Professors, ex-headliners liven up comedy stages

October 11, 2004


On stage: Peter Orazem , an economics professor at Iowa State University, does his stand-up comedy routine at Spaghetti Works restaurant recently in Des Moines. Orazem said he usually works for free or a small fee, which he donates to charity.

There's something funny about this economics professor at Iowa State University and the marketing consultant at the Des Moines airport.

At least both of them hope there is.

Professor Peter Orazem and marketing consultant Roy Criss are members of a little-known
Des Moines "fraternity" - men and women who work regular jobs during the day, and find creative satisfaction or extra income after hours as stand-up comedians or members of comedy troupes.

Orazem's challenges have included finding ways of drawing laughs from groups such as sheep growers and internal auditors of Big 12 universities.

"They were both really nice groups," said Orazem.

Criss, once a full-time professional headliner on a grueling national comedy club circuit, still performs and is ratcheting up his comedy career, working to increase his bookings at shows that corporations present for employees or clients.

"I do get an adrenaline rush out of it," said Orazem. "It makes your heart beat a little faster. You get nervous. I can't eat anything before I go on."

Orazem views comedy as a hobby, as he usually works for free or for a small amount that he normally donates to charity. Others, however, are professionals paid to perform at clubs, corporate parties and meetings and conventions.

The number of dual-career professional stand-ups in
Des Moines is small, probably less than a half-dozen, estimates Paul Lane, owner of the Funny Bone comedy club in Urbandale.

Among them are Criss and Ed Vos of Granger. Vos operates a building renovation business, while averaging one or two comedy performances a week in places as varied as corporate offices and small-town bowling alleys. He calls his company Corn-fed Comedy and Construction.

"I don't think you decide that you want to be a comedian. I think you just decide you have to be a comedian," said Vos.

In addition to stand-ups, about 25 people are members of at least three Des Moines-area comedy troupes, doing comedy sketches and improvisational humor, Lane estimated.

Joe Van Haecke of
Urbandale works at a company that creates interactive CD-ROMs and DVDs for corporate clients.

He's also artistic director of the Comedy XPeriment troupe.

"When you get that big laugh, it's a thrill," said Van Haecke. "It's very invigorating."

The ranks of Des Moines-area stand-ups also include established amateurs and semi-professionals. Day jobs include housewives, a nursing assistant and a cheerleading coach, said Larry Sloan, who's putting together a local stand-up comedy TV series. It's expected to air this winter on central
Iowa station KPWB, Channel 23 (Channel 9 on Des Moines-area cable).

Sloan has had a long interest in comedy, but his mainstream occupation is president of Lee's Security Agency of Des Moines, a company that provides security guards for factories, offices and apartments.

He lined up eight established amateurs and semi-pros for the series.

Among them is Orazem, the economics professor (doctorate from Yale), who may get the prize for having the regular job least associated with stand-up comedy.

Audience member Jennifer Morrone, 31, of
Urbandale liked Orazem's act when she saw him perform at the Spaghetti Works in downtown Des Moines as part of Sloan's show.

"It was pretty witty - intelligent and witty," Morrone said of Orazem's act.

Morrone, in fact, wasn't all that surprised at Orazem's dual roles of comedian and economics professor. She recalls having teachers in college who used humor to capture the attention of students.

"I always liked it when my professors were kind of comedic, especially in econ, kind of a dry subject," Morrone said.

Some sample Orazem jokes:

Every three years or so,
Iowa changes its motto, the idea being that if we can come up with the right motto, tourists will come. The fundamental flaw in this theory: No one vacations in Iowa on purpose. Sixty percent of the tourists in Iowa had car trouble on their way to Colorado.

The price of gas has shot up there. I filled up my tank this morning - doubled the value of my car.

The roots of his stand-up hobby go back about four years. Initially, he was involved with Toastmasters, a group that helps people develop public-speaking skills, and later he took a local six-week "Comedy College," founded by area comedian Gavin Jerome. The course is designed for budding comedians.

Orazem always had a good sense of humor, but wasn't the class clown. That title, however, did apply to Criss.

After working his way up to management positions with Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company, Criss, an
Indiana native, decided to make a big career shift to comedy.

"I just didn't want to go to my grave not knowing if I had what it takes to be a success at it," Criss said.

His routine includes jokes about being 50 years old and having a 1-year-old daughter.

Among his observations: When you're a dad that old, it can be hard to tell whose diapers need changing.

He earned his living from comedy for 10 years, beginning in the mid-1980s and rising to "national headliner." That's the star of the show at a comedy club or nightclub.

Criss even got exposure on cable television in a comedy contest show eventually won by Ellen DeGeneres before her TV-star days.

Performing at clubs around the country, however, meant flying or driving up to 100,000 miles a year.

After getting married in 1994, Criss decided to switch back to a job that wouldn't keep him on the road for most of the year.

Criss is now a self-employed contractor. He's a marketing consultant and spokesman at the airport and also works as a training course teacher on contract with the state of
Iowa. He does his stand-up comedy, too, and works in television commercials.

He doesn't have to do stand-up anymore to pay the bills, Criss said. Still, he loves the exhilaration of performing before a live audience, with his act going over with them big-time.

Said Criss: "Once a stand-up, always a stand-up."