Wannabes hone funny bones at NE Comedy Cabaret

PHOTO: MIKE CIOSEK Ray Harrington helps comedian Melissa Bernard hone her craft.
PHOTO: MIKE CIOSEK Ray Harrington helps comedian Melissa Bernard hone her craft.
Posted: March 18, 2014

DURING HER early-'90s student days, Melissa Bernard did open-mic nights at the Comedy Cabaret, on Chestnut Street near 2nd, then schmoozed with her fellow stand-ups over postmortem coffee at Nick's Roast Beef.

"I would do awful sets that I have no recollection of, just so I could drink Nick's bad coffee afterwards and tell funny stories with other comics," Bernard said.

"After a while, I understood that I wasn't really into stand-up, except for the exhilaration of knowing other comics."

Bernard spent the next 20 years doing improv and theatrical comedy in Wilmington, getting married, raising a family, getting divorced, and falling in and out of love with another woman.

Last May, she shoehorned her roller-coaster life into five rapid-fire minutes at the city's open-mic mecca for aspiring comics - the Comedy Cabaret at the Ramada Northeast, on Roosevelt Boulevard near Comly Road.

Ray Harrington, a friend and fellow comic who worked in that Comedy Cabaret for years, mentored Bernard, videotaped her, dissected each laugh and failed joke like an Eagles coach dissecting game film, and taught her to work an audience as a fly fisherman works a trout.

"I will go off the stage and sit on laps and go through women's purses," Bernard said. "Stand-up is the best five-minute love affair I continue to have. And sometimes, I get dumped."

Harrington taught her survival skills. "You need to get on stage and see what it's like when people don't laugh," he said. "You need to go up there and be horrible and not let that break your heart."

When disaster strikes a newbie at Comedy Cabaret's Wednesday open-mic nights, fellow comics rush to the rescue, Harrington said.

"Someone will take you under their wing and say, 'You weren't funny but I see what you were trying for,' and help you get better."

Recently, Bernard ventured out of her Comedy Cabaret cocoon for the first time, opening for Sudsy, a Philly comic with an edgy, laugh-out-loud barfly routine, at the Shamrock Pub, on 2nd Street near Reed.

She used her hard-won Comedy Cabaret chops to win over the neighborhood crowd with 10 minutes on her South Philly student days, jettisoning her husband for a wife and getting sober after battling booze.

"Look at you!" she oozed while schmoozing with a big-bosomed woman at the bar. "Tattoos right on top of your breasts! Thank God you wore that low-cut top! I never would have noticed them!"

Like Sudsy, she cozied up to customers and met them at the laugh lines.

Now, it's back to Comedy Cabaret in Northeast Philly to hone her next 10 minutes.

On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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