Funny Girl

Laughter's the best medicine? For aspiring stand-up comics, it's more like heroin.

"If you want to be good, you have to go up at least five times a week," Varghese says. "If I can go up twice, three times in one night?" He'll go. That means hitting an open mike, a bar show and a club show all in a matter of hours.

Varghese is Indian, something that helped him stand out in the beginning. Asian comics, at least in the Dallas, are as rare as females, though both groups are growing. Today, Varghese says, he's trying to come off the Indian thing a bit.

"I don't want to just write jokes about being Indian," he says. It's better to go with something that doesn't involve stereotypes or just putting on an accent. Right now, he's working out a bit on watching church on TV at home, using Doritos and salsa for communion. It's funny, but when he pretends to lick the host-Doritos residue off his fingers, it just about slays 'em. But I'm not nearly to the finger-lickin', crowd-crushing point. I just want to know how to write a joke. So I ask.

Funny Girl
Tim Gough
Funny Girl
Andrea tells a joke. Let's hope her tits didn't get in the way.
Brian Harkin
Andrea tells a joke. Let's hope her tits didn't get in the way.

"Write down everything that pisses you off during the day," Varghese tells me. "You'll get at least one joke out of it."

Really? That's it? I don't have to spend hours thinking of wild and crazy scenarios involving historical figures or that old stand-by, dead babies? Really. Hood told me the same thing. I'd be parked at a booth before Hyena's open mike, writing my routine over and over again, and Hood would ooze by.

"Topic, premise, punch line," he'd say. The next week, again: "Topic, premise, punch line." What the hell did that mean? So I picked up a corny book called The Comedy Bible that contains mostly feel-good motivational crap but also made joke writing seem, like, easy. The Bible had a formula.

Take a topic, figure out what's "hard, weird, scary or stupid" about it, and riff on it until you get a punch line. I whipped out my notebook and started scribbling.

Topic: breaking up

Premise: Breaking up is hard when your friends try to comfort you and it doesn't work.

Punch line: Mine brought me ice cream, which I don't like. I'll just use this gallon tub to retaliate against the evil ex-boyfriend.

I talked out a few different versions at open mikes, and two days later, I had the windshield joke that did well at the Addison Improv. I had a joke! And I'll be telling it as long as it keeps getting laughs, boyfriend or not. Someday, all my jokes will be true. Until then, I have seven minutes of workable material about being single and sappy that I'd be telling if I eloped tomorrow.

It's a start.

At first, I always had the phrase "girls aren't funny" in the back of my mind. I was determined to discover some grand truth about gender and hilarity. I wanted to expose the hidden sexism that I was sure ran rampant through the world of stand-up. Why else could I count the number of female comics in town on two hands?

But I was wrong, and the "girls aren't funny" guy from the improv troupe was right. Girls aren't funny, not even a little bit. But he was only partly right, because guys aren't funny either. The only naturally funny creatures are kittens, puppies and other small, furry animals, and they're too short to reach a mike stand. Before I realized everyone struggled to be fresh and original—even guys—I had lunch with comic Sherry Belle. Maybe she could be in my man-hating comic coalition.

The first time I saw Belle onstage was two years ago, when she'd just begun to develop the mildly evil yet saccharine sweet Southern belle persona she takes onstage. She's a slim, pretty corporate girl who works in marketing for Dickey's Barbecue by day and spends nights playing the Fort Worth Hyena's, the Pocket Sandwich Theatre and several clubs out in Shreveport where I suspect the Southern belle shtick goes over particularly well. Initially, I didn't like what she had to say about being a girl playing a man's game.

"I think it's a good thing," she told me as I continued to stubbornly mold my mind around the stereotype of women as comedy underdogs. She used the notoriously crowded open mikes at the Arlington Hyena's as an example: "If there are 10 or 20 guys going up in a row telling jokes, and then there's a woman's voice, I've got their attention."

Spend a week—or 12—at every open mike night in town, and it's easy to see comedy is overrun with white dudes. One of Hood's theories is that this is just about numbers: There are more white guys everywhere, so there are more white guys in comedy. Or, if you want to delve deep into the white guy psyche, "generic, middle-aged white comic" Richard Houghton says, blame it on their fathers.

"The urge to do comedy comes from watching our dads," he wrote in a MySpace message from his online comedy profile. The dads had "crummy jobs," and Houghton's generation—he's 43—said, "Screw working for one company can I do something I really want to do?" Today, the comedy scene is littered with diversity, even if the numbers still skew to white guys. Black and Latino comedy nights—frequently called "urban"-themed shows—pack rooms. Minority comics are all over television—unfortunately enough for anyone who's seen an episode of Carlos Mencia's show on Comedy Central. Maybe 10 or 15 percent of the hundred or so comic hopefuls here in Dallas are women.

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