Laughter is an antidote for recessionary blues |

Laughter is an antidote for recessionary blues

Howie Nave, Special to Lake Tahoe Action
The owner of New York's Gotham Comedy Club has reduced expenses but kept its well-known acts.

People are more than a little tense these days. Have you noticed?

As more and more people are laid off, those remaining wonder if they’ll be next. When someone is let go, those who remain are given their workload. You can’t complain on the outside, but inside the stress is compounded.

Add to that retirement accounts (those fortunate to have one) that seem to be evaporating weekly, making one wonder if they can ever retire. And there are those billions of dollars we taxpayers have shelled out to financial institutions in the way of bailouts to help faltering banks that lately have been raising our credit card rates.

There is a very good argument why people are upset.

Some consumers have been flocking to movie theaters for escapism, and people with families have propelled kid-friendly movies to the top of the box office list as their entertainment of choice. The same was true during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many would watch those extravagant musicals on the big screen to leave reality for a while.

During tough times in the last century, the entire family would be huddled around the radio in their living rooms listening to the likes of Jack Benny, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “The Shadow,” “The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show,” “Buck Rogers” and other countless classic radio programs.

Outside of the home, vaudeville was popular, giving people a variety of shows consisting of singers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers and, of course, comedians. It was, in fact, comedians from vaudeville who later went into radio and cinema in the late ’20s, and we haven’t turned back since. Comedy nowadays owes its roots to vaudeville and just like those days of the Great Depression, many today attend comedy clubs to escape the never-ending bad news on television and find once again a place to escape for an hour and a half just to laugh.

I asked several comedians working on the road if they’ve noticed any trends as the recession has deepened.

“If I were to weigh in, I’d say I do see a difference,” comic Wendy Hammers, who had a recurring role on “The Sopranos,” told me. “Not necessarily in the number of folks who show up, but rather in that people need and want to laugh more than ever. It reminds me of the quality of the laughs in the shows I did right after 9/11.”

I agree. I remember about four to five weeks after Sept. 11 when people started going out to see shows on a regular basis, they would laugh really hard, almost as if they had been holding it all in and then realized it was time to just let it all out.

“The only thing I noticed in Vegas last week was people seem like they really want to laugh, so maybe they’re just trying to escape the dreariness out there,” frequent “Letterman” guest Larry “Bubbles” Brown said.

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine but it’s actually a proven fact.

Psychologist Dr. Frank Cummings says laughter helps those with anxiety, depression, worry and stress, as well as those suffering physical illness.

Chicago-based Rocky LaPorte, a “Tonight Show” and Comedy Central regular, put it best: “They do seem a little more tense than usual but afterwards they always say they needed the laugh. I’m glad they are coming. They are the ones who are not afraid and are helping move the economy along.”

How are comedy clubs responding to the recession?

Mottley’s Comedy Club in Boston started an innovative stimulus package of their own called “Mottley’s Comedy Bailout.” It has been advertising the following: “Where, until further notice, Wednesdays are just $8. College kids get in for $5. And if you bring a copy of your layoff letter or an unemployment check stub, we’ll let you and a friend in for free!” Now that’s how you fight a recession. Makes good sense, especially in a college town.

Chris Mazzilli, owner of New York’s famed Gotham Comedy Club, says, “One of the big keys for me was not to have our customers feel or notice any cutbacks whatsoever.”

Mazzilli’s cost-cutting practices include using green products and negotiating lower hotel room rates to attract big-name acts as well as reducing the number of spots featuring lesser-known comedians per show, allowing the audience to see more of the headliner. The downside is local up-and-coming comedians will have fewer spots, but the upside is a club with a higher performance standard.

The Skyline Comedy Cafe in Wisconsin offers free admission Wednesday through Friday throughout the summer to military members or recently unemployed. Owner Cliff Diedrick says the shows give people a break from reality.

“The two-drink minimum still applies, but if people can’t afford it, I’ll work with them” he said.

I have met with Harveys to see about offering a locals’ night and special group rates as an incentive to attract a company that wants to treat its employees to an evening of laughter.

Some don’t blame the economic situation. Just ask David Gee, who has performed at Tahoe so long, when he started, the “Y” intersection was an “A” and Pope Beach was only a cardinal.

“It’s not so much having to deal with the growing number of indignant, economically frustrated hecklers in the clubs that aggravates me as it is those pain-in-the-ass hostage takers at corporate gigs,” he said.

“The Pitbull of Comedy” Bobby Slayton ( “Tonight Show,” “Dream Girls”) explained what irked Tahoe audiences.

“Howie, you’re just getting more boring and people need to entertain themselves more during your performance,” he said.

Bob Zany, best known for his performances and being a judge on “The Gong Show,” also chimed in: “It’s your act,” he told me.

Oh, great. Now I’ve gone from a recession to a depression.

” Howie Nave is the host of The Improv, which presents standup comedy five nights a week.

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