Philadelphia’s entertainment industry is no stranger to the term “underdog.” The city’s nightlife and theater market has perpetually played second fiddle to such colossal competitors as New York City and Los Angeles.
In the 1980s, Philadelphia comedy was an exception. Then a breeding ground for comedians, the industry boomed as future heavyweights like Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell, Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld frequented local comedy clubs.
But with the launch of cable television stations like Comedy Central, Philadelphia’s live comedy scene took a nosedive as several clubs were forced to shut down. The city’s comedy arena has since been living in the shadow of its prestigious northern neighbor, New York.
“People could sit home and see better, funnier comics on TV,” said Jimmy “Roundboy” Graham, a South Jersey stand-up comedian who has done shows for NBC, ABC, FOX and Comedy Central. “It’s not the same, but [audiences] didn’t know that.”
Now, hopeful comedians across the city are striving to rekindle Philadelphia’s former comedic luster through innovative acts and colorful concepts.
Graham, a regular performer at the Comedy Cabaret in Northeast Philadelphia, has joined forces with disabled comics Louis “Twitchels” Centanni, Mike Cotayo and Tim Grill to launch the Short Bus Comedy Tour. Comprised of stand-up acts that make light of their physical impairments, the tour is making stops in Philadelphia before heading to New York City in April.
“The thing about comedy is that you can take any weird thing that you have and make people laugh about it,” said Grill, who was diagnosed with a spinal defect as a child. “Comics are out here, kind of looking at it from a whole different point of view.”
Centanni, who has the neurological disorder Tourette’s syndrome, said Philadelphia is one of the few places where comedians stick together and treat one another like family. “A support net is very rare to find in the entertainment industry,” he said. “It’s a cutthroat industry.”
Most comedians agree that for live comedy, a Philadelphia audience is unlike any other. “They’re very comedy-educated in New York, so if you’re talented but maybe not funny they can see that too,” said TuRae Gordon, a comedian who received his start at the Laff House on South Street. “Whereas in Philadelphia, if you’re not funny, get off stage. They throw things.”
Gordon, a Temple alumnus, was part of an urban, ethnic comedy movement in Philadelphia that branched from mainstream stand-up and gained ground in the mid-’90s. “It’s about being an artist,” Gordon said. “You have to be able to entertain all people, so I don’t like the terms ‘black’ or ‘urban’ comedy, but there was definitely a separation,” Gordon said.
Out of a dozen area comedians who were interviewed, some, like Gordon, were skeptical of Philadelphia’s potential to ever compete on level with New York City and Los Angeles. Gordon said that Philadelphia isn’t big enough to foster a thriving comedy market. Despite this shortcoming, he said the city could still “produce stars that make big dents in the comedy world.”
Others expressed disappointment over the loss of talent to larger, more opportunistic markets like New York. “[Philadelphia is] starting ground,” said Lawrence Killebrew, a rookie comic from the Laff House. “You get here, you work out your material and then you get it right. When you get it right, then you move on.”
Some comedians detailed their experiences performing in other large cities.
“The thing about New York comedy clubs or L.A. clubs, there’s a bit of cockiness and arrogance. They think that they’re better than us,” said Jerry Torres, who does stand-up at the Cabaret. “We’re like hidden under a sheet until somebody unveils the sheet and reveals all our talents.”
Cotayo, who acquired cerebral palsy after suffering a traumatic brain injury, described his experience in front of Philadelphia audiences as “a lot nicer.” As a comic who regularly performs in New York, Cotayo said, “Outside of New York, the crowds are much more able to laugh freely.”
Still, some comics remain optimistic. “It would be a dream come true for me to someday look back and see Philadelphia as a huge comedy market,” Grill said. “But I don’t know how long it will take.”
Sketch comedians James Daly and Walter Threadgill predict a bright future ahead. “Philadelphia definitely is an up and coming city,” said Threadgill, the assistant director of Comic Energy, a traveling comedy troupe that performs in various locations throughout Philadelphia. “The fact is that Philadelphia has the comedic talent. The fact is that the audiences will pay to come and see shows. It’s just a matter of being able to capitalize.”
In a city dominated by stand-up acts, Comic Energy was the first in the area to perform sketch comedy, a series of short scenes performed by a small group of comedic actors. “You’ve got to see the part where the guy comes out in high heels, is dressed as Maya Angelou and is shooting everybody,” Threadgill said, laughing about past performances.
Six years after Comic Energy’s debut in 2000, 23 other groups now put on sketch or improv acts in the area. “The idea is definitely catching on,” said Threadgill.
Although there are many anomalies in Philadelphia’s comedic realm, the politics of the comedy business are universal, Graham said.
“There’s a lot of miserable people in one of the funniest businesses in the world,” he said. “But it’s only because of the game. Everybody’s vying for the same piece of cheese and there’s just so much cheese to go around.”
Grill said comedians who are minorities or women find it especially difficult to push past stereotypes and establish themselves professionally.
“I get a lot of comments like ‘You’re pretty funny for a woman,'” said Joanne Syrigonakis, a comedian at the Cabaret. Syrigonakis said she tends to mock the discrimination she has faced in her acts. ” … You make fun of it and say ‘OK, let’s laugh about it, and realize how stupid this is.'”
Ultimately, for Philadelphia comedians, its the local audience that matters the most. “Philadelphia is such a great comedy city because the crowd will tell you the truth,” Gordon said.
“‘Get off stage man, you stink’ or ‘Man, you’re the greatest thing I ever saw.’ That’s Philadelphia.”
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.