Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mike Dambra

I know some of you come here for the review, and nothing but the review. You want to read how many people showed up, what kind of mood the room was in, how the MC and headliner handled folks, how the sets went. You’ll giggle with me at a punch line or two. You might go so far as to check out the comic’s YouTube clips or website, but, mostly, it’s all about the 60 to 120 minutes of this particular Thursday night. Let me give you fair warning. You may have to read a little more today. I intend to give you the regular run down, but I can’t stop there. This week has politics, has passion. This week has Pickle.

The room was full for a Thursday as Steve Burr and I made our way up and down the tables, replacing the outdated club calendars with the freshly printed batch from Staples (Chris Kattan! Mitch Fatel! Ben Bailey!) The audience seemed energized, the buzz was all positive. I moved around the room, briefly interrupting one Dambra tale after another. “You should have heard what he said to this one heckler.” “It was the funniest show I’ve ever seen.” “She would only come if I promised her we wouldn’t sit up front.” These conversations usually surround big-time headliners and hometown heroes. It made sense to hear them from a crowd who knew exactly who they were there to see: Mike Dambra, home for the weekend.

Personal note one: this week was a little crazy for me. First, I saw the passing of one of my greatest writing heroes, Ray Bradbury. His short stories have been with me since childhood, and his advice on writing, on simply being, have influenced me for many years. Second, I knew I was going to witness the four members of Ralph Tetta’s comedy class perform their graduation sets over the three evenings, and couldn’t wait to see how they would do. For the record, they all did well, and I am going to post a separate review/essay this week about their achievement. Finally, I was going to review Dambra.

If you don’t know (and I can’t imagine why anyone who doesn’t would be reading this blog), Mike Dambra is the name on nearly everyone’s lips when the title of Best Local Comic Done Good is bandied about. He is the one about whom other comics whisper, a comic’s comic. I told him I was struggling with how to write this review, because I know I will end up sounding like a gushing fount of superlative when it’s done: Wow! He’s the bestest ever! The quickest wit! The sharpest tongue! It’s because of moments like these I keep reminding you this blog is just my opinion: it’s so simple to see and hard to take me seriously when I’ve developed a comedy crush.

A longtime friend said he’s never seen Mike bomb on stage; he’s seen sets that were merely good, but none that could be called bad. I saw three of five this weekend, and know I’ll never pass on an opportunity to see another. His written jokes (“I’ll roofie a girl just to not have sex with her.” “I have nouns and verbs in the fridge. We can make a sentence later.”) are delivered in and around audience play, which makes them appear more improvised than they really are. It’s what Robin Williams said he was doing in his stand up days: he wrote a lot of material that flowed so well with the stuff he was making up on the spot, the audience thought it was all improv. That style is a lot of work, no matter how easy Mike makes it seem.

Mike is probably most known for Pickle (“Yesterday, I was a cowboy; tomorrow, I’m an astronaut”) and audiences love it. For a brief explanation of its origins, check out The Chet Wild Show: Behind the Funny Episode #106 with Mike Dambra, the Pickle and Hecklers on YouTube. His very specific hand placement and studied finger movements tell you this is not a thoughtless, toss-off impersonation. This bit comes from a real friendship with a real neighborhood kid, and Mike’s evolving understanding of how we’ve become so hung up on (not) labeling people. Mike isn’t using the word retarded just to shock you; he doesn’t care that much about your reaction. He just wants you to laugh and has a knack for getting you to do it in ways that might make some people a little sore.

Personal note two: This is one of the main reasons for my comic crush. Mike gets on stage and speaks in a way that has been taboo for a number of years. While I appreciate that political correctness has curtailed some hateful language, if only by making the people who speak it outcasts in a smiley face culture, it hasn’t done much to reduce the fear and hatred lurking behind the words. If anything, I feel we’ve lost traction, we’re slipping back from advancements begun in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Race, gender, ability, appearance – we congratulate ourselves for coming so far, when reality reminds us that much of the improvement is purely cosmetic, only curb appeal. It’s great that you don’t use the c word, the n word, the r word, the entire alphabet we’ve come to use in place of some of our most charged choices. Even better, though, would be if you gave up the prejudicial or discriminatory thoughts and actions that make those words loaded. Give up the behavior and the words won’t matter. This is a difficult conversation to have in our current climate. Comedy gives us an opportunity to discuss what might remain hidden without the lubricant of laughter.

