oston comedy surged in 1999.
Chris Rock was the country's hottest comic. (Reuters Photo)
Best Comedy 1999
By Michael Blowen
1. The Ding Ho reunion concert at the Somerville Theatre
2. Steven Wright at the Orpheum Theatre
3.The night at the Comedy Studio when host Glen KuneneintroducedBrian Kiley, Gary Culman, Tammy Two-Tone, Steve Hoffman, John Fisch, Brian Olsen, Craig Zeltzer, and Laura Collig
4. Steve Sweeney leading a Christmas comedy show at the Veteran's Homeless Shelter in the shadow of Government Center
5. Jimmy Tinglehired as a commentator by "60 Minutes II"
6. Chris Rock'slate-night appearance at the Comedy Connection
7. Richard Jeniat the Comedy Connection
8. Brian Fratesleading the Improv Asylum team in a spontaneous musical about the Amish at the troupe's Hanover Street theater
9. Tony V's Christmas showsat the Comedy Studio and the Comedy Connection
10. Julie Barrat the Comedy Palace, Andover
While it's a little early to make claims for a Boston comedy renaissance, stand-up comedy was clearly rejuvenated by an influx of new talent, the steady professionalism of the veterans, and weekend visits by top-notch national acts.
The highlight was the remarkable Ding Ho reunion concert at the Somerville Theatre in October. Jimmy Tingle produced the show that brought together the comics who put Boston and Cambridge on the national comedy map. Anchored by the reappearance of Barry Crimmins, who still makes intelligent fun of right-wingers, and Bobcat Goldthwait and Steven Wright, the show was sensational. Steve Sweeney, Mike McDonald, Tom Gilmore, Bob Lazarus, Lenny Clarke, Chance Langton, DJ Hazard, Tony V, and Don Gavin were among the great performers that evening.
While the Ding Ho concert was the year's highlight, the Comedy Studio at the Hong Kong was the long-distance champ. Week after week, manager/comedian Rick Jenkins provided some of the most innovative, hilarious shows to be found anywhere.
The Comedy Studio is on the third floor of the Hong Kong, a Harvard Square restaurant, and requires a certain amount of physical prowess just to climb the stairs. The long tables and folding chairs face a simple stage in the corner, set off by a black curtain and a microphone. It's comedy at its most fundamental and the unpretentious home to the area's finest young comics.
HBO's chief talent scout, Lou Viola, always makes the Comedy Studio his first stop during semiannual visits. This year, he invited Studio regulars Rick Harris and Eugene Mirman to the US Comedy Festival in Aspen, Colo. The scouts for Conan O'Brien spotted Dwayne Perkins at the club and signed him to do a full set on the late-night show. UPN hired the Studio's Brendon Small last April to be the star voice in its animated hit, ''Home Movies.'
One of the best double-headers occurred during the last weekend in September when Jonathan Katz and Louis CK KO'd the Studio crowd. Katz also appeared there with Sue McGinnis and Brian Kiley. Janine Ditullio tried out her one-woman show, ''Slide,'' prior to its opening in New York and Gary Gulman did a Studio set before headlining at the Comedy Connection. The Rev. Tim McIntire's Thursday Night Fights featured two battling stand-ups in grueling sharp-witted bouts.
The best solo concert was Steven Wright at the Orpheum Theatre. Wright, the deadest of deadpans, issued his existential non sequiturs to an audience that likes comedy with brains.
There's no doubt that the Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall Marketplace is the major leagues. Virtually every national headlining act makes this club a major stop while on tour. Joe Rogan selected the Connection as the location to record his CD earlier this month and Anthony Clark still spends every New Year's Eve entertaining the sold-out club. Some of this year's scintillating Connection performances include Chris Rock's late-night appearance last summer; the country's hottest comic delivered a dynamite, almost two-hour set. It was his way of paying back club owner Bill Blumenreich, who supported Rock early in his career. Bobby Slayton and Richard Jeni sent their audiences home with aching jaws as they went nuclear on the battle between the sexes. Keenan Ivory Wayans, a bit racier than he is on television, delivered a finely tuned set, and Jay Moher, even before he became a cult idol with his recently axed Fox sitcom, ''Action,'' was a Connection favorite.
The Comedy Palace at the Grill 93 in Andover showcased some fine comics, including veteran Robert Klein, the godfather of many of the new comedians, who proved that he is also a child of the '90s. The club also booked several local comics, among them Patrice O'Neal, who is now making a sizable impact on the New York circuit.
Giggles, Mike Clarke's room at the Prince restaurant on Route 1 in Saugus, features good food and solid laughs. Gary Gulman, who made his network debut this year on ''The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,'' was so hot one fall night that several members of the audience laughed so hard they got pizza up their noses. To some comics, that's better than an Emmy. Mike also hires his brother, Lenny Clarke. If you haven't seen the consistently hilarious Lenny at the Saugus club, you haven't really seen him. Also, Mike McDonald always seems to peak at Giggles, especially around Christmas when he plays the guitar and sings his song about the plowman.
Every year, Dick Doherty's Comedy Escape venues provide some of the best comedy around. Let's start with the king, Steve Sweeney. While actively pursuing an acting career - Sweeney appeared in ''The Vig'' with Peter Falk and has a role in the upcoming ''Me, Myself and Irene'' - and teaching acting at UMass-Boston, he doesn't neglect his stand-up. He's as sharp as ever and that's just about as sharp as it gets. Doherty also books many of the female comics, particularly Lauren Verge and Katie Grady, who sometimes get overlooked in Boston's wave of testosterone-driven comedy.
Several other veterans of the Boston comedy scene made 1999 special, especially Frank Santorelli, Chance Langton, Don Gavin, Kevin Knox, and Tony V. One final note: Last year's ''Comics Come Home'' concert with Denis Leary was the top comedy event of 1998. This year's was not even close.