I remember when I first discovered stand-up comedy. I was flipping through the channels and came across a man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, pacing frantically across the stage. My finger hovered a moment over the button on the remote. I found myself sucked in, marveling at the way this ordinary man managed to capture the mundane aspects of everyday life and find a humor in them that I would have never conceived. Humor is deeply personal, and so finding a way to connect with a room full of strangers is truly an art. It is easy to forget that comedians are people too since we seek to confine them within the persona they assume on stage. While I can easily flip off the TV and an audience can leave the room to end a show, the comedian remains. What happens after they step off the stage? What does a comedian do in those tense hours leading up to a show? Vinnie Nardiello’s new play “The Boom” has some answers.
As I sit with Nardiello his passion about his project is palpable. He is also extremely clever and funny, joking about the ups and downs of being a comic as well as the journey that led him to the world of theater. Nardiello has been a stand-up comedian for over 10 years and he knew as early as college that he wanted to do comedy writing. He found stand-up rewarding because it allowed him to get his work out right away with instant feedback. As his career evolved he started doing more work as a writer, writing material for other people, doing radio appearances, and even serving on the writing team for the television pilot “Paulie.” But Nardiello felt ready to try something new and to step outside of his comfort zone. He found himself drawn to the world of theater, saying, “I think these past 10 years of experience have led me to this play.”
“The Boom” explores the lives of comics once they leave the stage by looking at the dynamic between three comics in a dilapidated comedy condo owned by Steel City Funny Factory in Pittsburgh. Nardiello described to me how these condos, while less common now than they used to be, are still in use and are often located next to comedy clubs or even directly above them. These condos are usually pretty disgusting and each week a new batch of traveling comics move in. They live together, drink together, and silently hate each other as they prepare for their shows. The condo in “The Boom” is claustrophobic, both literally and mentally, and this leads to strong egos and glaring age differences colliding beneath feigned friendliness. Nardiello says that a lot of comics know each other even if only as acquaintances, and so it is hard to hide in these condos. It often involves treading the line between a sense of competition with other comics and a feeling of closeness with them since they understand one another in a way few can.
“The Boom” centers on three comics: Buddy Darby, a reformed addict turned religious freak and experienced comic who is past his prime; Tim, his right hand man whose comedy skills are lacking and Ray Messina, the new guy who is making a name for himself by appealing to a younger generation after he had his big break in the form of a viral video. Nardiello says that while the show is not autobiographical, “bits and pieces of people’s lives and experiences went into it,” including his own.
The three actors playing the three comics in the show do stand up in real life, Dan Stern, DJ Hazard and Richie Byrne, and director Mark Riccadonna is also a writer and comedian. Nardiello discussed how this wealth of stand-up experience brings a unique authenticity to the show, and the actors are able to capture the spirit of comics because they themselves have lived it and can even use the play as a way to reflect on their own experiences or re-live some of them. They not only bring their own stories and experiences to the show but also their distinct mannerisms. Nardiello says that the body language and blocking they employ evokes the way comics really relate with one another, for instance in the way two comics might size up one another. The rehearsal process for the show sounds extremely entertaining and just like the condo in the play, cramming a bunch of comedians into a room creates an environment replete with big personalities and where everyone is trying to be funny. The cast has been rehearsing in the Comic Strip Club, an actual NYC comedy club, which helps them get even more in the mindset of the show.
This is Nardiello’s first foray into theater, and he says that the process of creating “The Boom” started with first trying it as a screenplay, then a novel, and finally as a play. When he attempted it as a play he says it “flowed fast” and he knew he had found the right way to tell this story. In comparing stand up to theater he says that they are quite different, since with theater you can let the idea unfold instead of worrying about having to quickly get a laugh, adding, “it’s fun to have a different way of telling a story.” Nardiello plans to keep exploring theater in the future and continue writing plays. He says that what is most rewarding about it is the collaborative aspect, something that rarely factors in to stand-up. He is impressed by the way each person involved brings something to the show and imparts their own ideas and experiences.
However, theater and stand-up do have some common ties. While I always thought that comedians improv and adapt material as they go, Nardiello says that part of their art is making something they have said endless times seem fresh and new. He adds that comedy is much more scripted than it seems and many comics keep the same act night after night because once they establish the story they want to tell in a way that gets audiences to respond, it’s risky to significantly change that. This fear of delving into new material is something Buddy Darby is plagued by in “The Boom.” In this way comedy and theater are linked, both centering around a carefully rehearsed script.
With “The Boom,” theater becomes the lens through which to better understand comedians because audiences are pushed to think about the questions of identity that come with playing a character. While in a play actors have a character to hide behind and applause is almost guaranteed, stand-up requires a different vulnerability because it is the comic’s name on the line and they can’t hide. Nardiello says that politeness is not expected in comedy clubs like in theaters, and since the act is very personal it can be extremely disheartening to have an audience respond negatively because they are in effect rejecting you. Having real-life comics play the roles in “The Boom” blurs the line between theater and stand-up and asks us to think about the people who put themselves in these vulnerable roles.
In “The Boom” we get to see the person that remains after their show is done, and the way the audience’s response can build them up or destroy them. The play gives us insight into the world of comedy as a business, the pressures that come with having to make people laugh every night and the search for approval and self-worth that drives both the comedians and their audiences. Nardiello says that he’s noticed a growing public interest in this topic that corresponds to an overall shift in our desire to know about movie-stars when they’re off-screen or about the private lives of celebrities. Thus, “The Boom” shows us everything but the comedy act itself, and the compelling emotional moments and heartbreaking revelations make comedians more real and like us than ever before. Just as we need comedy to allow us to laugh at our lives, we also need theater as a mirror for the way we view our selves and one another. Thus, the play takes us deep into the comedy world only to return us right back to our own lives.
By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer
Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the world premiere of “The Boom” September 9 to 20 at the Cabaret Theater.
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