Standup comedy has been described with terror, joy and despair by some of its better-known practitioners. There’s an authority in being the only person in a room on a stage holding a microphone, but it comes laced with an additionally poisonous caveat: a very high probability of failure.
So when lifelong Rego Park resident Liam McEneaney takes the stage, he knows he’s assuming a risk akin to tightrope-walking during a windstorm. And he should. The 36-year-old has been hitting the stage for nearly two decades. His story mirrors Steve Martin’s own slog, a course the comedy great described as “more plodding than heroic.”
McEneaney’s accumulated experience and jokes were recorded at Union Hall in Brooklyn on June 5 and 6 for his first comedy album — which he plans to follow with a deserved break.
“I’m very nervous,” he said ahead of the album’s taping. “But then it’s like, what am I going to do? This is what I want.”
McEneaney finds himself in a batch of comedians who came up together and is currently part of a proverbial changing of the guards that happens in the standup industry with some regularity. The guys he slogged through open mics and dingy comedy clubs with are not seeing their fortunes turn for the better. And in some respects, McEneaney is still getting there too. Or at least he’s working on it.
It’s what the Russell Sage alum has wanted to do since childhood days of consuming Bill Cosby specials, listening to Woody Allen’s sets and watching the requisite legends such as George Carlin and Richard Prior.
“I’ve always kind of known I wanted to do it,” he said. “I just kind of knew I wanted to be in the center of the stage.”
It wasn’t long before the Rego Park kid with a bit of a weight problem and chronic depression started stirring the pot. At Francis Lewis High School, McEneaney printed a student-produced “zine” that featured some scathing (but true) phony articles.
He repeated the feat at Queens College, writing an article from the perspective of “a very cranky Jesus” in the school paper’s humor section — the week after Easter.
The article caused a stir with the school’s Catholic League, and gained some attention in the press.
“You’re in this environment where everyone is upset with you and it’s like, ‘Man, everyone hates me,’” he said. An epiphany came on the school’s quad, when McEneaney noticed a distinct lack of pitchforks and torches following him around. He realized most of the people on campus didn’t pick up the paper, and the few who did probably didn’t read his column.
“Nothing ever happened; it was a tempest in a teapot,” he said. “It was a really good learning experience for me.”
As a 19-year-old, McEneaney ditched academics to start doing open-mic nights around the city. He described his early act like this: “I had a couple of funny things I said.”
Not exactly translating to comedy gold early on, he did have a detailed, funny story about applying to work at a peep show business on Queens Boulevard. Punchline: “The plus side is I didn’t get the job.”
McEneaney realized the value of stage time early on, which many comics credit for their success. “It’s one of those things where you don’t really know how to do it ‘til you do it,” he said.
His act developed, somewhat. Pretty soon, he was part of a college comedy tour. Not that he deserved it.
“I was horrible; I was so bad at every college I went to,” he said. The trip also offered the first lesson of the business. He can’t remember what was said or when or why but for some reason, he still holds a grudge against Youngstown, Ohio.
But the stage time and learning from pros working in New York’s comedy club scene helped McEneaney drive his own act to a higher level of sophistication. While the comedic standbys still get the usual laughs, McEneaney is searching for his jokes elsewhere.
“I really want to up my game and do jokes that are better,” he said. “Obviously you want to do stuff that gets a laugh. I have to write jokes about things that people can relate to that isn’t about sex and dating — because I already have a lot of those.”
His routine includes more anecdotes and self-referential stories surrounding a common-place experience stretched to the breaking point of reason. One more-recent McEneaney bit refers to his childhood karate classes, but ends in an accidentally successful back-alley showdown.
In the time since that first college jaunt around the country, McEneaney has traversed the globe, performing across Europe and appearing on VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” among other shows.
He also produced “Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!” — a retrospective look at the alternative comedy scene while showing bits from its current standard-bearers, including himself, Christian Finnegan and Reggie Watts.
McEneaney’s crew of underground late-nighters who used to hang out and party post-shows has since seen its prospects grow.
“One of the sad things about everyone becoming successful, you move in different directions,” he said. “It’s obviously going to happen but it’s sad to see it happen.”
But while others may rise to stardom at a faster clip, McEneaney sees the value in plodding like Steve Martin.
“I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a fairly obscure comedian in the big picture,” he said. “It kind of gives me freedoms that comedians with huge followings don’t have. It gives me the freedom to follow my muse.”