The annual holiday dinner of the R.G. Bortz Construction Co. has already ambled from dinner to dessert to coffee in the small meeting room at the rear of Reading’s newly refurbished Lincoln Plaza Hotel.
Company employees and their dates shift uneasily in the straight-backed chairs that circle a dozen round tables. They cast sidelong glances at one another. Men more comfortable in flannel and jeans fidget in the choking collars of the dress shirts that bunch beneath their corduroy blazers.
Conversation is strained and halting. A few people nervously clear their throats. Could they leave? No, not yet. Some of the men step into the hallway to get another beer at the bar - the cash bar!
“Uh-oh,” says Big Daddy Graham.
He has just arrived at the hotel, but is still several minutes early for his 8:30 gig at the Bortz company party. Graham opens the door to the meeting room and leans in for a quick look.
“Those people have been finished with dinner for too long. The timing is way off. And I mean waaay off,” Graham says. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
Women sitting with their arms crossed and their heads tilted down sight their escorts through lowered brows like annoyed hunters. How much longer? The room is silent.
Graham takes a breath and steps inside. Every eye flicks his way.
The comedian. The one they’ve been waiting for. The one who will make them laugh.
The lights are too bright, the sound system a little boomy. Stray classical music leaks in from the hotel’s corridors.
Make us laugh.
Graham grabs the microphone, breaks into a wide smile and goes to work.
Thanks very much for having me here to be part of your evening. My name is Big Daddy Graham and we’re going to have some fun tonight. That’s going to be a little tough for me because I’m working on about day nine of a really bad cold. And did you ever notice when you’re feeling a little under the weather how tiny little things that don’t normally bother you will really get under your skin? Here’s what I want you to do ...
It is the ultimate dare, the undefeated quasher of classroom rebellion and boardroom insurrection:
“If you’ve got something funny to say, perhaps you’d like to stand up and share it with all of us?”
Yes, stand up and make us laugh.
Tell a little story, offer up a joke, entrance us with a witticism.
There are men and women who can stand up and create laughter for a living, some better than others — at both the laughter and the living.
Theirs is entertainment without the illusion allowed actors or the obvious gifts possessed by a singer, dancer or musician. Someone, alone, naked before us with just a microphone for a sword and a rehearsed swatch of material for armor.
“Stand-up comedy is the boxing of the entertainment world,” Big Daddy Graham says. “You’re out there by yourself and if you mess up, you get hammered. And there’s always a segment of the audience that wants you to get hammered.”
Is this any life for a nice boy named Ed Gudonis, West Catholic High School Class of ‘71, a son of the teeming Southwest Philly rowhouses that grew like stunted brown hedges in the shadow of the old General Electric factory? Working smoky comedy clubs and private parties, sweating rivers to make it funny? Blending traditional stand-up comedy with satiric songs in a high-energy shake, rattle and rim shot?
Is this any life?
“I gotta tell you,” he says of the life in question. “I love it.”
Graham, 45, borrowed his stage name from Graham Chapman of Monty Python, the English comedy troupe, and kept the nickname — “Big Daddy” — bestowed on him on the playground when he was a teenager.
He’ll probably never headline in Vegas. But Graham has parlayed a quick wit, a piston-like work ethic and a penchant for entertaining into an actual career, staying afloat and even prospering despite the rise and fall of the comedy business in Philadelphia and across the country.
“People see comics on TV and they think, ‘I can do that.’ But the reality is that it’s incredibly difficult and it takes a very long time to learn,” says Andy Scarpati, founder and operator of the local Comedy Cabaret clubs.
Graham’s persona — on stage and off — is that of a Philadelphia blue-collar Everyman. His greatest gift is the ability to win an audience’s friendship.
And that is why, nearly three-quarters of an hour after beginning his resuscitation of the R.G. Bortz Construction Co. annual holiday dinner — after leading the audience through the trials posed by marriage, jobs, drinking, athletes who invoke the name of God, aging, beach-tag patrols and the idiots behind the counter at McDonald’s — people are applauding loudly and cheering as Big Daddy Graham thanks them all and bids them good night.
