“MAN,” SAYS THE FUNNY GUY with the bushy beard and black-framed glasses. “This is going to be rough.”
Doogie Horner is a comedian, and he isn’t encouraged by what he sees inside Noche, a Center City bar filled with binge-drinking 20-somethings on this cold Tuesday night in December. The room is jet-engine loud — not the ideal setting for tonight’s stand-up gig. None of the comics are getting paid. Horner thinks the guy who booked the show is a dentist. Seriously.
The emcee steps onto a small stage. “Hey, everybody,” he says, “the comedy show starts in 15 minutes.”
A group of girls stare at each other like someone just told them the Internet died, like, for good.
“Stop,” says a blonde.
“Oh,” says a brunette. “My. God. There’s a comedy show.”
This, apparently, is what success looks like. Horner has told jokes in front of thousands, on national television as an “America’s Got Talent” contestant. He was named “Philly’s Phunniest” comic at Helium, the city’s premiere comedy club. You’d think he’d be headlining in New York or writing for Comedy Central. Instead, he’s just hoping to survive his five-minute set at 19th and Chestnut.
A few people recognize him from TV. The 30-year-old is hard to forget, with the lumberjack facial hair, the hipster specs and the voice, so nasal — and when he’s nervous, so high-pitched — that you might think it’s a put-on. His material only adds to the notion that he’s playing a character. Instead of the conversational style most comics use these days, Horner is a joke man. His construction is old-school: deadpan delivery, short set-ups, and punch lines that don’t always detonate immediately, like comedy grenades. Horner looks out at the crowd and pulls the pin.
“The thing I miss most about my childhood is how the hood would cover the child’s eyes, and also muffle the child’s cries for help.”
Laughs ripple out across the crowd.
“At this time of year, I think it’s important to respect the holidays and honor the Christmas spirit. I celebrate Christmas in the traditional, biblical fashion by impregnating a virgin.”
The girls haven’t left yet. One of them looks appalled.
“Was that really so shocking?” Horner asks. “Are you a virgin?”
Now they’re all cracking up. The room is officially on his side.
IN AN AGE WHEN fame-seeking has itself become a career, Horner’s accomplishments have nothing to do with self-promotion or a childhood dream of becoming a star. He already had a sweet gig as a senior designer for Quirk Books, with credits including the mega-selling Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and the cult hit Penis Pokey. That he’s become the best-known young comedian in Philadelphia is something he never set out to achieve. “Everything that’s happened in my life,” he says, “I just let it happen.”
Growing up in the Bethlehem suburb of Danielsville, Horner was like a strange artifact from a different era. He preferred Miles Davis to ‘80s pop music and loved the old-time comedy of WC Fields, the Marx brothers and Bob Hope. He was also smart enough to skip a grade. In short, he was a bully’s dream come true, but with a sharp tongue. “I would get into a lot of fights because people would say something to me and I’d mouth off to them,” he says. “And they’d hit me.”
After graduating from the Tyler School of Art, Horner was inspired to try stand-up after seeing veteran comic the Legendary Wid at the Fringe Cabaret. He signed up for Helium’s open mic night. “Most of my set was about optimists,” Horner recounts. “I said, ‘Are there any optimists in the audience? My jokes are going to disappoint you the most.’”
Horner’s wife, Jen, says watching him on stage was a revelation for her and their friends. “Everyone was amazed. It was like, ‘This is perfect for him.’ It made sense.”
Horner immersed himself in a culture that had begun to rise from ashes of the ‘80s comedy boom. Back then, stand-up clubs were the focal point of Center City nightlife: Comedy Works, Going Bananas, Comedy Factory Outlet, the Jailhouse and Grandma Minnie’s, where Seinfeld earned his first paycheck for telling jokes. “The clubs were hot and heavy for 10 years,” says the Wid, a master of puns and props and one of the few from the glory days still working. “Everybody came through,” he says, including Eddie Murphy, Jay Leno and Ray Romano.
