An Optician, A Limo Driver and a Dominatrix Walk Into Helium Comedy Club

Originally published in The Buffalo News
March 9, 2018
By Tim O’Shei

It was seven fifty-something p.m. This isn’t a place, or at least an evening, where people are binding themselves to a clock, so nobody noted the exact time. But it was nearly 8 p.m., which meant Nicholas Ranic was late when he ran through the door of Helium Comedy Club.

“Sorry, guys!” he mouthed to no one in particular.

Ranic was one of eight members of a Comedy 101 class held over the previous six weeks at Helium. Tonight was their graduation show, and his classmates were already here: The firefighter who lives with five women. The optician who’s dreamed of doing comedy for 30 years. A retiree who hit the comedy clubs decades ago as a young man in New York but left the business — until his girlfriend signed him up for this class. A limo driver whose marriage broke apart and decided to do something for himself. A millennial woman who realized she was just as funny as her funny friends. An experienced actress who wanted to add stand-up to her repertoire. And there’s the 6-foot-4-inch former dominatrix-turned-ordained minister.

As for Ranic, the bushy-bearded guy racing in late, his eyes slightly scurried behind his soda-bottle glasses? He’s a 33-year-old who has struggled with school, alcohol, disease and the unexpected death of his mother. He’s back in school now, and he was late this night because he went to Bryant & Stratton’s Orchard Park campus to pick up the math homework he would be missing.

He’s determined to get school right this time, and he’s determined to do right by his comedy class, too. Some people in his life have told him he couldn’t achieve. So tonight, for Ranic, is all about confronting “the haters.”

Moments before 8, class instructor Rich Lamb ushered his group of students out of the lobby and into the club. The crowd, made up almost exclusively of the performers’ families, friends, co-workers and clients, was seated in the front, closest to the stage. The students took seats in the back, set lists in hand.

By now, they knew this room well. They had spent six Saturday afternoons in here, working with Lamb and with each other on comedy theory, joke structure and ultimately, stacks of drafts and revisions of their own material.

That was low-key. They sat around with their feet on chairs, drinking coffee and Mountain Dews and Big Gulps. The lights were on, and Lamb – tapping what he calls his “inner critic” – piped in with suggestions and tips to boost every joke.

In class, they were never alone.

But tonight, with the lights dimmed, the front of house packed and a spotlight illuminating the stage, they were about to be on stage alone, standing before a crowd waiting to laugh.

* * *

When this group first convened in mid-January, Lamb was the only one standing onstage. This class is his mode of performance. He’s been in comedy since 1995, doing both stand-up and improv, but long ago decided to stay local rather than travel. He works full time as a training specialist at the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino and teaches classes at Helium. His eyes flit and dart as his comedy hard drive spins, churning out loads of raw, useful information.

“You have to install an app in your brain,” Lamb, 50, told the assembled group on Day 1. He pointed to his forehead. “I have an internal critic that does the work for me. He never shuts off.”

Other than hosting his students’ graduation shows, Lamb rarely performs anymore. Teaching is his performance, and though he has a gentle-giant persona with his students, it’s an intense experience for him. After each class, he would pace around the club, often staring into a distant wall, decompressing.

Lamb has developed a small collection of comedy instruction sheets, which he handed out over the first few weeks. They include the Writing Flow Chart (brainstorm, rant, underline, shorten and rewrite); the Joke Break-Up Page (make a statement, ask a question, give an example, then exaggerate into the punch line); and the Comedy Toolbox (14 strategies, including the Rule of Threes: “First and second are alike, the third is the punch”).

The strategies aren’t all Lamb’s creations; he’s a collector and observer — a self-described “student of comedy.” On the first day he distributed a syllabus, pointing out that the first three weeks would be packed with instruction and technique. One of the starting points, for example, would be having each student simply stand onstage and learn how to adjust the height of the mic stand and use the mic itself.

He also assured the students that they would become a tightknit group. “Lots of classes form text groups,” he said, “and go to open mics together.”

On Day 1, it seemed difficult to envision that happening. Lamb had each student do an extended self-introduction, and while the group was pleasant enough – and fascinatingly diverse – they were also awkwardly quiet toward each other.

Charmagne Chi, a 40-year-old banker and actress by night, told the group she had a show a couple of weeks later at MusicalFare Theatre.

“There are still tickets for the second show,” she said, “if any of you would like to come.”

Mickey Topliffe, a jovial, bespectacled optician, nodded enthusiastically. At 51, he was finally trying comedy after mulling it for 30 years. “I think we should all go as a group!” he said.

Most of the group sat silent.

Lamb kept working around the room, asking people’s reasons for enrolling in comedy school. Many of the answers mirrored ones he hears often:

My friends think I’m funny.

I’ve done some open mics and want to get better.

Ranic, sitting in the back, offered, “Haters are my motivators.”

A few steps away from Ranic was Poppy McKinivan, a tall woman (6 feet, 4 inches, she later revealed) whose long brown hair was bundled into dreadlocks. McKinivan, 47, gave her backstory: She grew up in a small, dingy Canadian town, had a bad marriage, and after exiting that situation, went to work as a dominatrix.

That one triggered Lamb’s inner critic. He tracks the professions of his more than 200 comedy-school students. He has taught teachers, strippers, lawyers, salespeople, law-enforcement officers and, more than any other profession, electrical engineers.

But McKinivan, he said, was the “only dominatrix.”

Except she’s not one anymore. McKinivan, who moved to the states and married an American man a few years ago, does something new in her life every year. She’s been a nude model for art classes. With her husband, she has motorcycled to most of the lower 48 states. She recently became an ordained minister and performs weddings on weekends.

McKinivan told the class that her eclectic collection of life choices is rooted in the way people treated her as a tall girl growing up. “I was always going to stand out,” she said, “so it was license to do what I want.”

Taking this all in was a 60-year-old man in a baseball cap who introduced himself by his stage name, Tony Slungini. He was not new to comedy: In the mid-’70s, while stationed with the Army in Fort Dix, N.J., he used to make his friends laugh by impersonating their drill sergeant. That prompted him to hit some of the New York comedy clubs, where he got to know a couple of young comics. One was a guy named Steve Buscemi, who warned Slungini not to move back home after his Army time was up.

“If you go back to Buffalo,” he recalls Buscemi saying, “you’ll get caught in the trap.” The “trap” being a regular life. Buscemi, who went on to become a well-known character actor, was correct: Slungini got married, had a mortgage and kids, went to college and, ultimately, got a divorce.

Sometime in the late ’80s, years after he left comedy, he was watching TV and noticed a guy doing a routine. The large face and the high forehead and the New Yawk cadence were familiar. It was Andy Silverstein.

Silverstein did it. Buscemi did it. Slungini didn’t. That stuck with him, maybe even gnawed at him.

“I saw how Silverstein did,” Slungini said. “You know who he is?”

“What’s his first name?” Lamb said?

“Andy.”

Andy. Andrew … Lamb got it.

“That’s Dice Clay.”

Back then, in his 30s and 40s, Slungini was working as a teacher, and then in government, and he couldn’t break away from career and family to take a shot at following Buscemi or Dice Clay.

But today, he’s retired, his kids are grown, and he has money. He also has a girlfriend who signed him up for this class.

“Here I am,” he told Lamb. “Forty years later, trying to do it.”