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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008 04:42 pm

Show me the funny

Local comics hone their skills at monthly open-mic night

art5587
Wayne Wiskow
Billi Casey
Rich Mansfield
Steven Snyder

Gov. Rod Blagojevich better run and hide. The comedians at Donnie B’s Funny Bone in Springfield have him in their sights.

The Gov, the minimum wage, fast food, the economy, the Cubs and marriage seem to be the most popular topics at the comedy club’s monthly open-mic contest. Several local comedians compete for the top prize, with many performers traveling more than a hundred miles for a chance at stardom.

Why the Funny Bone? Owner Donnie Bassford says it’s because his establishment provides a safe environment for a comedian trying to get a foot in the door.

“We have a reputation for protecting comedians,” he says, “because we know that everyone has to start somewhere, and we want to help them out.”

At open-mic night, comics like Jeremy Hughes pay $5 for a chance to win both the cash pot and an invitation to perform in the club’s showroom. “Donnie has us perform in the bar,” says Hughes. “It’s a lot harder than in the main showroom because you’re in front of an intimate crowd of 30 instead of 200. You can see everyone, and it’s quiet if they don’t laugh, but it’s good to practice. And I’ll never see these people again.”

The comics don’t always have the best performances of their careers, but open-mic night is the perfect place to test new material. Eight comics in all approach the mic in November, and Donnie B names Peoria native Billi Casey the winner. Casey is new to the game. Her friends signed her up for a performance weeks ago, and this is just her third time in front of a live crowd.

Casey, 44, draws on her experiences in Narcotics Anonymous and as a mother of four kids between the ages of four and 21. Her kids are of three different ethnic backgrounds, and as Casey tells the audience, “I’m dating a Puerto Rican, but we’re starting to have problems. He’s paranoid. He thinks I’m dating him just to make my jokes funnier.”

She’s about to celebrate 18 months sober, and says talking about NA in her act makes performing at a bar easier. The hardest part is getting the laughs. “The stuff I think is funny, no one laughs at,” she explains. “Like tonight, they didn’t laugh until the Rosa Parks joke and then they couldn’t stop.”

“I hate her,” says fellow comedian Buddah Eskew, who has honed his craft over the last few years while keeping a day job at the secretary of state’s office. “I hate her because she’s a natural and I bombed tonight.” Eskew feigns sadness, but his routine has just earned him his second guest spot in the showroom. He’ll be performing with The Midnight Swinger on Jan. 2. Buddah actually roots for newcomers like Casey.

In fact, these comedians are all rooting for each other. Ted Denson, an open-mic regular, is in the crowd even though he’s not performing. Denson, 46, from Chatham has cerebral palsy, and has just been invited to join Bob & Tom and Comedy Central veteran Mike Armstrong on part of his Midwest tour thanks to his experience at the Funny Bone. He and the other local comics carpool to other clubs to perfect their acts. “Don and the Funny Bone are great for us because he mentors us in a way,” says Denson. “We’ve become a close group of friends who can look for the best in each other.”

On this particular Wednesday, Donnie B’s Funny Bone has comics from Springfield, Chatham, St. Louis, Chicago, Peoria and Trenton. They hope to earn an invitation to perform in the club’s showroom, where well-known comics like Dustin Diamond, Norm McDonald, Pauly Shore, Bobcat Goldthwait, Dave Coulier and Louie Anderson have starred. Kevin Pollak will perform in the new year.

“We’re successful in Springfield because of our reputation. We run a clean club, we curb heckling, we book talent and we have fun,” says Bassford, who runs the club with his son. “It’s kind of like ‘American Idol’ here. We have our big guys in the showroom, and newer comics can discover if they have what it takes on open-mic night.”

As I head back to Donnie B’s Funny Bone for the open-mic night in December, I see Billi Casey arriving for another performance. Buddah Eskew is back, too, along with Wayne Wiskow who has again made the 100-mile drive up from Trenton.

Wiskow, who will be opening in the showroom on Jan. 9 and 10, says he’s back to work on his material some more in preparation. “It’s not about winning for us,” he says, “but I guess the money would cover my gas.”

Wiskow uses a lot of the same material from last month, mixing in a few new bits here and there. He seems a bit more comfortable and although the material hasn’t changed much the crowd is more receptive than last time.

“I’m upset with the election results,” Wiskow tells the audience. “I voted for Obama, but it’s been six weeks since the election and I still haven’t gotten laid. That’s not change I can believe in, that’s more of the same!” Like most of the other comics, Wiskow draws on his personal life for material. He talks about losing his custody battle and having to keep his kids, and trying to explain to his wife that “do you take this man for richer and poorer” was not a multiple-choice question.

The performers range from college students, to family men, to grandparents. My favorite joke of the night comes from a comedian named Fredo, who tells a story about finding a drunk passed out on Sycamore Street. “I called 911 and said there’s a guy passed out on Sycamore. The operator said ‘Sycamore? Spell that.’ I said hang on a second, I’m gonna drag him over to First Street.”

Rich Mansfield, another Chatham resident and one of Donnie B’s open-mic success stories, shows up at the end of the contest to do a set. Mansfield has been opening in the showroom, but enjoys coming back to the training field of open-mic night. “It’s a system of hurdles,” he explains. “You need accountability, and you need to work in new settings.” Mansfield says that the comedians form a bond because only they know what it takes to get up there in front of a live crowd. “If seven guys bomb before me and I bomb too, at least I have seven guys who know exactly how I feel,” he says.

Mansfield also shares that Donnie B has helped him improve his routine. “I was using a lot of new jokes in the showroom, but Donnie taught me to use all my A material,” meaning that Mansfield should keep doing his best jokes and only replace what isn’t working. “If you’re willing to have the audience beat you up, you’ve gotta let Donnie beat on you, too,” says Mansfield.

This time, Wayne Wiskow is the winner. He gets the small cash prize for his efforts — the gas money he was hoping would get him back to Trenton.

For those interested in the amateur night, Donnie suggests taping your performance with a camcorder before taking the mic. Professional comedians, he says, have more than four hours of material. But for open-mic night, just a few minutes of laughs can catapult you to stardom. Take Billi Casey for example. The registered nurse and homemaker has just finished her performance. Ted and Buddah rush to congratulate her. Donnie has offered her a spot opening for Rick Gutierrez on Jan. 16, and her new friends encourage her to keep working at the new hobby she’s found.

Open-mic night at Donnie B’s Funny Bone is the third Wednesday of every month. The club hosts regular shows every Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and 9:30.

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker living in Springfield.

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