Laugh in the New Year

Six comics help Portsmouth welcome 2019

When comedian Steve Scarfo booked his first New Year’s Eve event in Portsmouth, he was doing what he’d always done. He’d gotten into stand-up in the mid-90s, and was promoting within a few years. “When you start out, you’re really just chasing spots, chasing time,” Scarfo recalled recently. “So we said, ‘why wait around? Let’s do our own shows.’”

So that first First Night, it was Scarfo and few pals; but from those humble beginnings a tradition was born. 2018 marks the 10th anniverary of the Live Free or Die Laughing event, and the stars have aligned to make it memorable. Five comics, led by Jimmy Dunn, will ring out the year with jokes and smiles.

Getting Dunn, who lives in nearby Hampton Beach, is a big deal. A veteran of the Boston comedy scene, he’s known for his role on the CBS sitcom The McCarthys, Red Sox commercials and Comedy Central specials. “I can’t say enough good things about him,” Scarfo enthused. “It makes it a little more special for the 10th anniversary, having someone who’s a local celebrity.”

Feature comic Abhishek Shah, who appeared on NPR’s storytelling series The Moth and is a regular at Laugh Boston and Giggles, precedes Dunn. Also featuring is Mike Whitman, a 10-year comedy veteran who’s been on Fox’s Laughs and headlined The Stone Church in Newmarket last month. Ryan Gartley, who was goaded into comedy by his friends on a Portsmouth booze cruise in 1999, and newcomer Mark Moccia round out the lineup.

Though there are two shows scheduled, but the early one is already sold out. Tickets are still available for the late show at 10:30; $38 admission includes a champagne toast at midnight and party favors. As in each past year, Scarfo will host.

Scarfo got into standup after going to grad school in Virgnia. “A friend of mine said he was going to try it,” he said. “Up to that point I didn’t even know it was something you could do. I always loved comedy; I grew up listening to Bill Cosby. I don’t know if that’s in vogue to say, but his bits were the first thing I memorized. Then came Steven Wright and Robin Williams in high school.”

For his first time out, Scarfo worked up a tight five minutes. He went to the Comedy Vault in Boston – “I brought 30 of my friends to see me, which is kind of crazy in itself” – and killed. Added to this first time fortune was a Boston Globe writer in the audience who was doing a story on new comics. He ended up featuring Scarfo as one of the night’s funniest.

“It was pretty cool but it was also, as the old cliché goes, a blessing and a curse,” he said. “Looking back, I can’t believe I had such a good set on my first time out, but it was also what hooked me. The adrenaline rush of coming on stage and people actually laughing and enjoying it, it’s like the best drug on the planet that you don’t have to pay for.”

Unlike a lot of other comics, the married father of two performs close to home. “I looked around at the guys who were doing comedy, and the full time comics were doing all road work,” he said. “Being in a hotel room, on the road and away from your family wasn’t the life I wanted to have.”

He opened a club in Kittery, Maine that lasted a couple of years. “When that ended up not working out, there was a moment in time where I almost moved to California, but I chose not to do that, or do road trips” he said. “I never even pursued working on cruise ships, though I think it would be a lot of fun… I definitely respect the guys that do it, because not only are they pursuing their dream, there’s personal sacrifice too.”

Live Free or Die Laughing 10th Annual New Year’s Eve Comedy Show

When: Monday, Dec. 31, 10:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. show is sold out)

Where: Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, 250 Market St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $38 at LiveFreeOrDieLaughing.com

Starring Jimmy Dunn, Steve Scarfo, Abhishek Shah, Mike Whitman, Ryan Gartley and Mark Moccia

This story appeared in the 19 December 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

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