turn as the featured act.
As soon as his introduction starts, Hunter’s body seems to inflate with energy. He’s bigger, more buoyant, lighter. He owns the stage, the room and all the light in it.
Hunter attended Binghamton University on a wrestling scholarship, and it’s easy to see that training onstage.
“I can’t tell you the number of similarities to wrestling,” Hunter says offstage. “It’s like, ‘OK, I’m up against a guy who’s bigger, stronger, faster than me, but I gotta find a way to beat him. OK, I’m onstage right now and I gotta do a 40-minute set, and I’m in the second minute of comedy and the crowd is not feeling me at all.’
“Now I’m being paid, so I gotta make them laugh somehow. I have to figure out, is it crowd work, is it observational material, is it making fun of myself, do I have to hold longer on the punch line? Am I not articulating? What do I have to do to make this crowd laugh? It’s similar to ‘what do I have to do to beat this guy?’ In wrestling, most of the time, it’s not that first move that works.”
Hunter is one of those rare comics actually making a living from standup, performing on television, at clubs and at U.S. military bases around the world. That’s a long way from his beginnings, when he used to perform any place people gathered — Laundromats, grocery stores, every dive comedy club in New York City.
Those early, rough times were his “minor leagues,” where he learned his craft. He often compares standup to sports and says there are fewer pro standup comedians than there are pro baseball players. But he’s proof that putting in the time eventually pays off.
“My motto is that the cream rises to the top,” he says. “And please don’t put that as my main quote.”
Paul Morrissey ’96 compares comedy to sports, too, which is understandable since he was Binghamton University basketball’s starting point guard and quit a sports-anchor job to pursue his standup career. (He would have preferred a career in the NBA, but “my height and my athletic ability kept me from that dream.”)
Like Hunter, Morrissey says that in both sports and comedy, the pros make it look easy because they put in hour after hour of preparation.
Morrissey spends months putting together a 50-minute act, constantly tweaking and revising. It’s like writing a novel, but editing it in public, with instant audience reaction. He is onstage regularly, and has been on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson four times.
“I put in the time,” he says. “Developing five minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s basically like writing a hit song. A three-minute song can take somebody 10 years to come up with. Comedy seems a lot easier, but you work on these jokes so every word is perfect. You watch the really good people do it, you know how much time was spent at it.”
Morrissey’s degree in English, literature and rhetoric taught him how different authors use various styles to create effect. His training helps him boil a joke down to the essence and trim his act to the funniest five minutes.
Because comedy is such a personal art, the choice of material generally reflects the personality of the comic. Adam Hunter describes himself as ADD; his act is a barrage of quick jokes, most off-color. Morrissey is subdued, more cerebral, and his material tends to be clean.
“Many people say that it helps you down the road if you work clean or don’t talk about religion or politics,” he says. “But I just do it because I’m more obsessed with food or how awkward I look in certain situations.”
Avi Liberman ’93 also generally works clean, which reflects his personality. He started becoming serious about comedy as a junior at Binghamton, renting standup videos from Blockbuster (“it sounds ancient saying that”) and analyzing the acts.
“I think you have to be honest onstage,” he says. “Those are the guys who are the best. I don’t think trying to be someone you’re not ever leads to artistic expression in the best way possible, especially with standup.”
Over the years, Liberman’s act has grown more personal. When he started, he steered away from his religion because he didn’t want to be labeled “that Jewish comic.”
That started to change when the Montreal Comic Festival invited Liberman to perform for a Jewish audience.
“Do all your Jewish stuff,” his agent said.
Liberman laughs. “I didn’t really have Jewish jokes.
But I realized that if my own agent sees me that way, why run from it? I might as well just embrace it and be who I am. That was when
my career started to take off, and I became a