Thursday, April 8, 2004

In it for the laughs


First-time comic conquers his nerves and walks off smiling

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Mike Sweeney takes the stage at Funny Bone on the Levee.
Photo by Steven M. Herppich

The large room is dimly lit, but bright lights are trained on Funny Bone on the Levee's small stage.

Mike Sweeney stands in the shadows, waiting to be introduced.

He's one of a dozen performers tonight. Each has completed a stand-up comedy class taught by Jeff Jena, the Newport club's owner and a comedian for 25 years. For eight Saturdays, Jena filled his students' minds with facts on being funny. Tonight, essentially, is the final exam.

Several hundred people - nearly a full house - have come to watch. It's not the strangers that make Sweeney nervous. It's the people here he knows - his wife, brother and sister-in-law, along with several of his co-workers and friends.

MOMENTS OF LIFE

This part of an occasional series that documents moments that connect us. This year, the series focuses on firsts that are life's milestones. We welcome your suggestions. Contact John Johnston at 768-8516; e-mail: jjohnston@enquirer.com.

THE STORIES

First trip to the dentist
First flight
First baby
First comedy gig
First T-ball game
First college graduate

Sweeney has never done anything like this. Never been on stage. The 35-year-old Monfort Heights man is a housing inspector for the city of Cincinnati. The comedy class was a birthday gift from his wife.

He's got eight minutes of material. But he's not sure he remembers everything. Or anything.

He watches Jena come on stage and hears the last words of the intro: "Please welcome Mr. Mike Sweeney!"

• • • 

MOMENTS OF LIFE
This is the fourth in an occasional series that documents moments that connect us. This year, the series focuses on firsts that are life's milestones. We welcome your suggestions. Contact John Johnston at 768-8516, e-mail Jjohnston@enquirer.com
Other stories in Moments of Life series
COMEDY CLASSES
Funny Bone on the Levee offers eight-week comedy classes throughout the year. The first class is free. A class began April 3, and another will start in June. Cost is $250. Information: (859) 957-2002 or visit the club's Web site.

At lunchtime a few days before the comedy gig, Sweeney has more on his mind than telling jokes. He points to a 3-inch-thick binder. All week, he's been in seminars, learning to be a lead assessor. For the past year, he has inspected Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority properties, ensuring they meet standards for Section 8 subsidized housing.

The comedy class sounded like a nice diversion.

"I was not expecting it to be as hard as it was," Sweeney says. "In class one time I got up and I totally froze and forgot all my lines."

Some people can rely on their looks for a laugh. Not Sweeney. He's too ... normal. Clean-cut, with short dark hair, neatly combed, and a friendly smile. He looks like a, um, housing inspector.

But Sweeney is a bit eccentric, and he plans to draw on real-life experiences. He brews his own beer. He grows gourmet mushrooms. He has some auctioneering experience. With a fulltime job and two boys at home, ages 8 months and 3 years, Sweeney rehearses when he can. Usually, it's in his car, talking into a tape recorder.

"My goal is to get up there, act confident and excited, big smile, like I've done it a hundred times. I'm going to work hard at keeping calm," Sweeney says.

He pauses.

"I'm scared to death."

At one point in his life, Sweeney worked on radio towers. He knows what it's like to be 1,100 feet up, clinging to metal on an icy winter day.

Scared to death? Dying on stage is a different fear, he says.

"Eight minutes doesn't seem like a long time, but on the stage, it feels like forever."

• • • 

On show night, Sweeney goes from work straight to the Funny Bone, dressed casually in khakis and a polo shirt. As the dozen performers trickle in, one questions dominates:

Are you nervous?

Yeah, I'm nervous.

Sweeney asks Jena the same question.

"I'm nervous you guys are going to make me look bad," the club owner says. He's joking. Possibly.

The lights go down. Jena begins warming up the crowd. Before he leaves the stage, he turns serious.

"For some of these guys, it's their first time. Some will get nervous, some will forget a joke, some will mess up a joke. Be supportive tonight of all the performers."

Scott Meyer of Maineville is first.

"You are about to hear 20 seconds of solid comedic stand-up material that I've decided to spread out evenly over the next seven and a half minutes," he says. Laughter from the audience.

Sweeney applauds as his classmates entertain with jokes about Girl Scout cookies, big feet, sperm counts, spoiled kids, March Madness, modern-day husbands and a host of other topics.

Then it's his turn.

He bounds on stage and opens by saying he likes to volunteer.

"I'm helping out some people on the organ donor list," he says. "I'm teaching a couple of my friends to ride motorcycles."

People in the audience laugh.

He gets more laughs with alcohol jokes. ("Nothing cheers me up like a good depressant.")

Sweeney steps backward and bumps into a microphone stand, but it's a small misstep. He seems to gain confidence as he goes, at one point telling the audience, "This is fun."

He segues into a bit about a night on the town with his wife, starting at Captain D's. ("There were so many old people ... instead of Smoking and Non-smoking they had Resuscitate and Non-resuscitate.") And ending at a bowling alley. ("When those shoes hit the counter, pull out a dollar, put it on the counter and say, how about an extra shot of Lysol for the lady.")

His routine turns risque in a bit about improving his vocabulary. And his auctioneering stuff can't be reprinted in a family newspaper. But the crowd eats it up.

He's beaming when he walks off to generous applause.

Judging by audience reaction, Mike Sweeney isn't the funniest guy - or the least funny - on stage this night. Which, in the end, really doesn't matter. Standing in the bright lights for eight minutes, he gains the confidence that he could do this again.

And that's no joke.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com




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