Today, however, one can find a daring breed of performers who regularly criss-cross back and forth between guffaws and applause. "I can go from stand-up to Shakespeare, but I can't get a sitcom...makes no sense to me," says Mario Cantone, who has alternated between headlining gigs at Carolines Comedy Club and playing roles in the New York Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest on Broadway and The Taming Of The Shrew in Central Park. Cantone, who made his Broadway debut in Love! Valour! Compassion! notes, "I've been doing stand up for 15 years, but it's very different because you can just get up there and go. If you forget what you're going to say, you can just make it up. You can't do that in theater...although I have, even in Shakespeare. I'll forget my lines and just say something like 'Oh look, it's Lord Burlingame,' and then walk off. " Fresh from an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman (with sub-host Nathan Lane), Cantone will soon be center stage at Carolines doing his comedy, April 6th through 9th.
For Rick Crom, who goes on for two or three performances a week as an understudy/swing covering five roles in Broadway's Footloose, the fusion between the roles of comic and actor have emerged over 20 years. "I started doing stand up comedy at 16, and did my first theatrical performance at 17," says Crom, who also honed his skill doing improvisation as part of Chicago City Limits. "Stand-up lets you be both writer and director, which is a powerful feeling, since you're in total control. The best thing is that it's you, you, you. Of course if you're not doing well and there's a need to blame someone, it's also just you, you, you." Crom is a actually a triple threat: He's also a MAC Award-winning musician/musical comedy writer whose show Rick Crom's Our Life & Times is nominated for a MAC 2000 award.
Busy road comic Andrew Goffman feels that theater helped him attain a comfort level on stage. "Getting up on stage in front of a packed house of 200 people was valuable for me; it gave me confidence on stage that I wouldn't get by going up in front of ten people at an open mike night," says Goffman, who spent a year in the Off-Broadway hit Grandma Sylvia's Funeral before venturing into stand-up comedy. "Also, being part of an interactive show was good training for stand-up, since you have to deal with the audience on a more personal level. We had our lines, but we were able to ad-lib a little, and if the producers liked it they'd add it to the show. At one point, the show was running three hours, so I guess our ad-libs were working."
While Ellis, Goffman and others were self-taught stand-ups, actor/comic Tommy Koenig has recently taken the theory of the Actor's Studio and opened the Comics Studio in New York to help stand-ups develop their craft. Koenig, a 20-year veteran of both stage and stand-up, started doing theater in Buffalo, New York, and has since directed and performed in musicals between stints on tour as a comic. He describes stand up as planned spontaneity: "I have a lot of actors in my classes. They are challenged by stand-up, because you are acting like you're not acting. The character is you, or an extension of yourself, doing set material that needs to sound as if it's 'off the cuff'...like you're saying it for the first time." He's also found that performers enjoy the concept of wearing all the hats (actor, writer, director) and taking all of the responsibility.
"You're very dependent on that audience in stand-up," agrees Joan Jaffee, whose first Broadway show was Bajour in the 1960s. Jaffee, who later played Ursula in Much To Do About Nothing before embarking on several national tours, took up comedy long after establishing her theatrical career. She has since put together her own Evenings of All-Star Comedy featuring fellow Friar members, among other talents. "The timing is different," says Jaffee. "It takes a while to get used to that constant need for audience response. And, unlike the theater, you can be at the mercy of a tired or noisy crowd, which doesn't help any. After years of theater, I must say, stand-up is a whole other ballgame."
Indeed, the two forms of entertainment can be mutually beneficial and encouraging for performers who get a different kind of rush from these distinct venues. Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate both is to leave the theater and head for a nightcap at a local comedy club. Who knows, you might even see one of the same performers in a whole new light.