Amanda Warren has lost her joke. For six months, the statuesque redhead with the shy, unsure eyes trained that zinger to stay put in her head. But now, as she stands onstage, rehearsing for tonight's show, it's gone. Her shoulders droop, her face twists.
Help is not far away: "It's your dirty joke," Connie Lang gently reminds her 28-year-old daughter.
Mom, who gets "so nervous" when Amanda is onstage, is sitting at a table in McCurdy's Comedy Theatre and Humor Institute. Behind her is the club's owner, Les McCurdy, who adds some teasing support:
"Just remember, Amanda, you're not getting paid for this!"
This cracks up Amanda's 11 partners-in-yuks, all gathered around the stage. They're here for the Special O'Laughics, a one-of-a-kind camp that teaches the developmentally disabled how to rock the funny. For the past six months, they've learned how to pace and enunciate Borscht Belt zingers and glorious poop jokes. And two hours from now, in front of a packed house, they will finally go for the gutbuster.
As Amanda frets, her friends shout support. Mollie O'Connell, 26, the group's ringleader and tonight's show closer, even produces a whoopee cushion:
Comedy gold. The perfect tension reliever. Amanda smiles, bonding over the cheap laughs. But she's still wary. Her mom helped her remember the "dirty" joke this time. But tonight, when the stage is hot with lights and everyone is watching, will the joke be there when she needs it?
• • •
Leave the labels at the door. Down syndrome, autism. Sometimes there's no label at all, a mystery, a question mark. Just as well. Inside the club, they're all comics on a mission.
"These are people who have worked very hard not to be laughed at," says McCurdy, 54, a working comedian since 1980. "So it's a challenging group. But now, instead of being laughed at in a demeaning way, they can finally use this."
McCurdy, who has owned the club for 23 years, was initially inspired by a mentally challenged comedian at open mike nights at the popular Sarasota haunt. "He loved it so much," says McCurdy, "I wondered if there were others who wanted to do this. Maybe there just wasn't an outlet for them?"
With the help of such organizations as the Special Olympics, Venice's Loveland Center and Sarasota County's rec department, the O'Laughics, a four- to six-month camp, has thrived. "It's a calling," says McCurdy. "I truly believe that."
McCurdy helps plan routines, which range from a few jokes (usually recycled groaners pulled from the Internet) to several-minute sets (more elaborate stories, magic tricks). He typically roars approval like Ed McMahon. And he teaches his charges how to handle people in the crowd who just don't get it. When one of Tim Hedley's jokes draws blank stares during rehearsal — "You might be old if your back goes out more than you do" — the comedian gives a withering look: "Laugh already!"
Heckler Maintenance 101. It comes in handy with this crew.
Comedians often draw attention to their overt attributes, be it baldness or belly size. In the O'Laughics, however, not a single comic uses his disability as source material. In some cases, it's a matter of awareness; in others, it's simply a desire to strive for normalcy and respect.
Ray O'Connell, Mollie's father, says the program has been "spectacular. Literally, some of them, could not stand up and tell you their names before this. Even the speech therapists say there's something about comedy. If you're not articulating correctly, the joke doesn't work."
In rehearsal, Mollie's offstage irascibility gives way to intense onstage concentration. She is focused, almost annoyed; it makes for a likably surly schtick. She'd kill in the Bronx.
"Why did the Irish cook only put 239 beans in his soup?" After a quick pause: "Because one more would make it 240."
Standing in the middle of the room, McCurdy pipes up. He doesn't scold or coddle; he simply bucks up a fellow comedian: "No, Mollie, you need to say two-farty. That's the punch line."
She nods, regrips the microphone and tries another. "Why did the blond get fired from the M&M factory?" This time she waits an extra beat: "She kept throwing out all the Ws."
She nails it, and McCurdy roars: "Of course she did!"
• • •
The house lights go down, the stage lights glare. The place is packed: friends, family, co-workers. McCurdy takes the stage. "From this point on," he says, as if setting up a joke, "if there is anything you hear onstage that you think is a punch line, then it is!"
Roy Singer, 26, is the opener. A few months ago, Roy's parents told McCurdy their son had no memory retention. He wouldn't be able to tell a joke. Maybe he could be an assistant.
Roy bounds onstage, smiles at the crowd — and proves his parents wrong: "What kind of ears does a train have? Engineers!"
A few months ago, Joe Spath, 24, was quiet, withdrawn. Now the fan of Jeff Foxworthy and Jeff Dunham performs the longest set — with a ventriloquist's dummy on his lap. His speech is slurred; his smile is killer. "You might be a redneck if you think fast food is hitting a deer at 65 miles per hour!"
The crowd laughs when jokes are funny; it claps heartily when they are not. There are a few tough moments, like when adorable Jaclyn Resh has trouble reading her notes. Dad to the rescue!
There is no tension; there is no condescension. People are here to laugh — and they do.
Finally, Amanda Warren takes the stage. It's time for her "dirty" joke, the one that deserted her a couple of hours ago. Her nervous mom moves closer to the stage.
"What's the difference between an ass kisser and a brown-noser?"
She pauses, pauses — and then, like magic, Amanda Warren smiles. Sometimes the joke leaves you. But sometimes that joke is right where you left it. She raises the mike and fires away:
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.