Then, he is gone before the first guest, back in the car and pointed east toward his home in Mullica Hill, N.J., and his wife and two daughters. He stops only long enough to buy a cupcake at a convenience store on the edge of Reading.
“I will do anything,” he says, searching to define his particular talent, “anything at all, for a laugh.”
Fifteen years ago, comedy was king in the entertainment business, and there were plenty of vantage points from which to watch the royal procession pass. At the height of the club boom, Scarpati operated 10 of the ubiquitous Comedy Cabarets.
“It was incredible in the ‘80s,” Scarpati says. “You’d pick up the paper at the peak of it and see there were 25 places to see comedy that weekend. If each of those places used three comedians, that means 75 comics were working just in the Philadelphia area. Anybody that could hold a microphone in his hand was working.”
The momentum had begun to build in the late 1970s, in the Stone Age before people owned VCRs and could stay home to watch recent movies in their underwear. It picked up steam when the advent of the AIDS epidemic lessened the appeal of the nightclub scene. And it crested long before millions of Americans began to click away on the Internet, searching for nude pictures of Ally McBeal.
“You could see comedy six nights a week,” says David Stein, who produces comedy shows, books comics for private functions, and acts as a stand-up master of ceremonies at his own club, the Reading Comedy Outlet. “There were 1,500 clubs across the country. Corner bars were bringing comics in. ... You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing someone standing in front of a brick wall.”
The business went up, but, inexorably, it came back to earth. Maybe in 20 years there will still be a Starbucks on every corner selling $4 cups of coffee. But the lesson of the comedy club boom is that you shouldn’t bet on it.
“A lot of comedians didn’t deserve to be up there. The lesser clubs with lesser talents went out of business,” says Scarpati, who has five remaining Comedy Cabarets.
“There wasn’t enough talent to fill all the slots,” Stein says. “Somebody would send a tape and get seven minutes on Carlin’s Comedy Hour, and people would say, ‘Let’s go see him live.’ And then they’d say, ‘I just paid 10 bucks to see that?’ And they stopped coming.”
Work dried up for comedians, but not enough to wither a tough weed who had risen through the cracks of Philadelphia’s pavement. Big Daddy Graham had worked too hard and come too far to quit, even though his act was occasionally like a Fotomat nightmare: overexposed and underdeveloped.
Plus, what the hell else would he do?
“I grew up next to the General Electric plant, and everybody in my neighborhood either worked at GE or at the Navy Yard,” Graham says. “I worked at the Navy Yard for a while. I was one of the only guys in my neighborhood who ever quit the Navy Yard.
“When I was in fifth grade, I sold newspapers outside the GE factory to the guys who worked there. I’d make up headlines and sing them out: Phillies die in plane crash. Read all about it. The old guys loved me. They used to tip me all the time.”
He was funny around girls in school, but no more than a lot of guys. He grew up with more of a passion for rock and roll than comedy. In his house, Ed wasn’t even the funniest Gudonis. That was his older brother, Tony, whom he still regards as his biggest influence.
After an undistinguished four years at West Catholic, Ed “Big Daddy” Gudonis hung out, took odd jobs, fell in with various crowds and generally wasted a few years.
Musical ambition propelled him to start a rock band, “Dewey St.,” named for his Southwest Philly street. It inspired him to knock out a garage wall of the rowhouse he was renting so the band would have more room to rehearse. He didn’t bother telling the owner.
Big Daddy was the drummer, although he always wanted to be the guy out front singing. The band went nowhere, and the members drifted away, but the big kid in the back had another idea.
He constructed an act of funny songs that he could perform with a piano player. They worked at any rock club that would let them on stage.
The newly christened Big Daddy Graham was also finding work as an actor, small roles in local productions. He was hired through a federal grant administered by the Society Hill Playhouse to put on shows in prisons, nursing homes and playgrounds.
“That’s when I found out I could make strangers laugh,” Graham says. “That’s the whole key. I wasn’t like a Shakespearean actor or anything, but I always had balls. These were like vaudeville revues, and sometimes you performed literally in the street. When that program got cut, I realized I wanted to keep performing. I decided that I really wanted to pursue the comedy music. People wouldn’t care that I couldn’t sing if they laughed, and I could still be out front.”