By the early ‘90s, Philadelphia had reached its saturation point for yuks. “Too many clubs, not enough funny comedians,” says Joe Conklin, who was a fixture in the scene long before he became WIP’s resident joke man. Then came the rise of cable television. “You could see the same people on TV for free,” says the Wid.
In the lean years that followed, the only survivors were the suburban Comedy Cabarets, which dropped off from 10 locations to three today, and the Laff House on South Street. It wasn’t until Helium opened on Sansom Street in 2005 that the flatlined scene began to twitch. Marc Grossman was trading natural gas and electric futures for Susquehanna International Group in Bala Cynwyd, when he saw an opportunity downtown to open an “A” room — stand-up jargon for a club that brings in national talent. He recruited fellow SIG employees as his investors to provide a budget big enough to pay marquee acts, something the Cabarets and Laff House couldn’t afford to do regularly, if at all. When Helium opened its doors, it was instantly the 800-pound gorilla of the local comedy circuit.
But even if you’re a local comic who’s funny enough to make it into Helium’s rotation, you won’t get more than a few weeks’ worth of shows in a year. So the new generation of stand-ups grinds it out at small DIY productions that range from regular events, like “Center City Comedy” at the Raven Lounge and Horner’s “Ministry of Secret Jokes” at Fergie’s Pub, to variety shows at Connie’s Ric-Rac in the Italian Market, where stand-ups and sketch groups come together before a strange audience of comedy aficionados, hecklers and stoned South Philly kids. These homegrown comics — a band of buddies that includes Horner, Chip Chantry and Steve Gerben — want to make it big, but are doing it their own way.
Two weeks before the Noche show, Horner is in the lineup for his friend Chan-try’s winkingly titled “One Man Show” at the Shubin Theater, a 40-seater in Queen Village that’s filled mostly with other comics. By day, the 33-year-old Chantry teaches fourth grade at a suburban school. Unlike the stereotype of the angry, self-loathing stand-up, he’s upbeat and sociable. Gerben, on the other hand, is every bit the angst-ridden comic. It doesn’t take him long, onstage or off, to work himself into an incredulous lather. At the “One Man Show,” Gerben kills with a riff about male relatives mocking him for not liking sports. “They say, ‘Why don’t you go watch Lifetime with the women?’ It’s the same thing! It’s bitches getting emotional about something that doesn’t matter! I love it when Eagles fans say they hate Giants fans. Why? That’s just you if you were born in a different city!”
“I used to do a lot of really weird shows,” Horner says. “Like at hoagie shops. I had this office hire me to do stand-up at their holiday party. It was an engineering firm in Jersey somewhere. Half of them were Greek, and the other half were Swiss. They set up a stage and a mic, and they had glitter streamers hanging down. They loved sexual harassment jokes. Everybody looked over at this one lady, and she was hot. You could tell she probably got sexually harassed every day by the Greeks. Then I went back to my old material, and they didn’t laugh.”
THE LAST PLACE you’d expect to see Horner would be on “America’s Got Talent,” sort of a “Star Search” meets “American Idol,” with a judging panel of cranky Brit Piers Morgan, bitchy Brit Sharon Osbourne, and Canadian germophobe Howie Mandel. Comics on the show often get booed off the stage. Horner had never seen AGT, but last winter, Helium told their top guys they could get an audition without waiting in line. It was another opportunity Horner didn’t seek out but was smart enough to not pass up.
After making it through three auditions, an hour-long interview and a background check, Horner made it onto the show where he ended up in the worst possible position — the last act of the night. What happened next became a piece of reality TV history. Dressed in a gray suit and black tie, Horner took the long walk to the mic and opened with his line about optimists. No laughs. He plowed ahead.
“I don’t trust pregnant people,” he said. “I feel like they’re hiding something.”
