When Billy Bingo, New York's "bravest comic," took the stage at Comic Strip Live in Manhattan, his first joke went straight to his alliterative mic moniker: "Of course it's a stage name, right? What mother would name her kid Billy Bingo? My real name is Gary Bingo." Most of the 35 or so in the audience laughed and grinned – a good start.
Actually, his mother named him William Denis, and "Bingo" is simply an old softball name his former firefighter friends gave him. "And I'm known as 'the bravest' not because I'm a fireman, but because of my lousy jokes!" he later quips. (The "bravest," see, is what we call firefighters here in New York. Cops are NYC's "finest," and sanitation workers, not to be left out, are the "strongest.")
Like many of New York's bravest, Bingo has a walrus moustache, hangdog eyes, and a mischievous grin. "In the firehouse, I was a kitchen guy," he says. "If we were going to pull a stunt, I'd have to be a part of it."
Now he often wears red suspenders on stage – a comic cliché long dubbed "hacky" in the world of stand-up – but Bingo makes it part of a self-deprecating shtick that emphasizes his blue-collar profession and, when all goes well, endears his "lousy jokes" to his audience. (And they're not that lousy, actually. He headlines at the biggest clubs in Manhattan and has just shot a pilot for a TV show.)
Most every crew has always had its kidder, funny guy, or prankster, and some may have even dubbed their group's comic with an alliterative nickname. But in the age of YouTube and MySpace, more and more of these would-be wags believe they can translate their humor into at least 15 minutes of fame – or even a second career. Indeed, from lunch-pail laborers to corporate suits to soccer moms with an SUV full of kids, a growing cadre of wannabe Seinfelds are finding more opportunities to learn and practice the art of wry observation and slapstick antics.
And while few who pursue stand-up as a second vocation or part-time hobby find Bingo's success, new clubs are springing up in cities across the country and long-established venues have found a welcome source of revenue teaching comic techniques. The legendary Chicago-based troupe, Second City, with improv programs in six cities in the US and Canada, has seen enrollment explode over the past few years.
With its schedule of five terms of classes per year, Second City's programs have nearly quadrupled since 2000. The Chicago program now sees nearly 10,000 enrollments per year, fueled mainly by its beginning adult improv class – a dramatic change since it had catered before mainly to professional actors and comedians.
"There are the people who I say are scratching an itch," says Rob Chambers, director of Second City's training centers. "They thought about this, they think they might want to do this, and they might have done some comedy or acting early in life. They're coming back to it now."
For those who take up the challenge, it's a grinding culture of open mics, amateur hours, and "bringer shows" – early evening stage time in which comics must bring three or more paying customers in exchange for 10 minutes to do their jokes. Newbie comics don't get paid, of course, but they can hone their bits, build a reputation, and perhaps move up to later shows and bigger audiences.
"I was curious to try it since, for years, people said I was funny," says David Moore, chairman of the Manhattan-based firm, Moore Holdings, and former CEO of Register.com. "I'd always been a pretty good public speaker, and the toast speaker of choice at weddings and birthdays."
So when a friend suggested he stand up at a local amateur hour, he jumped at the chance. Just like the weddings and birthdays, he got a lot of laughs, so he sent a tape to the new-talent coordinator at Caroline's, a big club in Times Square. The club booked him for a few bringer shows. In a matter of months, he was doing stand-up as a second career. In 2000, he won the Manhattan Amateur Comedian of the Year.
But Mr. Moore has also tapped into another reason more people are trying stand-up. As a business executive, he leads a seminar called "leading with laughter," which explains how great leaders and executives have used humor in their daily activities to communicate and motivate others, and then tries to teach these techniques to business people.
Moore's seminar also led to his idea for an amateur comedy show called "Funny Business," in which CEOs of some major corporations stand up and try to generate mirth instead of money. Participants have included billionaire investor Carl Icahn, advertising mogul Donny Deutsch, and Loews Corp. executive Jonathan Tisch.
"What they find is that they might be attracted to the name 'comedy,' says Second City's Mr. Chambers, "but ultimately what you are getting in a comedy and improvisational class is the ability to develop skills like listening, team building, idea generation, problem solving, self confidence, and empathy, just to name a few."
Bingo had no such skill-building motives when he entered stand-up through a comedy class offered at a local club. After telling a few jokes at an open-mic night, he decided to take the nine-week seminar. He thought that would be the end of it. But at the class's end-of-term stand-up show, he met a cop who had been doing routines for several years. They became friends and started a show called "Guns and Hoses," and Bingo, who had retired from the fire department at the time, has been doing stand-up full time ever since.
For his part, Bingo has organized an annual comedy show for the orphans of firefighters killed in the line of duty. "In 20 years and one day as a New York City fireman, I helped people using an ax, a hose, and a halogen," says Bingo. "And now I help them by using a microphone and my wit."
While most beginners will simply stick to the open mics and amateur hours, stand-up comedy for people like Bingo and Moore has become a second career.
"It's not just a hobby; it's an avocation I take seriously and that I continue to pursue," says Moore. "I like the creativity to it, I like the challenge of it. It's not a lot different than somebody who is a very serious golfer. This is my version of that, but it's a little bit easier for me since I do it at night when the kids are asleep."