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An optician, a limo driver and a dominatrix walk into Helium Comedy Club ...

It was 7:50-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”).

Rich Lamb emcees the show introducing his students. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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.

It’s on my bucket list.

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.

Student comedian Poppy McKinivan, aka Lyndzie Mann, does her set. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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.”

* * *

Mickey Topliffe delivers his set. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Over the next few weeks, the eight students evolved from the awkward-kids-in-class phase to a collection of characters who played off each other’s idiosyncrasies and helped their classmates grow.

During the first couple of weeks, Lamb hand-held the group, using broad topics “drugs” and innocuous ones like “breakfast cereal” to help his students learn how to strategically brainstorm and construct a joke. It was mostly silly, but there were moments of poignancy, like when Topliffe, referring to his girth, said softly, “Food is my drug.”

Soon, though, he would be building that tiny moment of self-reflectiveness into comedy, cracking jokes about his stoutness by comparing himself to Donald Trump and a dominatrix. (One of his eventual jokes: “If man-boob-chafing was an Olympic sport, I would be Michael Phelps.”)

By the third week of class, McKinivan decided to adopt a stage name, Lyndzie Mann, and develop a bit around one of her more memorable adventures: An American man visiting Canada hired multiple “doms,” as they are called, to bind him, put him in the back of a vehicle and transport him to a “dungeon” (which was actually a basement). The fantasy was playing out just fine, with the man in the back of McKinivan's minivan — until she was stopped for a spot-check by Ontario police.

Is the story true? Yes, and the dom-crew and their client got out fine. It should be noted that one of the key comedy tools Lamb teaches his students is exaggeration, so you can never take comedy too literally.

So when Chi, the actress, concocted a story in which her mother-in-law asked her at Thanksgiving dinner whether she was going to have a baby, and Chi responded with a vivid description of what wasn’t quite working in the bedroom, it’s up to the audience to decide where the literal melds with the imaginative.

Student comedian Charmagne Chi performs. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Or when firefighter Austin Hodkinson, who at 22 is the youngest in the class, talks about the travails of living with five women in St. Catharines, Ont., you have to wonder: Did his girlfriend really fall into the toilet because he left the seat up? Or did he just leave the seat up?

When Vanessa Weathers, a Binghamton native who came to Western New York 12 years ago for college and stayed, muses about the craziness of Irish-drinking Buffalo, you can assume she’s starting from a truth.

And when Kevin MacMillan, a 54-year-old limo driver with a lumberjack build, bends over onstage to re-enact a proctology exam, he seemed to be familiar with the stance.

After the last class, and one day before the graduation show, Lamb emailed the group.

“Your personas really came to fruition and we found our voices along the way!” he wrote, and later added, “Consider yourself prepared for tomorrow.”

* * *

As Ranic rushed in just before the start of the graduation show, his classmates were settled and calm about taking the stage. Hodkinson sat at the bar with his girlfriend, Erin Griffiths. Weathers sat next to them as her friends – friends she considers to be very funny – trickled in. McKinivan sat at a table shuffling cards with her husband, and Slungini sat with his girlfriend, who had signed him up to be here.

The optician, Topliffe, a territory sales manager for Hoya Vision, had enough clients, co-workers and family in the building to take up every dinner table around the perimeter of Helium’s lobby restaurant.

The limo driver MacMillan, who was adopting “Big Mac” as his stage moniker, was standing alone. Somebody asked if he was ready.

“I was born ready,” he said in a tuba voice.

Lamb set the order of the show strategically: After an opening act by Buffalo comic Jon Cesar, the actress Chi kicked off the student portion with a six-minute set that roped the crowd into stories about aging and infertility and weight issues. She warmed up the already-friendly, family-and-friends crowd for all of her classmates who followed. 

Hodkinson’s tales of living with five women resonated, including with his girlfriend Griffiths, whose visage was carved into a jaw-dropped laugh throughout his set. Slungini tickled the crowd with impressions ranging from Byron Brown, JFK, the Cowardly Lion and Jesse Jackson doing “Green Eggs and Ham.” MacMillan melded the Trump wall with a rectal exam in a way that’s not completely publishable here. 

McKinivan turned her dominatrix crop stick into a prop of humor. Weathers delivered the most line of the evening when, lamenting St. Patrick’s Day misbehavior, she said, “The wrath of the gods beats the luck of the Irish every time.”

Student comedian Tony Slungini does his set. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Last was Topliffe, whose tables of supporters were certain to help him end the show on a cheery note. That played out: Topliffe, at ease on stage and playing with the crowd, more than doubled his allotted five minutes. When Topliffe crossed the 10-minute mark, the Helium sound guy cut off his microphone feed.

Topliffe, fully absorbed in the give-and-take and completely unaware of time, looked confused.

Lamb, who had been staring nervously at the stopwatch on his phone as Topliffe crossed from six minutes to eight minutes to double digits, whispered to him from the wings, “Say, ‘Thank you, that’s my time.' ”

Topliffe, still exuberant, repeated the words and walked offstage. “I just riffed up there,” he said in the bay of the club. “Love it! Love it!”

His crowd started chanting for an encore, though they didn’t get one. Even for a student show, the clock eventually rules. Ranic learned that, too. Wearing a black-and-red Deadpool hat and going by the nickname “Bigg Redd” – “two g’s and two d’s, just to be different,” he said – he delivered an act that poked fun at his auditory processing disorder. He got laughs, but when his act spilled well over his allotted five minutes, music started playing and he had to walk off.

Student comedian Nick Ranic during a set at the Comedy 101 class at Buffalo's Helium Comedy Club. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A problem? No. After the show, Ranic put it in perspective: In his 20s, he had a DWI. He tried and failed at college. When he was 25, his mother died unexpectedly. She was only 51. He struggled with depression. He was diagnosed with diabetes. He developed a sensitivity to seeing others struggle like he was. “I don’t like seeing people in pain,” Ranic said.

When he was diagnosed not long ago with auditory processing disorder – a condition that makes him hear words differently, he realized, “I could use this to my advantage. Maybe I could make comedy out of this.”

Ranic did, with lines like this one: “If you said you want to kick my ass, I might have thought you said, ‘Want to smoke some grass?’ I’m like, ‘We’re cool, right?’ ”

The clock may have been an obstacle, but Ranic made the crowd chuckle. They were laughers, not haters. There was no pain. He was cool with that.

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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