The boos began raining down in waves, like arrows from medieval archers storming a castle. Morgan buzzed him, the AGT equivalent of getting gonged. Horner had to shout to be heard over the jeers.
“My friend asked me, ‘If you could be any animal, what animal would you choose to be,’ and I said, ‘An eagle.’ He said, ‘So you could fly?’ I said, ‘No, so I could finally have sex with eagles.’”
Mandel loved that one, but the crowd of 3,000 was on its feet, waving downturned thumbs, pinching their noses and screaming, “Buzz him!” It was as if all the abuse he endured in school had come boomeranging back, only amplified, for a national television audience. Horner ditched his material and let his smart mouth take over.
“You are terrible people!” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you? I’m going to hunt you down. I want a list of all your names!”
Horner started pacing the stage and pointing to people in the audience. “That’s an ugly shirt! Your wife has a funny hairdo! You got a problem, buddy? I like you! I hate you! You suck! You’re cool! I’m gonna lose my voice in three seconds!“
By the end of his manic rant, the crowd was still standing, but cheering. Mandel and Osbourne, grinning ear to ear, never buzzed him. “You are really funny,” Mandel said. “I think this is a moment people will talk about, how they turned on you and you turned it right back on them.”
Horner moved on to the next round, but eventually lost to Murray the Magician in Los Angeles. The judges brought him back for the “wild card” round, and he lost again. (“I do want America to like me,” he said before being voted off for the final time. “But I don’t want to force myself on America. Like, ‘Hey America, do you want to hang out sometime? No pressure.’ If America doesn’t like me, I respect their wishes.”)
Then a funny thing happened when Horner returned home. Nothing really changed. “I got thousands of e-mails and Facebook requests,” he says. “But nothing legitimate, like ‘Here’s a bag of money and a sitcom.’” Horner’s exaggerating, of course — the AGT exposure surely didn’t hurt his chances in the Philly’s Phunniest competition that followed. His hot streak continued in the fall when Harper published his book, Everything Explained Through Flowcharts — an exploration of doomsday scenarios, the afterlife and pro-wrestling finishing moves that’s both cerebral and silly — which earned shout-outs from the New Yorker and Wired.
Yet he’s still living in Fishtown, designing for Quirk and looking for mics at night.
“I finally stopped accepting people on Facebook. You get these strangers like, ‘How’s it goin’?’ ‘Holidays coming up!’ There’s one guy that always recommends I like things. ‘Gary recommends you like the Doors.’ It’s like, I’ve heard of the Doors, Gary.”
AFTER ESCAPING FROM the December gig at Noche with more applause than expected, Horner is doing just as well at the Barbary, a small club usually populated by hipsters, until the impregnate-a-virgin joke lands with a thud. “It’s you,” he tells the audience. “It’s not the joke. That’s the stance I’m taking.” That gets a laugh.
Horner sticks around for a few other acts and slips out the back door after a lanky kid gets up and reads non sequiturs off a clipboard. Outside the bar, Horner says that’s anti-comedy, something he’s not into. “Acting like you’re nervous, not really telling jokes. It’s not real,” he says. “There’s no risk involved, no expectations. If you’re not funny, oh well. You weren’t telling jokes, right? It’s different when you’re up there trying to be funny and the audience doesn’t respond.”
To Horner, comedy is art, just like the book covers he designs. Still, he and his friends admit they want to do it full-time — something that’s not possible here unless you hit the road every week or you have a radio gig like Conklin or Big Daddy Graham. For guys like Chantry who are on the verge, taking the next step is a struggle. He’d love to write for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Then there’s Gerben, who is selling his house in Havertown to head north, and could help put his hometown on the national comedy map. “Headliners like Joe DeRosa and Kevin- Hart are known as Philly guys, but since Helium opened, no one’s gone [from Philly] to New York and made it,” Gerben says, pointing to the Boston circuit that’s produced Louis C.K., Dane Cook and Patrice O’Neal. “Scenes are defined by that.”
