Comedian Ashley Strand

Comedian Ashley Strand

“The truth is the status of stand-up comedy in New York is like a sideshow,” says comic Ashley Strand, one of the city’s countless struggling up-and-comers. “It’s a footnote. ‘We were in the Village and the weirdest thing happened – we went to a comedy show!'”

From high-profile comedy clubs like Dangerfield’s, Caroline’s and the Comedy Cellar to low-rent joints such as Comedy Village, Underground Lounge, and hundreds of nightly open mikes, there are plenty of fart and dick jokes to go around in this city. But most of those jokes are told by people like Ashley Strand, a hard-working comic whose name you’ve never heard – or if you ever did hear of him, you probably don’t remember.

Don’t worry, he’s not insulted. “There are very few levels in stand-up comedy,” Strand contends, “where anyone remembers the name of the acts after they leave. They just don’t, unless you’re on TV, or if you specifically buy tickets for a single act.”

Most comics have to work for more than a decade before anyone remembers their name. Strand has been working the comedy circuit for the past two years – but he has not yet been paid a cent for his act. So this tall, expressively bug-eyed and caterpillar-eyebrowed stand-up still has to keep a day job installing home theater systems.

“It’s kind of cool,” he says, “since I’m 34 and I have no marketable skills. I’m like, alright, finally I’m going to learn how to do something. I mean technically I’m a moron. But you gotta do something to support yourself during the day, and it has to be this balance of something that’s not so mind-numbing that it saps you of your energy or leaves you too stressed to perform.”

Strand originally came to New York to pursue an acting career. But like many aspiring actors, he eventually became disillusioned with the theater. “I thought, I’m gonna be eating Ramen noodles until I’m 60 for this?” Strand says. “I don’t think so. I can be dissatisfied with more lucrative shit.”

Of course, stand-up comedy offers even fewer opportunities for financial success, but Strand heard about an open mike night and decided he had to try it at least once. So he showed up at Siberia, a dive bar far west on 40th Street, expecting a room full of comics.

What he found instead was an empty club and an immediate offer to host the weekly show – unpaid, of course. With no prior experience, Strand ran the show for about a year, then realized he had to move on and work up to what he calls “the real comedy clubs” if he ever wanted to progress as a comedian.

When he started out at other open mike nights and various comedy clubs over a year ago, Strand says, “It was two months of total ego annihilation. And not in the good, Eastern, ‘losing attachment’ sort of way. It was the bad, Western, still-trying-to-maintain your-ego-while-being-crushed way. Some places I did so badly that I thought, I can never even walk down that block again.”

Even after each bad set, Strand knew he had to just get up there again, because he says that he immediately felt more comfortable on stage as a comic than he ever had as an actor. He still has to deal with the typical insecurities that face any performer – the difference is that comedians use those same insecurities to make other people laugh.

Strand performs Friday nights at the Underground Lounge, on the Upper East Side at the corner of 107th Street and West End Avenue. The room holds about 20 to 30 people, many of whom are amateur comics who are either performing there or evaluating the competition. You’ll hear jokes about the mundane (“Pet health insurance? When I was a kid, pet health insurance was a new pet!”) or the bizarre (impressions of Al Pacino as a librarian, Antonio Banderas as a high school janitor or Robert DeNiro as Santa Claus), racial stereotypes and jokes about aging, or the typical repertoire of sex, drugs and more sex.

Strand tries to take his set a little further each week, testing his audience to see how far they will go with him. A bit about female ejaculation leads to the “man-gina” game (he will have to explain that to you himself), or a tirade about hating sex altogether. Not that he actually hates sex, he says, he just thinks it’s funnier to take all those little insecurities or annoyances and combine them into one sex-hating rant.
“All of my comedy is based on my suffering,” Strand says. “I’ve been sucking for a long time, with a few moments of not sucking mixed in. But the few moments of not sucking really kick ass.”

After months of struggling at open mike nights around the city, Strand refuses to return to them. “Open mikes are terrible, because comedians are the worst audience ever. For the most part, everyone there is nervous and fearful and thinking about their own act. Or they’re embittered and hateful and competitive. Either they’re not listening to you or they’re listening to you and hating you. No one wants to be in the audience; they want to be on stage.”

To avoid the open mikes, Strand resorts to a route taken by many unpaid novice comedians. He stands outside the club before a show, “barking” and handing out fliers for two hours in exchange for a few minutes of stage time; or he performs at “bringer” shows – bring people to the bar for their two-drink minimums, and you get your time. And even if there is no pay involved, the experience is invaluable. After all, it takes more than the best sex jokes, the best celebrity impressions, or the best one-liners to get noticed.

“Live comedy is all about dealing with what’s in the room,” Strand says. “You can’t hide on stage. You have to get up in front of a room full of strangers and form a relationship within the first thirty seconds, and then maintain that. And it’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Which brings us to the comedian’s worst enemy – the heckler. Perhaps the greatest challenge any comic faces, beyond having to keep an audience laughing for the duration of his time onstage, is a heckler.

But how does Strand avoid a Michael Richards-style meltdown when the jeers overtake the laughs? He says that the best advice he ever got was to “just be funny. You just have to come back with something funny. Get back on track.”

He remembers a particularly harsh heckler who had been bothering every comedian who took the stage one night at Comedy Village, where Strand performs regularly.

Some sort of flight or fight instinct must have come alive in Strand. He had been heckled off the stage two days earlier, and he fumed on this night while he watched a drunken bully interrupt every other comic’s set. When the time came for Strand to get up there and face the heat, he was prepared.

“First thing I said when I got on stage: ‘Uh, hey, are there any drunk British people in the audience?’ Everyone laughed, and from there I didn’t even tell a real joke until the very end of my set – I just went to work on this guy for eight minutes.”

He says that you have to be careful not to anger or alienate the entire audience just to go after one person, but when the right time comes, he relishes the opportunity for some karmic retribution. As long as the room keeps laughing, roll with it.

“Comedy means being a craftsmen and an artist,” Strand says. “I mean, that’s sort of high-flown rhetoric for a guy who tells dick jokes. But it’s fun and it’s hard and it’s exhausting – and worth it. When I stop doing it is when it stops being worth it. And I haven’t made a cent doing it and nobody knows my name.” Perhaps more people will know the name Ashley Strand in the future. Until then, he’s just trying to make people laugh, one night at a time.

This story was written Nov. 2006 for the NYU Journalism course “New York Characters.”