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Merchants of Mirth

Comedy is a rarity in Baltimore; With Magooby's relocation to Deereco Road, Timonium is becoming the region's center of humor. Seriously. York Road is hilarious.

Face it, Baltimore just ain't that funny.

The Orioles are so pathetic and the Ravens so frightening that neither team harbors much humor – unless mascots make you laugh. The re-run race for Maryland governor is beyond boring. And no one seemed tickled by state Del. Jon Cardin's use of city police to pull an engagement stunt on his fiancé.

You would think that a region steeped in violent crime would want to laugh to keep from weeping, yet the Baltimore area just seems unable to sustain a vibrant market for comedy.

Consider: there is only one stand-up comedy club in the entire city, downtown's Comedy Factory. The Baltimore Improv Group has built a loyal following, but it still has no central theater.

Enter Timonium. Yes, Timonium. Specifically Andrew Unger of Magooby's Joke House and T. Brad Hudson of Hightopps Backstage Grille.

Over Labor Day weekend, Andrew Unger will move Magooby's from its Harford Road location in Parkville to the former Timonium Dinner Theater on Deereco Road. Meanwhile, T. Brad Hudson's Sunday night show at Hightopps is on its third year of providing a reliable venue for beginner and professional comedians alike.

To accommodate a growing audience, Unger said he had to find a site out of the basement of Bowman's Restaurant on Harford Road, Magooby's home for the past three years. Its new location at 9603 Deereco Road has about 450 seats.

That would transform Magooby's into one of the largest comedy venues in the country.

"We've always had national headliners," said Unger, whose brother Marc is a comedic fixture in Maryland. "Now we have over 400 seats and can attract celebrity comedians. Of course we will still have local headliners as well."

That's one customer that Hudson could never abandon, given that his show  is one of only a few weekly places new comedians can work out their material and learn from a more experienced headliner.

Hudson said he's excited to see comedy growing in Timonium. When asked if Timonium is becoming the Baltimore region's hotbed of standup comedy, he joked, "Sure, if you consider the bed had nobody in it except me."

Hudson has hosted a weekly comedy night at the York Road bar and restaurant for three years, an impressive stretch considering such rooms are typically fly-by-night enterprises.

Hudson is one of a trio of comedic hucksters peddling laughs in the Baltimore region. There is also David Shofer, who puts on two shows each week at Singers, a Mt. Vernon tavern; and Jim Meyer, who hosts a monthly stand-up event in Hampden at the Golden West Cafe.

"There is an appetite for comedy," says Hudson, 40, of Owings Mills.

Unfortunately, the audiences can be a bit – bad joke coming! – anorexic.

So, for comedians on the rise, Hudson's room is a much-needed venue.

Calling it a "room," however, is generous. The space reserved for Hudson's "Drink til we're Funny" show is sandwiched between two competing distractions: an outdoor deck featuring a live band and an indoor bar booming with boozy banter and occasional cheer from sports fans. 

Yet Hudson produces a reliable roster of performers – amateurs and veterans alike – willing to brave the elements to put on that rarest of finds in any city: a free comedy show. His headliners are paid, thanks to an establishment that clearly values a consistent attraction on slow Sunday nights. But opening acts mostly work for stage time.

Recently, Hudson snagged a rising star: Rob Cantrell, a Brooklyn comedian who has appeared on national television and was a finalist on NBC's Last Comic Standing.

Cantrell said comedians need rooms like Hightopps to learn how to withstand tough audiences intent on not laughing. He agreed to appear at Hudson's show because he was visiting his family in Washington. (His reference to being a Redskins fan got one of his biggest reactions. Not laughs. Just resounding boos.)

But he won the crowd in only the way a confident, fearless comedian can.

"I like to do random one night shows. It helps you stay sharp to do rougher venues. It's more organic," Cantrell said. "This is a hard room and I've been doing comedy for 10 years."

Trying to win a crowd over is an experience that enhances a stand-up comedian's skills, Cantrell said.

"This makes you great – people not paying attention," he said. "It makes you a better comedian."

Dorian Gray, 33, of Baltimore has been performing for seven years, headlining the Comedy Factory and winning last year's Baltimore's Next Superstar Comedian Contest. If it wasn't for venues like Hightopps, young comedians wouldn't have a place to determine if their material works.

"Getting material is like panning for gold," Gray said. "Getting time in front of an audience is important."

He said the Hightopps show survives because of Hudson's hustle and his tireless promotions on social networks like Facebook.

"Brad is the best source of an open mic, period," Gray said. "This room is an anomaly because it's gone on so long. Usually the evolution of an open mic is that they start strong and then go away."

Cantrell's recent performance was preceded by Drew Landry, a 16-year-old Hunt Valley comedian who makes the rounds at open-mic nights to hone his best jokes, including one about Kevin Christ, Jesus's younger brother who can't seem to live up to his older sibling's accomplishments of, you know, saving the world and all. 

Another rising star in the Baltimore scene is Tim German, a University of Maryland student. He kicked his set off with a big laugh stemming from this line: "My girlfriend is like a unicorn: white, beautiful and imaginary." He went on to win the audience with his thoughts on how "Twilight" has ruined vampires for him.

"They used to be monsters in the closet," he said, "not who came out of the closet."

Hudson said that when he started performing stand-up comedy in 2001 there was only one venue for an open mic. The downtown bar quickly shut down.  

"A dozen other open mics have come and gone," he said.

But his is going strong. And, now, with Magooby's moving in, Timonium residents will have plenty to laugh about. Even the name is funny. Said one comedian at Hightopps recently: the name "Timonium" sounds like a "super radioactive element" that some enterprising capitalist is going to exploit.

Or maybe that exploitable element is comedy.

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated T. Brad Hudson's age. We regret the error, but Hudson tells us he did not mind. 

Andrew Stephenson August 26, 2010 at 11:34 PM
Great article...and that was a funny joke, don't be so hardon yourself.
T. Brad Hudson August 27, 2010 at 12:36 AM
Excellent piece Doug - I think you covered the scene very well. Mr. Shofer is also running rooms in Federal Hill (Illusions), Columbia (Sonoma's) and Westminster (Time Out Sports Bar) and there's Dan and Alex's Chucklestorm Show running monthly at the Ottobar. I think we are all working very well together to provide the Baltimore area with the "comedy scene" it has been lacking for years. There's definitely that appetite and we are the bag of White Castle burgers that are here to fatten that anorexic b**ch up! Thanks to Dorian and Rob for the kind words. And I especially like being 32 again.... http://www.drinktillwerefunny.com

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