Horner falls somewhere in between. He has an agent friend who sent “packets” to some late-night shows — a few pages of timely jokes to give them a sense of his writing. He hasn’t heard back yet. Horner admits the lack of forward progress has been frustrating. “After being on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and winning ‘Philly’s Phunniest,’ it was really hard for me to be happy, because my expectations had been raised so much. I got gigantic exposure, but it didn’t lead to any real opportunities.” But the idea of working a soul-sucking job in New York to further his comedy career at night isn’t an option. “I like my job at Quirk a lot. I could never go back to doing graphic design that I don’t believe in. I’d murder my boss. It’s not worth it.”
ASK ANYONE who’s plugged in about the funniest Philly comics, and besides Horner, one name that always comes up is Anton Shuford. He won Helium’s contest in 2009, and last year moved to Jersey City to make a living telling jokes. On a snowy Wednesday night in December, Shuford shows up for an open mic at O’Hanlon’s, an Irish pub on the outskirts of the East Village. He spent his last five bucks on admission to another mic earlier that night. Shuford doesn’t have a day job — he’s currently getting by with paychecks from out-of-town comedy gigs and winnings from playing poker, either in Atlantic City or online. A good month for Shuford is having enough money to pay his rent and buy train tickets so he can get into and around the city and hit the clubs. It’s a lifestyle he admits is not for everyone. “New York is like a crazy girl,” he says. “Every second that she’s not my ultimate fantasy, she’s my worst nightmare.”
Shuford borrows five dollars and signs up for his turn on the cramped stage. The room is dark, and there’s all of eight people in it — six of them are the performers, and one is the host. Shuford’s name is called last. The emcee asks two comics to take their coats off and stick around for his set. It’s a depressing tableau, but Shuford isn’t bothered. “At the end of the day, it’s either go back to Philly and get a job and be unhappy,” he says, “or do what I love to do.”
Christine Nangle is another native who went to New York in search of a comedy career. After graduating from Penn, she bypassed stand-up in favor of sketch and improv, and now writes for “Saturday Night Live.” Growing up in the Northeast, she didn’t see a clear path from Alcott Street to Studio 8H, but she says the scene back home has changed. “The community is growing so rapidly. I’ve seen people in Philly who are better writers or performers, but they’re content. And I see people in New York who’ve made it their lives, but they’ll never be as good as people in other places. The important thing is to figure out what ‘successful’ means to you.”
JUST BEFORE THE CALENDAR TURNS, Chantry hosts one of his semi-monthly movie nights in the screening- room of his downtown apartment complex. Horner’s here, along with Darryl Charles, an engineer for Lockheed–Martin who recently graduated from the Raven Lounge to Helium’s roster, and a handful of their stand-up pals who are about to give a really bad flick the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. With the show about to start, Horner offers everyone some candy.
“Watermelon slices, everyone,” he says. “I know you asked for these.”
No one takes him up on the offer. Horner drops the bag on the floor, waits a beat, then kicks the candy across the room to Charles, who’s the only African-American guy there.
“Of course you kick them to the black guy,” Charles says.
“It’s all about you,” Horner quips. “That’s why I wore a black coat.”
“I don’t see life in color.”
That’s what it’s like hanging with Horner and his posse of comics — the laughs keep coming. Over drinks a few nights earlier at the Khyber, Horner explained why not much came of whatever portion of his 15 minutes AGT used up last year. In a way, he also explained why the Philadelphia scene isn’t just a means to an end for everyone, and why if he’s still making art he believes in and comedy he believes in 20 years from now, he’d be fine with staying right where he is, much like his hometown idol, the Wid, who’s still making people laugh at the Laff House.
“There’s probably two reasons,” Horner said. “I didn’t try too hard to exploit that exposure. I’m not a big promoter. The second thing is, I’m also pretty happy with my life.”
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.