|by ashlee voorsanger|
Dark. Absurd. Hilarious.
I'm sipping cocktails with Liz Barrett (Carolines, Laughing Skull Festival, AXS-TV Gotham Comedy Live), when the subject inevitably turns to comedy and specifically to juggernaut Frank Liotti. "Frank is one of my favorites; I could watch him everyday," she says, adding "he performs my favorite kind of comedy: dark, absurd, hilarious."
If limited to only three words to try to encapsulate Frank's powerful presence, those would certainly be a start. Frank doesn't "take the stage" so much as he chews it up, leaving it shredded for the next comic on the line up. His presence, even when simply standing there, imposing. He is a lion on stage, and the audience his prey. Liotti sizes them up, gets them right where he wants them, then unleashes his signature rapid-fire, stream of consciousness comedy assault - and they love every minute of it. Frank is one of the rare comedians, who can never be mistaken for anyone else. There is no, "Oh, yeah, I think I have seen him," because once you have seen Frank there is no going back.
We're in the back of a dive bar on the lower east side. I giddily watch as Frank takes the mic, wondering what is about to happen. I scan the room, cataloging the audience reactions: squeals, gasps, claps . . . and the occasional stare, unsure where to laugh, when to laugh, IF they should laugh. Frank is a no holds barred comedian, and will go to the deepest, darkest place - and make it funny. You are never sure where his set will go next, and he may not either. He is a master at working the room, addressing the stiff audience member, and delivering his punchlines like dodge balls hurled at you full force.
It's impossible to fathom that THIS Frank, just a few years ago, was too scared to get on stage. He landed a bartending gig at Stand Up New York, and surrounded himself with comedy. He turned down repeated offers for stage time (insert gasp from struggling comics everywhere), but managed to get brave enough to sign up for a class with Jim Mendrinos (Comedy Central, HBO, BBC). Cut to his first time on stage, a mic at the legendary Comedy Cellar. He's number 22 on the list of hopefuls, and follows an aggressively homophobic comic who had cheerfully regaled the room with what would happen to a gay man (er, not the words he used) if found on his stoop. In what is now trademark Frank style, he quickly diffused the room, making a playful yet pointed jab at the previous "comic." When asked to describe that first time on stage in three words, he offers "waitstaff was laughing," which was enough to get him hooked.
After this promising start at mics and bar shows around the city, he took a three year break from comedy, before coming back full force in late 2009. The shows got bigger, the sets longer, and then his first headlining gig at a nightclub in Washington DC. "Brutal," he remembers. "Flop sweat like I had meningitis." I ask him about his "go to" to shake off a bad show: "Taco Bell," he states, definitively. Not all was lost however, as a staff member from New York's legendary Carolines happened to be at that very show, and was able to get him spots at arguably one of the world's most famous stages. "You never know who's out there," he adds.
He finds comedic inspiration in life outside comedy, "hanging out with people who bring out my non-cerebral, funny side." Citing his best friends (both comics) and his treasured niece as those who do just that, "the better my mood, the better. When I'm miserable the notebook stays closed." As you might imagine once you have experienced Frank on stage (you can't simply "watch" Frank Liotti, you experience him with all of your senses), his writing often happens during an extemporaneous rant on stage (exactly why he records all of his sets), and then is honed and tweaked until it is a sleek missile of a joke waiting to be fired. Lest you think Frank is all "seat of his pants," there is a thoughtful stoicism just underneath that burly visceral exterior. When pressed for any "pre-show ritual," he brushes it off, "Nah. Maybe take a minute to walk away from everyone else and take a breath, look at my list, put it away, look at it, put it away, start to look at it, throw it out."
Today he's just back from a sold out show in Orlando, where he took the stage with Alec Mapa (Broadway's M. Butterfly, TV's Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Showtime's Baby Daddy). Although it was Frank's birthday, he "didn't tell the other comics because that's tacky," and he went to work doing what he does best. Turned a difficult crowd around and left them laughing at the dark absurdity of life. No Taco Bell chaser needed.