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.