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

Lenny Clarke – The Prince of Boston Comedy

When comedy was king, Lenny Clarke held court as the prince of Boston.

“The thing was, I was the man, because I was crazy,” says Clarke. “I was a nut job.  I had no training, no idea what I was doing.  Because of that, I blazed a trail in Boston comedy where the only rule was, there was no rules.”

Clarke hosted an open mike night at Cambridge’s Ding Ho restaurant that launched the careers of many comedians, including Steven Wright and Denis Leary.  “We we’d get as many as 35 comics a night, Paula Poundstone, Steve Sweeney, Bobcat Golthwaite, Janeane Garofalo, Gavin would try out their stuff.”

Week after week, the same crowd came to watch, Clarke says. “It would force me to come up with new material.”

“The Boston crowds are what made it so good, because they wouldn’t settle for mediocrity.   They would boo you off the stage.”

The Cambridge-born comic, who turned 55 Tuesday, has mellowed considerably since his mid-80’s heyday, a time when he and other successful comics were, says Clarke,  “rock stars.  It was unbelievable …the best tables, best champagne, women, drugs, you name it.  It was the greatest years of my life.  It will never be copied.”

“Now I’m clean and sober for a long time, and thank god for that. But I was loony – there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try.”

These days, he’s busy with movies and television, currently playing Uncle Teddy on “Rescue Me.” When the series began, Denis Leary (who he also worked with on “The Job”) wrote the role of the chief for Clarke, but Lenny had committed to another series (“It’s All Relative”), which ended up only lasting a season.

He was slated to be in the cast of the upcoming ABC series, “Life On Mars,” but after a successful pilot episode, the show was reworked. Clarke, director David Kelley and three other actors were replaced.

“Let me tell you,” says Lenny, “I’ve had more failed pilots then the Iraqi Air Force.”

Clarke brings his stand-up act to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday (September 20).  He’s looking forward to performing for a “theater crowd – I’ve worked in places with a cage, where people are throwing bottles.”

“I’m only hoping that that people want to be entertained,” he says, “where they’ll let me spin my string of pearls.  People heckle me because they think they’re helping.  After 35 years of doing this, I don’t need any help.  Let me entertain you.”

His act covers his life – growing up, his wild ride as a comic and pals like Leary.  He stays away from politics. “I’m not one of those so-called celebrities who want to shove their views down your throat.  That’s why we vote in private,” he says.  But he will talk about his failed run for mayor of Cambridge against Joseph Kennedy, a campaign fueled by a unique (and unprintable) slogan that ended when Clarke headed to California.

“Basically, I’m glad I didn’t win,” Clarke says.  “If I did, god knows what would have happened.”

He’ll probably talk about the Boston Red Sox, and his surreal experience working on “Fever Pitch” in 2004, the year his home team finally won the World Series.   Clarke worked a lot in New York City before the Sox shook off the so-called “Curse of the Bambino”

“It was torture,” he says.  In “Fever Pitch,” Clarke played Uncle Carl, who early in the film warns a young Jimmy Fallon to “be careful – they’ll break your heart.”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe, aw sh*t – Bucky f’in Dent,” he says, recalling years of frustration as a Sox fan.  “You know where you were when Kennedy was shot; you know where you were when Bucky Dent hit that homer.”

Clarke was at a friend’s house with two unfortunate Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We told them if they sat and watched the game with us we’d give them 50 bucks,” Clarke remembers.  “When Bucky Dent hit the home run the guy who owned the place said, ‘get the —- out of my house! – and chased the poor bastards out.”

Lenny nearly missed his chance to see the Sox play in the 2004 World Series. He had a gig (booked by his brother Michael, who manages several comics and runs a club in Saugus called Giggles) for game one, and auctioned his game two dugout seats to help a firefighter friend who was battling brain cancer.  Fortunately, a close friend flew him to St. Louis for games three and four.   He calls seeing them win it all “one of the joys of my life.”

The comic devotes much of his time to charitable work, including the annual “Comics Come Home” event in Boston this November, which raises money for the Cam Neely Foundation.  He’s done several benefit shows for Boston-area children’s hospitals, and he helps out with Leary’s New York-based firefighter charity.

“It’s the thing that makes my mother the happiest,” says Clarke.  “She says, ‘it’s really nice to see your name in the papers and on TV, but it really makes me proud when you help other people’.”