by Michael Bowen

You've heard about how love is for those who can't handle loneliness? Folks, there's a lotta love in the house tonight.

At the Brickwall Comedy Club, the emcee stands alone in the spotlight. The comedian solos onstage, with only a microphone to fend off the crowd. In the audience, there are single guys, gaggles of big-haired girls from down at the office, people slumped over their drinks, lonely people. Couples eye one another nervously during all the jokes about who's gonna get laid tonight, heh, heh. Where do they all belong?

Spectators at the Brickwall need a high tolerance for cigarette smoke and sex jokes. One night, the guy next to me was puffing like a brick chimney -- with a face apparently constructed of the same material -- until one of the warm-up comedy artists told a series of gynecological jokes that made me feel like I was staring at a particularly tasteless cartoon in Hustler magazine.

Then my good buddy busts a gut.

For the most part, this is the kind of material that sounds great when you've got that nicotine-and-alcohol buzz going. But will you respect yourself in the morning?

Says the comic (simply by mounting the stage), "I am going to make you laugh now" -- and audience members, knowing that they're not having fun yet, cross their arms defensively and think, "Go ahead and try."

They have much to endure. Two of the five amateur finalists are truly awful. Jokes about promiscuous wives, stupid husbands and infrequent sex abound. An example: "Here's one poor guy who's not gonna get laid tonight. Let's all give him a hand. Later on tonight, he's gonna give himself a hand." The room groans, and it's not the rumbling of excited appreciation that we hear.

But when a comedian overcomes the odds and gets off a series of comic shots that convulse the crowd -- well, you gotta admire that. In the Brickwall's smoky confines, as in many such clubs, let's face it, the laughter is strained. People remind themselves that they shelled out eight bucks for this and shift nervously in their seats. Yet sometimes serendipity rules, and the humor thermometer rises.

On a recent night, for example, Brickwall held the finals of its amateur comedy competition. Last year's second-place winner turned out to be a heavy guy with a penchant for analogies: "Food is like porn for fat people," he announced. Then he got off an obscene simile about ferrets and private parts.

A big guy in a long coat and baseball cap gets up and riffs on his American Indian heritage: "I took a Native American history class. I was the only Native American in it," he deadpans. "I got an F."

His name is Vaughan Eagle Bear. He wins first prize and the chance to come back next week for the real money.

A clear crowd favorite, last year's amateur winner, is B.J. Johnson of Coeur d'Alene. Owner and emcee Chris Warren repeatedly plugs Johnson as a success story, the guy who started out doing open mikes and look at him now, he's doing the standup circuit. Johnson says he spends time in some of that circuit's hellholes: Great Falls, Helena, Moscow. He pokes fun at Idahoans always talking about their "rigs": "guy drives up in a '72 Pinto, that's his rig." Johnson, a black man in a white man's town, gets mileage out of racial tensions: "I'm not mad at y'all," he explains to his entirely white audience, "I'm mad at the Indians for losing to y'all." But most of his routine on consecutive weekends centers on extra-large female breasts, male revulsion over childbirth and being homosexual as the most laughable curse of all.

Johnson's comedy is hit and miss, but then he's just starting out on the pro comic circuit. He opened the following Saturday night for a real live professional, and here he is out of San Francisco, give it up now for Mike Moto.

Being in a Brickwall audience, it strikes me, is like being at a pep rally for your high school football team, and you don't really much care whether they win or lose, and the coach is kind of a jerk, but you know that you're supposed to whoop and holler, so you do. Only here, years later, I'm not 16 anymore. When the star of our comedy team steps up there onstage, our cheers aren't exactly heartfelt.

Moto is a schlub of a guy, but still holes-in-his-jeans, messy-hair likeable. He's dealing, for starters, from the ethnic-joke deck. "My mom is Japanese, my dad is Yugoslavian," he explains. "I'm a Japoslavian." Some predictable self-ridicule follows, then more ethnic humor: "I have a Mexican-Alaskan friend. His name is Nanook Rodriguez. And I have a Vietnamese-Puerto Rican friend," Moto continues. "His name is Manuel Hung. It's pretty funny. He'll answer the phone and say, '[Chinese accent] Hello, I am Hung.' Freaks out the telemarketers."

For me, though, the evening peaked with one of Moto's one-liners: "I had sex with a woman optometrist. She kept asking, 'Do you like it like this... or like this?' I said, 'I don't know. Can I see No. 1 again?'"

We'd all like to see more of No. 1. At Spokane's professional comedy club, the top-rated humor keeps the crowd convivial and the spirits (of both kinds) flowing. As for all those No. 2 jokes -- cracks about runners-up coming in No. 2 in life, potty humor about going No. 2 -- well, some should do standup, and for the rest of us, there are seats.

Northwest Legends @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Sept. 2
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.