His early shows were experimental in nature, a “Sinatra-on-acid cabaret,” as he puts it. Graham would, for instance, play the drum solo to “Ina-gadda-da-vida” on his chest — for 15 minutes.
“People were laughing more at me than with me,” he says. “I don’t know where I got the energy. I just wanted to be in show business, I guess.”
He was getting small reviews in the newspapers, just mentions really, but the songs and the show improved quickly. One night a man from the Comedy Factory Outlet came into the Khyber Pass Pub in Old City and said: “Why don’t you do this in my comedy club?”
“That was like the door opening. Half of my gig at rock clubs was getting people to figure out what I was doing,” Graham says. “I never wanted to be a comic. I wanted to be a rock star. But instead of having to hit people over the head with a mallet, they would sit and listen. I was lucky the comedy club explosion happened when I was right there.”
And off he went. Soon, he was working regularly. Some of his songs were being recorded. Eventually, the zany, then-top-rated WMMR Morning Zoo discovered his music.
Ed “Big Daddy” Graham was on the way.
“There’s this quote by the actor Michael Caine that I live by,” says Graham, whose income these days tops $100,000. “He was working class, and one of the first actors who didn’t drop his cockney accent. Caine once said that he figured if he could make as much money acting as he did at the factory, then he was way ahead of the game. That was his only goal.
“And that’s been pretty close to my goal for half my life. I should have loftier ambitions, I guess, but if I stopped performing, what would I be? I’m scared to death of that.”
Particularly now that the Navy Yard is closed and half the GE plant is shuttered.
The neon sign from Wagner’s Bakery in Southwest Philly is in Big Daddy Graham’s basement den. When the bakery closed, he bought the sign as a memento of his old neighborhood street corner.
On the den wall are pictures from different shows, quick snapshots from a career. Big Daddy with Phyllis Diller. Big Daddy with Hall & Oates. Big Daddy with this comic and that musician.
Graham points these things out, talks about how far he’s come and says, without actually saying it, I can’t believe I’m pulling this off.
“I’m kind of pedestrian, my stand-up stuff,” he admits. “I can really be funny sometimes, but even when I’m at my best, I never think I’m brilliant or offering anything out of the ordinary. I have a very high energy level and I’m professional, but I never felt like I was unique. And I think I was smart enough to realize it.
“I decided a long time ago that I just wanted people to have a real good time. I’m not up there to upset people. That’s not what I do. I don’t have an angry side. There’s jokes I do that have some thought in them, that I’m proud of.
“But I’ve seen comics who are hell-bent on proving their material is brilliant — and it might be — but that ‘proving it’ annoys me. Just be funny. If it ain’t funny, I don’t care if it’s got thought. It better end up with a laugh.”
Graham’s popularity took off in Philadelphia in the late-1980s when WMMR began to play his rock parodies and original spoofs. There was “Nuns!” (Where do they come from?/ Where do they go?/ What are their real names?/ I bet you don’t know) and “Only Baloney” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” And the classics: “Wake Up, I’m Horny” (Please don’t freak/ because you have to sleep/ I’ll respect you/ in the morning) and the “Action News Theme” (SEPTA’s going out on strike again/ There’s a crash on 95/ There’s a fire down in Kensington/ Jeez, that’s a real surprise).
It was only for laughs, and sometimes cheap ones, but Graham camped up the performances until you couldn’t help yourself. He lengthened the stage patter between songs until he had developed full-fledged stand-up routines that could survive in settings where the music wouldn’t work.
He took jobs everywhere during the boom, driving from Canada to Florida, appearing in all sorts of venues. He was hired to work a college cafeteria once, sitting on a stool by the cash register to entertain the students as they filed by with their veal patties and Jell-O.
Along the way, Graham honed his craft. He learned how to handle hecklers. That audiences wouldn’t laugh at sexual humor if older people were sitting near the stage — unless he got the geezers laughing first. He figured out how to “punch” a joke by barking certain words, and which jokes should follow others. He learned that all of life is a routine if you pay attention.
