The Day Trip Issue: Traveling to Wilmington for Comedy
By Jonathan Scott
You’d be astonished if your doctor’s advice included “Take two evenings at a comedy club and call me in the morning.” The truth is, that prescription might not be so far-fetched. Despite the claims of alternative health practitioners that the connection between the body and the mind is a new discovery, the health benefits of humor have been known for millennia.
The Bible itself proclaims in Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” It’s reported that Queen Elizabeth I, suffering from royal depression, was regularly amused by her court jester who “cured her melancholy better than all her physicians.” And for most of the 20th century, the Reader’s Digest published a selection of jokes under a title that could have been coined by the author of Proverbs. It was called “Laughter, the Best Medicine.”
If you’re old enough to remember the late Norman Cousins, you probably don’t recall that he was once adjunct professor of medical humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California. What you might remember, though, is his book “Anatomy of an Illness.” In it, Cousins detailed his excruciating battle with reactive arthritis and how he helped cure himself by watching Marx Brothers films and reruns of TV’s “Candid Camera.”
“I made the joyous discovery,” he wrote, “that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”
It may have taken thousands of years for medicine to catch up to the sound observation of Proverbs, but modern science is revealing the often unexpected benefits of comedy. In his 1989 book, “Healthy Pleasures,” the distinguished psychologist Robert Ornstein reported a study that proved “watching a humorous videotape of Richard Pryor temporarily boosted levels of antibodies in saliva that help defend against infections like colds. The immune enhancement only lasted an hour, but those subjects who reported using humor frequently as a way of coping with life’s stresses had consistently higher baseline levels of these protective antibodies.”
“So,” he concludes, “it may be necessary to laugh often.”
Timmy Sherrill isn’t a health care practitioner, but he is co-owner of a business in Wilmington, North Carolina, that dispenses a good dose of the health benefits of comedy. Tuesday through Saturday evenings, the Dead Crow Comedy Room offers its patrons 90 minute comedy sets that are full of reasons to laugh.
Entertainers run the gamut from nervous first-timers at Open Mic nights, to the Port City’s regular comedians, to seasoned stand-up comics who are more than happy to include a gig in Wilmington in their national tours.
“I’m really a comedian,” Sherrill admits. “I originally opened a comedy club to provide myself with stage time.” The thing is, though, Sherrill rarely performs. “I enjoy hosting the shows so I can control the energy, but I try not to take advantage. I’d rather leave it to the young guys who need the exposure.”
Sherrill and his partner, Cole Craven, take running the business of their comedy club as a mission that almost resembles public service. “I realized during our first year that the club meant more to the community than I ever expected. It’s become important to the town.”
Sherrill and Craven ran their club for four years as Nutt Street Comedy in a space adjacent to their current home. Since June of 2014, the club has been operating as Dead Crow. It’s only one of several comedy clubs in Wilmington, but the only one open full time.
Thirty-six-year old Lew Morgante is one of the Port City’s best-known and best-loved comedians and a regular at Dead Crow. His career as a comic started one night while he was swapping tales in a local bar. One of Morgante’s buddies encouraged him to try his stories on stage. “I went to Open Mic night at the club for a month,” he says, “just sitting in the audience, watching. Finally I got up the nerve to try it. I always wound up performing dead last. That left a lot of time to be nervous.”
Nervous or not, it didn’t take long for Morgante’s sense of humor and natural likability to make him successful as a standup comedian. “It’s a little like being a runner. First you might feel pain, but if you keep going you finally get that natural high of good, positive energy.
“There’s nothing better than walking down the street and having somebody recognize me, roll down his car window and shout out one of my routine bits. Or when a cashier remembers something I said on stage that made her day.”
Asked where all this therapeutic humor comes from, Morgante answers with the same self-deprecation that makes him so funny on stage. “Most of my stories come from my own life, from poking fun at myself. I make everybody feel like we’re all on the same level, so I’m letting out their own inner voices. At the end of the day, we all feel like idiots but we can laugh about it.”
“I can’t say enough about the guys and girls who are our local talent pool,” says club owner Sherrill. “It’s amazing the amount of talent we have locally. Our comedy scene is unique and it’s all because of their talent.”
Native North Carolinian Paul Hooper has enough talent to have made him a national headlining standup comedian. He makes regular appearances at the Dead Crow, but his career has taken him to forty one states and ten countries, including two armed forces tours. His act has been featured in comedy festivals from Boston to Vancouver and in the prestigious HBO Comedy Festival in Las Vegas.
Asked how long he’s been interested in comedy, Hooper pauses as if he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t. “I had a friend in the fourth grade,” he says finally. “We used to kid around a lot, and he would say we would be comedians when we grew up. It planted an idea in my mind that never went away.
“The thing is, I’m actually shy and hated doing public speaking in high school. I didn’t think I would ever have the nerve to stand up in front of an audience. And I don’t really know what it was that finally pushed me to try it.
“Before my first show I felt the worst fear I ever have had in my life. I was supposed to be on stage for five minutes but only made half that long—and for some of that time I bombed. But getting even a few laughs from 300 people was exhilarating.
“By my seventh time on stage, it finally worked. It was the best thing I ever felt. ‘This is it,’ I thought. I was totally committed.”
Like Lew Morgante, Hooper gets his material from his own life. Naturally shy or not, he’s likes being truthful in his act, and that honesty plays well with the audience. “I have these bits I think are a little strange,” he says. “About small stuff like my love for Reese’s Cups but also heavier stuff like anxiety. Some people remember those lines, and they’ll come up to tell me how much that connected with them.”
After seventeen years as a comic, the thirty nine-year old has a good idea of what’s funny. He’ll get an idea and store it away in his phone to work on later. “I’ll daydream on it and see if I can come up with something that I think will really work. I can keep working on it right up to show time.”
One night an inebriated gentleman became impatient with Hooper as the comedian was struggling for the third time with a new bit. Hooper remembers, “He threw his hands up in the air and shouted, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I started laughing—a real belly laugh—because, drunk or not, the guy was right. If he hadn’t stopped me I would have kept on struggling. It was one of the best times I ever had on stage.”
So why pay to be entertained at a comedy club when you can stay home and watch the Comedy Channel in your pajamas? Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland found that people are thirty times more likely to laugh when they’re around other people than when they’re alone. “People who laugh a lot,” he speculates on WebMD, “may just have a strong connection to the people around them. That in itself might have health benefits.”
Research into the health benefits of humor is sure to continue, but Lew Morgante doesn’t need scientific evidence to convince him of the value of Wilmington’s comedy scene. “We’re all constantly being bombarded with bad news,” he says. “Everybody needs a release. A comedy club gives people a way to laugh and escape, so they can survive and get to the next day.”
It turns out that his words echo those of King Solomon who, a great number of centuries ago, wrote about the effects of being happy on longevity. “The joyfulness of a man,” he wrote in Ecclesiasticus 30:22, “prolongeth his days.”
The crowd leaving the Dead Crow Comedy Room would surely say, “Amen.”
More information on the Dead Crow Comedy Room and the comedians can be found at:
QUICK TRIPS: LOCAL COMEDY CLUBS
Good Nights Comedy Club
861 W Morgan Street, Raleigh, NC 27603
431 W Peace Street, Raleigh, NC 27603
The Comedy Zone
900 NC Music Factory Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28206
DSI Comedy Theater
462 W Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516
Dead Crow Comedy Room
265 N Front Street, Wilmington, NC 28401
The Comedy Zone Worldwide
1000 NC Music Factory Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28269