Square Life:

Comedy Catches on in Cambridge

IF MIKE DUKAKIS decides to run for president he could run on a platform promising to "make America laugh again." For starters, professional yuckmeisters of all races, creeds and colors would be able to add several minutes to their routines merely by poking fun at our dour Duke. It wouldn't be long after the good governor announced any intention to become master of ceremonies of the comedy club of life that stand-up comics would start dishing out lines like, "Hey--you hear about Dukakis' economical version of a Star Wars defense shield? Yeah, in case of nuclear attack, we all just hide under his nose!!!"

Bill Maher

Catch a Rising Star

Through Saturday

But the Gov could stake his claim to make Americans from coast-to-coast smile "just like in the good old days" on even more substantial grounds. For Dukakis has presided over a golden age of comedy in his home state. Jay Leno got his start on the local comedy circuit during Dukakis' first term in office, and Steven Wright and D.J. Hazard hit it big during the governor's second sojourn in the state house. It's no coincidence that no one was funny during the King Administration.


But while Beantown has sent many a talented stand-up cut-up out into the brightly lit, dimly conceived world of big-time comedy, it hasn't gotten much back in return. Top headliners don't come to town too often and homegrown prodigies such as Leno and Wright only pop in for occasional, surprise appearances at their old haunts. As a result, Boston comedy has been suffering from the excruciating boredom that inevitably results when the same young comics--those who can't break into the big time--perform at the same old clubs weekend after weekend.

Things, however, are looking up. The owners of New York City's Catch a Rising Star, one of the top comedy outfits in the country, have just opened a second room in the hole once filled by Jonathan Swift's. The Catch, unlike every other comedy club in the area, will feature nationally known talent every week, Tuesday through Thursday nights. Judging from the headliners who've appeared the first two weeks, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher, it looks like the new club will infuse the local comedy scene with performers who are not only well known, but actually funny.

Maher is this week's headliner. If his name doesn't ring a bell, his face probably will. A veteran of many appearences on the Carson and Letterman shows, Maher simply is a funny guy. A graduate of Cornell, a private college in upstate New York, Maher's slight lisp, devilish chuckle and sly grin are those of the eternal class clown. His 45-minute routine--which nonetheless seemed to end too soon--traversed all of the stock subjects of stand-up. But his observations and insights on life at home, life at college, getting older, drugs, politics and, of course, sex, were original and idiosyncratic, qualities sorely lacking from most local material.

When he first came to town this week, Maher was put up at the Quality Inn. Not that he's a complainer, but the Quality Inn wasn't the most classy hotel he's ever stayed in. "I called room service and asked for a sandwich, and they sent me two prostitutes," he said. At least they didn't send him sushi, a trendy dish whose appeal Maher doesn't quite understand: "Sushi? It's not food--it's bait."

This is far from his best stuff. But Maher was so funny and on target--and in such complete control of the audience--that I was laughing too often and too hard to jot down most of his killer material. Many of his other memorable bits were dirty enough so as not to be publishable, though far from dirty enough to be offensive.

Unfortunately that wasn't the case with the other two acts on the bill. Brian Kiley, a local comic, clearly wants to be a Steven Wright with personality. Some of his lines are gems--like the one about the blind and deaf person who reads lips with a yellow-highlighting marker. But he was too much of a Brian-two-note--varying incessantly and to no great effect on such tired themes as polyester leisure seats and mobile homes--and couldn't capture the audience. Master of Ceremonies Brett Butler tried hard, but was undistinguished. Many of her lines were no better than this one she told to a patron in the front row: "That is some tan you have there--we're talking melanoma city!

If only because it will bring big name talent right into the heart of Harvard, though, Catch a Rising Star is a welcome addition to the Square. Every show will be followed by live music, maintaining the spirit of the old Swift's, and open mike nights promise to be a cheap source of entertainment. Beware of waitresses bearing drinks, though. The prices are so high that....