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Unrehearsed

Mike Venaman, a 21-year comedy vet, tests his material live onstage.

Mike Veneman was a 28-year-old Ph.D. student the first time he walked onstage to tell jokes. The comedy club Hilarity’s had recently opened in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. After attending consistently for weeks, his friends talked him into volunteering at an open mike night. When the stage lights went up, Veneman found himself alone in the spotlight. Blinded. Terrified. Unprepared.

He tanked, almost completely.

It was the last time Venaman walked onstage to tell jokes. But that “almost” – one joke – is the reason that, 21 years later, he is still stepping into the solitude of the stage lights. Venaman doesn’t remember the joke he told that got a laugh. He remembers the laugh.

“It was so intoxicating,” he explained. “I just went back and back and back. And in five months I’d quit my Ph.D. program.”

Veneman’s addiction to laughter derailed his ambitions to become a professor of sports psychology. He dropped out of Kent State University to work full-time at getting his fix. He remembers the mid-1980’s as the “golden age” of stand-up comedians, when comedy clubs were desperate for even the most lukewarm of bodies and it was easy to get work every night. He began as an M.C., introducing the talent and trying out his material in ten-minute bursts: in his case, a monologue about skiing. Once he’d developed about 30 minutes of solid material, Veneman jumped to the next level, featuring before the main act. In three years, he was headlining.

On Feb. 2 and 3,Venaman will be appearing at Zig’s Bistro on Duke Street. And 18 years after his first headlining gig, it’s still about getting that laugh.

“It’s like the second-best feeling you ever have, if you do it right. And if you do the other wrong, this may be the first. It’s just the power you have when you’re onstage and you’re in control of 200 people who are hanging on everything you’re saying.”

“The pressure’s incredible. And the relief is incredible when you get the laugh.”

VENEMAN RECALLS making four people laugh in Murfreesboro, Tenn. and making 4,000 laugh before a Kenny G concert (“Getting that laughter from way back and having it roll up on stage”). He recalls when, in the middle of a monologue about the fairer sex, a woman in the front row vomited on the stage and passed out.

“I do love women but one of my requirements is they’re able to hold their food in,” he responded.

Veneman writes jokes people relate to. “I only talk about really three things: my family, women in general and my wife specifically.” He keeps it clean (though “if you have a rough one-nighter, you can take it into the gutter if you have to”) and keeps the punch lines rolling. “The biggest mistake most comedians make is they talk to much.”

“[I admire] guys that are precision: after seven words it’s just punch line, punch line, punch line. I’ve always been into that really tight, sleek delivery.”

Veneman carefully plans the flow of his 50-minute shows. “The old rule is you tell your second funniest joke first and your funniest joke last.” But the veteran comic pays particular attention to the period ten or fifteen minutes before the finale, when disaster is most likely to strike. As the waitresses deploy across the room to present the checks, a third of the audience will be distracted at any given moment as they count money and calculate tips. Laughter dissipates. Momentum it took a comedian 40 minutes to earn can drop more abruptly than a nasty curveball. Anticipating this, Veneman picks up the tempo, snapping out punch lines to keep the chain of laughs intact until the distraction ends. “There’s a lot of different ways to do stand up, but for me it’s a flow.”

AS HIS CAREER evolves, Venaman has found work on television as a writer and performer. He talks about writing jokes for his friend Jeff Foxworthy and rattles off a long list of sitcom stars who began as comedians. Ray Romano, for instance, has become a star with no formal training but a supporting cast of veteran actors. “There’s a lot of animosity [in Hollywood] towards the comedians. Because here they come waltzing in off the road and the classical actors have to become second fiddle.”

But this resentment is misplaced. “Good comedians make it look like they just walked on stage and started talking… their craft is to make you think they’re just talking to you when there are tons of things you have to take into account. If you get up there and start rambling you get eaten alive.”

“We write our own plays,” and produce them, direct them and act them. Just not rehearse them.

‘It’s one of the hardest of all performing arts, because there’s nowhere to practice. A musician can practice in his garage. Actors rehearse plays. But for us, you have to get in front of an audience to see whether I a joke works or not.”