By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It's Sunday afternoon, and there's a workshop going on downtown at Gotham Comedy Club. A comic stands planted onstage, braving feedback from critics Karen Bergreen and Stu Morden. "You're so willing to take a risk. You're sooo adorable," begins Bergreen's lengthy assessment. Adorable?
Perhaps it's an appropriate adjective for the performer to whom the insight is directed: 10-year-old Jordan Cohen, extremely small comic. Cohen is part of the Gotham-based "Kids 'N Comedy" program for kid(der)s aged eight to 15. Today is merely a warm-up, a workshop where every childbe they "vet" or noviceis encouraged to play with new material. The special monthly show will follow for some of them (with friends and friends of friends in attendance!), but on Sundays like this one, parents form a casual audience, sitting beside their gel-haired children in muted support.
Stage houndlings are not invited to get too experimental, as producer JoAnn Grossman, also Morden's wife, runs a tight (and somewhat censoring) ship. Certain topics and language are forbidden. "I object to 'frickin',' " she says in reference to one young comic's transgression, "while my husband doesn't." The unique environment she provides, with its intersection of children, adults, and comedy, can indeed spawn an awkward moment or two, like when ponytailed Rachel Resnik singly enacted a two-character joke. She knelt on the floor and demanded, "Kiss it!" Then stood and said, "No. I won't kiss it!" After a 10-months-pregnant pause, she slowly articulated, "No, Yo-da! I will not kiss your light sa-ber!" Phew! We all thought: "It was a light-saber joke the whole time!" And then we laughed this weird, hard laugh.
More common than this sort of tension are light kiddie punchlines"I mean, come on, I'm in the fifth grade!"and Star Search-style bits. In spite of it all (or perhaps because of it all), the "Kids 'N Comedy" endeavor manages to be quite amusing. At a recent show, Christopher Ferguson, age 12, shared a polished, post-workshop act with the intergenerational crowd (a percentage of whom were crying for milk). An impressionist and "character man," he opened with a send-up of Robin Williams and ended with an on-point Bill Cosby, fitting stock characters and crank-call recaps in between. Jordan Friedson was similarly inclined toward mimicry (Joan Rivers, Howard Cosell, Ozzy Osbourne, Samuel L. Jackson, etc., etc.), though significantly more aggressive with his crowd work. "You know the Andy Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton kind of thing?" he asked later in our interview. "I was trying to put the audience on the spot." He assessed his opening (wailing like a baby, then commanding a middle-aged woman to sing him a lullaby), and offered, "I just think it's very shocking to the audience because they're used to the regular comedy routine." The lady did seem shocked.
Near the end of the show, Sam Rappold, easily the most sophisticated 15-year-old you never knew, slouched onstage with a refreshing sneer of cynicism. He proceeded to deliver solid jokes like they were babies and he was an obstetrician. Stepping offstage to exuberant high fives from the rest of the gang, Rappold seemed thrilled (though he later confided, "I'm not a particularly social person by nature"). The kind of teen to reference Lorne Michaels, Sullivan's Travels, fan fiction, and Monty Python in casual conversation, Rappold is a frickin' genius. Catch him before his high fives turn into eight balls.