“You get people to like you, not your act,” says Stein, who frequently books Graham. “That’s 50 percent of the battle. There’s nobody that doesn’t like Big Daddy when he’s on stage. His personality takes his regular stand-up to the point where it’s sellable.” And, he adds, “the music is tremendous.”
Graham has sold more than 100,000 records, tapes and CDs over the years — mostly at the end of live shows. Former WMMR host John DeBella says Graham will someday be the first artist to go platinum with a recording after personally selling every copy himself.
“It was a lot of work and good money, but I oversaturated myself badly,” Graham says. “I got to around 1992 or 1993 and I was almost washed up. There was no reason to be excited if you heard, `Oh, Big Daddy Graham’s in town.’ I was always in town. It got real bad.”
It became a scuffle to sell his shows, and each comedy club closing was another slamming door. Graham was eventually rescued by the same medium that helped launch him.
“Radio saved me,” he says.
Graham was hired by WGMP 1210-AM as a sports talk-show host during that station’s flirtation with the format. The steady work gave Graham breathing room so he could cut down on his comedy shows and become more selective.
That format died, but he had established himself as an on-air jock talker and was hired by WIP, the big dog of local sports radio, first on weekends and as a fill-in. Now he’s the regular overnight host, working a 2 to 6 a.m. shift five nights a week.
Along with providing an income cushion, the radio gigs have expanded his audience. He has become something of a crossover celebrity.
“He’s the neighborhood guy. He’s the guy at the bar who makes you laugh,” says Don Weir, a young local comic who has opened for Graham. “He’s not breaking new ground, but he doesn’t need to. I’ve seen him in front of a crowd that made no noise for me at all. For the first 15 minutes, it’s the same for him. But he wears them down. It’s the energy. And he lets people just sit back and be entertained.”
The smoke is rising through the stage lights at the Comedy Cabaret Northeast. Graham is working the room like a machine gun, following one set of jokes, observations and mugging with another, and another, and another.
The room is packed with 150 people for the first of two shows on a cold January night. The audience is laughing, crying, screaming, hooting, following every cue and then letting loose with more booming bursts of laughter.
There are real differences between men and women. What’s that book, `Women are From Philly, Men are From Kensington’? It’s true. For one thing, men never grow up. You’ll see guys 50, 55 years old, playing softball, football, big old beer bellies flopping around. When was the last time you saw a group of women, 50, 55 years old, out in front of the house jumping rope together?
There is a reason they have all come to this room to laugh with Big Daddy Graham, even if it would take a team of psychologists to tell you exactly what it is.
“Outside of love, there is nothing more bonding than humor. Nothing,” says Cherie Kerr, a former stand-up who now teaches executives how to cut up through her company, ExecuProv. “And I don’t think there’s a bigger high than getting an audience to laugh at something you say.”
For Scarpati, whose club was sold out twice on this night by Graham, it’s nothing short of magical.
“People come out as individuals and sit in a room with strangers,” he says, “but when you have a really gifted comedian, sometimes something special happens. All these strangers become one, all laughing at the same thing. To me, it’s the idea of sharing humanity with other people, especially when it’s about us.”
With Graham, it is all about us. He doesn’t touch political humor, because it bores him - “It’s too predictable. To the comic, the guy in office always stinks.”
But when he jokes about sex, about smoking pot, about the fight over putting the toilet seat back down, he connects with the room.
On this night, it is all working. He finishes the stand-up, revs up the music and wheels the screaming audience through “Wake Up, I’m Horny,” heading for the big finish and the special deal on CDs and T-shirts.
He gets a standing ovation.
But the night is far from over. In a few minutes, 150 people file in for the second show.
Make us laugh.
Big Daddy Graham, as familiar as the guy on the next bar stool, runs to the stage again, picks up the microphone and goes back to work.
Thank you very much. You all sound like you’re in a good mood and I’m glad because I feel like s-. Not making this up. I stopped smoking two weeks ago. Clap your hands if you ever quit smoking. And I’ve been miserable and I’m finding that little things that normally don’t bother me very much are really bothering me. I’m going to rattle off some of these little things. And here’s what I want you to do ...