"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.”