Mike’s crowd play is the stuff of class clown dreams. He’s the grown version of every kid who spent time in the corner, nose pressed against the wall, because his brain sometimes forced his mouth to move too quickly; his putdowns and send-ups came flying from his lips before the little conscience angel on his shoulder could clear its throat. With a gleam in his eye and an occasional giggle at his own jokes, this childlike demeanor lets him get away with some of the boldest encounters onstage. Thursday night’s show happened to bring a cute 22-year old, her biker-garbed boyfriend and widowed mother to the front seats, and Mike had a field day. When Mom said she was a widow, he said, “Way to bring my show to a fucking halt, lady,” and then proceeded to make her part of the act for the rest of the night. Hitting everything from her “Gone with the Wind” fan to her deceased husband’s toe configuration, Mike had the three of them laughing as hard as everyone else in the room.

I told you, this week was a little crazy. I lost a hero; I think I gained a new one, though. Mike Dambra may not have affected anyone else in the room quite the way he did me, but – say it with me, folks – it’s all subjective. This one girl giggled. A lot. Next time Dambra’s in town, come join me.

The Bob Lonsberry Addendum: If you were at any of the five shows or caught Wease Thursday morning, you know Mike and Bob Lonsberry have been having a bit of an exchange over a comment in one of Lonsberry’s blogs that basically said the only thing worse than gay marriage are children born out of wedlock. Mike posted a response, explaining that he and his wife weren’t married at the time of his daughter’s birth because his wife was fighting cancer, the pregnancy was unexpected and they both felt the money was better saved for the harsh reality that he might be raising his child alone. Bob and followers responded that Mike’s daughter was unnatural and an abomination. Mike returned fire, supporters jumped aboard and, ultimately, Bob blocked Mike from posting to his blog.

A fellow comic friend whose politics fall much further right than mine said that Lonsberry is simply old-fashioned in his ways and beliefs, with no room for growth. I agreed if, by old-fashioned, he meant racist, sexist and hypocritical. My father, an undereducated farmer and World War II veteran, held similar opinions. My father was also 36 years older than Bob Lonsberry and living in a time when our whole country shared many of those beliefs. Some of us have moved on, begun to embrace brave, dangerous ideas like the opportunity of strength that can be found in diversity, and the value of all individuals, not just a select few. We try to live it, not just speak to it, which is why we don’t fear words the way some do. Still, no one likes a bully. When you have to target two-year-olds, when you have to call out babies, I am puzzled to find where your strength in your own beliefs resides. Take on Goliath, if your faith is so strong. Or have someone explain to you the actual meaning of “suffer the children.”

I asked Mike what I could promote for him with this review, as I usually give readers a place to catch the comic’s videos, buy dvds, etc. He said simply to promote the idea that we might not want this kind of hateful division in our community. Perhaps a letter of complaint to WHAM, a post to a blog that you find objectionable, might be in order. We should not let any children be attacked that way, be called unnatural and an abomination.

And there is one more reason for my comic crush: a guy whose voice is his value, who makes a living with his words, speaks up for the voiceless. Who wouldn’t love that person in their corner? Apparently, God didn’t have a problem with the lack of a marriage certificate. The baby’s immune system impacted his wife’s cancer, and both mother and child are healthy and happy.

Thanks for reading. Next up, the comedy class graduation and Jesse Joyce.


  1. You knocked this one out of the park. I feel smarter having read it, and luckier to count people with such valuable insight among my friends. Mike Dambra once told me that the purpose to life was to fight evil wherever you see it, and at the time, I thought it was a platitude, strangled from the comic books we loved; but each day, I realize that it is no mere platitude, but a battle cry, and there is more than enough evil to go around.

  2. Mike Dambra comedy is off the hook, "the pickle" tickled me. MC Brian H. did his "thang" too. I had a great time enjoying the diversity of the comedians and their improv with the audience. I would love to evolve and become that well versed, and become that creative on the stage. I had the pleasure of seeing Dave Chappelle and Eddie Murphy in person. The atmosphere and energy was felt in a more intimate setting.

  3. A stellar piece of work. A pleasure to read a review that supplies context to the author's opinion. And from someone who tried to explain the lack of any mean spirited aura to Dambra's act,I now have the perfect place to refer them.