Vying for a Chance to Own Carolines, Even for a Weekend

By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI NY Times Online March 29, 2009

Bryan Kennedy trotted out of a dressing room at Carolines comedy club in Times Square on a recent night wearing a black-and-white striped shirt and a whistle around his neck.

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Liz Miele worked the stage at Carolines during March Comedy Madness. The contest “can open up a lot of doors,” she said.

With a decibel meter in his hands, he hustled onstage and looked out at a raucous crowd ready to take part in a different sort of March Madness.

“I’ll be your host this evening,” Mr. Kennedy told them, “and your referee.”

For the past three years, Mr. Kennedy has presided over March Comedy Madness, an annual laugh-fest patterned after the basketball tournament staged by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

At Carolines, 64 comedians from the New York area are placed in brackets, with top seeds going to those who have turned in strong performances in previous tournaments. Each hopes to advance, round by round, to the finals, where the winner will be rewarded with the opportunity to headline at Carolines for an entire weekend.

“For lesser-known comedians, getting a chance to headline here can open up a lot of doors,” said Liz Miele, 23, a comic from Pennington, N.J., who reached the Final Four last year. “Everyone knows what’s at stake.”

Before calling to the stage the comics whose names were bracketed on a large board behind him, Mr. Kennedy loosened up the crowd with some of his own material. “NASA launched its Kepler spacecraft to search our corner of the galaxy for other Earth-like planets,” he said. “Aboard the spacecraft were 2.9 million people looking for jobs.”

Soon after, Tracie Jayne was lamenting that many of her relationships had come to an abrupt end. “I’ve been left at the altar,” she said, “and given up for Lent.”

Josh Spear tried to impress women with his academic credentials: “I’m single, ladies,” he said, “two and a half college credits, come and get it.”

And Kevin McCaffrey took aim at those who consider hunting to be a sport: “It’s not a sport,” he said, “if both teams don’t know they’re playing.”

Two at a time, the comedians walked on stage and delivered what they hoped was their best material. Mr. Kennedy, who blew his whistle when the two-minute limit had elapsed, stood between contestants after their routines and asked the crowd to cheer loudly for the one they would like to see advance to the next round. The decibel meter did the rest.

Calise Hawkins, 29, of Jersey City, used her 2-year-old daughter as source material. “I still can’t believe I’m somebody’s mom,” she said. “I’m very excited about it, especially tonight — just to be away from her.”

Ryan Reiss, 29, of Manhattan, used his bed: “My girlfriend said she would like to sleep away from the door because if the boogeyman comes, he’ll get me first. I said that’s not realistic at all. I’ll sleep by the door, that way, if there’s a fire, I’ll be the first one out.”

With each passing round, the comedians get more time to tell jokes. In the first round, the field of 64 had one minute each. By the second round, a field of 32 had two minutes. Those who advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, on Wednesday, had four minutes. At the Final Four on Tuesday, semifinalists — Ms. Hawkins among them — will get seven minutes each, and the remaining two comedians 10 minutes to decide the championship.

“My strategy during the shorter sets is to try and come off as very likable, very clean, and to try and get the crowd on my side,” said Rob O’Reilly, 24, a Brooklynite who has been to the finals twice in the past two years. “As a comedian, you want to reach the later rounds so that you have more time to mess with the audience, and more time to be funny.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 30, 2009, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Vying for a Chance to Own Carolines, Even for a Weekend.

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