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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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Joan Rivers, acid queen of New York - and Kelner makes it to the audience of the Letterman show..
By martin kelner on Nov 20, 2006 - 4:38:00 PM

The fortyish man to my left who moments before had looked a picture of Fifth Avenue executive self-assurance is thumping the table, stamping his feet, and snorting a very dry martini onto his pinstriped suit, helpless in paroxysms of mirth. Joan Rivers slays New York, and Fez, a dark cellar of a nightclub in Greenwich Village is about as New York as it gets.

On a week-long comedy pilgrimage to the city where stand-up was more or less invented, I have struck lucky. Right in the middle of my week, the outrageous Miss Rivers is “workshopping” new material at Fez, prior to a tour of concert halls.

At 71, Joan is edgier than ever, even trying out some 9/11 gags, a high-risk strategy just a handful of subway stops from where the outrage took place. “We’ll be safe in here,” says Joan, “The terrorists think they already got this place.”

In fairness, Fez is not as bad as all that . It is the kind of club upon which you suspect the Bohemian reputation of the Village was built; subterranean, a little dank, and serving rather good cocktails, the kind of place you could imagine Bob Dylan playing in his early days, or Simon and Garfunkel, whose song Bleeker Street was a hymn to Greenwich Village.

As the name suggests, the club has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel, like a cramped version of Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But Joan has probably seen the club in daylight hours, before it gets tarted up in its evening wear.

Not that she is one to worry about giving offence, even to her hosts. She could never be accused of the tendency some American comedians have of being a little too eager to please.

The audience in Fez, for instance, mostly young professionals, includes a fair number of Asian-Americans, but that does not stop Joan launching into a terribly politically incorrect routine about the fate suffered by the local dogs at the hands of her Far Eastern neighbours: “You get suspicious,” she says, “when you see the Thanksgiving ‘turkey’ on the table, with a Frisbee still in its mouth.”

It is not unusual for a top New York name to try out new material in a small club. I missed by just one day Jackie Mason doing his “pre-Broadway workshop” at the Gotham comedy club, on 22nd Street, near the Chelsea Hotel, another small venue away from the bright lights of theatreland. If you want a uniquely New York experience, it is definitely worth checking the listings.

Mason and Rivers both cut their comedy teeth in the late Fifties and early Sixties, around the same time as fellow New York comedy legends Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon - who was responsible for one of the great lines about his home town: “New York is a wonderful, vibrant city. But it’s not Mecca. It just smells like it.”

He has a point. Just before taking the subway south from 42nd Street to 8th Street, I had been sitting outside a coffee shop studying my map of the city, when a distinct and rather pungent whiff of sewage rose from one of those New York grates. “Welcome to New York,” was the deadpan line of the chap sitting next to me on the bench.

The great gift of Simon, Woody, Joan, and others is to capture the rhythms of everyday speech in this city, where the simple act of selling a sandwich can resemble a stand-up routine. As a fan of the New York wisecrack, I am here to discover whether a new generation of comics is keeping the flame burning on the city’s burgeoning comedy club scene.

As tends to happen in New York, I am distracted almost immediately. On the way to my hotel, the Edison, in the heart of the theatre district, I overhear two young men with clipboards talking about the David Letterman Show, the late night format so many British jokers have tried unsuccessfully to replicate. Turns out they are recruiting an audience for that night’s show.

Although Letterman himself is not a New Yorker, the nightly show broadcast from the historic but now rather tatty and careworn Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway between 53rd and 54th Street is something of an institution in the city. I am a fan, and going to see Dave – as he is always known – seems a very New York thing to do. The researchers ask a question about the show, to test your suitability as an audience member, and then you have to appear at the theatre at 5.30 to claim tickets for the 7.30 recording.

An awful lot of queuing is involved and the time is filled with whooping and hollering practice. The researchers stress to us what an important, integral part of the show the studio audience is, how we must laugh at all Dave’s bon mots (even if we do not find them that bon, presumably), and how the success or failure of the enterprise pretty well rests on our shoulders. I have spent half a lifetime in broadcasting, but am beginning to doubt whether I can live up to this awesome responsibility.

Dave’s big gag is at the expense of his rival Oprah Winfrey who has been giving free Pontiac cars away to her audience. Dave counters by giving us free in-car air fresheners which we wave enthusiastically, grinning, cheering, and whooping as the camera dives and swoops around our seats. I do not get on screen. Can I live with the disappointment?

As it happens, I do not have to live with it for long, because the very next day I meet two more clipboard-carriers who pluck me off the streets to be in the audience for the recording of a new late night chat show hosted by John McEnroe. This time I am bussed out to NBC’s new studio complex in New Jersey, with the bonus of a free lunch (pizza and cookies) and a splendid view of the Manhattan skyline from the West as the coach approaches the Lincoln Tunnel.

If, like me, you are looking to sample New York wit, and you wish to do it on the cheap – and it does not come much cheaper than free - my advice would be to make yourself known to the young people with the clipboards. By the end of the week I was turning down audience gigs, albeit only to the Montel Williams Show.

New York is a city obsessed with broadcasting - the huge plasma screens and bus-side advertisements for TV shows all over the city are the clue – so it is no surprise it hosts an excellent Museum of Television and Radio, venue for my next accidental free gig.

I had visited the museum on a previous trip and listened to vintage radio performances by Jack Benny, George Burns, and others. Wishing to do similar, I wandered up to 52nd Street West only to find I had walked in on something called Advertising Week in New York City. After a brief and not entirely accurate discourse on my position in the British media, I was rewarded with a front-row seat at a session entitled Just for Laughs – Celebrating Humor in Advertising, with what Madison Avenue likes to call its “top creatives,” chaired by Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker,.

They also gave me a collection of New Yorker cartoons, the best being one of Mankoff’s own: a business exec is on the ‘phone in his office arranging a lunch date. He has his planner open and is saying: “No, I can’t do Thursday. How about never? Is never good for you?” Laughs in New York come with a healthy dollop of acid.

I did finally make it to a comedy club, the New York Improv on 46th Street, one of about twenty I could have chosen, most of which follow a similar formula; five or six comics, one or two of whom might have been on Letterman or something similar, each performing for around 15 – 20 minutes. Fifteen dollars is the average admission price, the hidden charge being what the clubs call a “two beverage minimum,” but what is really just a way of charging a further $15 for a couple of very average drinks.

The immediately noticeable difference between New York’s club comics and their British counterparts is that the Americans tend to stick more to gag-based comedy. In the harshly competitive New York climate there seems little room for the left-field nonsense of a Ross Noble or Eddie Izzard. Politics is out too, with slick professionalism and girlfriend jokes winning out comfortably over Bush or Kerry material.

That was a little disappointing, but at least I did get to tread the hallowed boards of the famous club, following in the footsteps of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and others who honed their skills there. Some of the aspiring stand-ups at the Improv double as barkers selling tickets for the club in Times Square, and are put through their paces during the day. One of them, a young comedian called Daryl Wright invited me to take the stage and try out a line or two.

Having had a near-death experience doing stand-up in Camden Town as research for a book I wrote, I had no desire for a repeat, but it was fun to strike the pose, and clutch the holy microphone.

After all, if you can make it there, I am reliably informed, you can make it anywhere, although that would mean competing with Joan Rivers, who is not quite ready yet to step down as comedy queen of New York. Not that she is unaware of the advancing years.

“I’m dating older men now,” she says, “For them, ‘going all the way’ means making it to the bathroom on time.

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