This New Year’s Eve, as people are getting dressed in their sharpest clothes and heading out to celebrate, comedians all over town will be getting ready for work. It’s the biggest night of the year for comics, with shows in venues large and small, in clubs and theaters, in Boston and farther out in the suburbs.
Veteran Boston comic Tony V has worked the city’s First Night celebration for roughly 15 years, ever since he first proposed stand-up as a part of the schedule, and he’ll do two shows Monday with fellow Boston staple Ken Rogerson. Tony V says he can’t remember a time in his 30-year career when he wasn’t telling jokes on Dec. 31. “If you’re not working New Year’s Eve,” he says, “you can’t really call yourself a working comic.”
On New Year’s Eve, even venues that don't usually feature comedy, like hotels or restaurants, might have one-night-only shows. “It’s easily the biggest night,” says Steve Sweeney, who will play an early show at the Citi Shubert Theatre with Joe Yannetty and Bethany Van Delft before heading to Plymouth Memorial Hall with Yannetty and Will Noonan to headline a second slot. “I turned down a week on a cruise ship because of that one night this year,” Sweeney says.
Cruise ship work can be lucrative, but for Sweeney, the New Year’s Eve gig was better. “Depends on who you are,” he says. “But for me, I can get a weekend’s pay in one night just for a few shows.”
A normal $15 to $20 ticket price might increase to $30 or more on New Year’s Eve, and venues that normally host one show might sell out two or three, offering hats and noisemakers as part of the experience. Where one headlining act is the norm, shows might feature two or even three on New Year’s Eve. The Dedham Community Theatre has three shows, each with the same trio of headliners — Kelly MacFarland, Jimmy Dunn, and Paul D’Angelo. “The talent is usually stacked,” says MacFarland. “And the comics dress up and they want to make it special. It’s their New Year’s Eve, too, so they want to have a good experience with the crowd.”
MacFarland has a simple theory about the popularity of comedy on that night: People need to laugh, especially when they’re trying to wipe the slate clean for a new year. “I think most people go out anyway, and they want to see comedy because it’s guaranteed you’re going to have a good time,” she says. “They want to start with laughter; they want to start with something positive. Usually when you leave a comedy show, you’ve had a good time. You’ve laughed and you’ve forgotten your troubles for a little while. And I think everyone wants to have that happen on New Year’s Eve night.”
MacFarland has taken New Year’s Eve off only twice in more than a decade, and it didn’t feel right. “I thought I wanted to be a normal human being and be able to have a kiss at midnight and all that nonsense,” she says. “And honestly, it was awful. It was so boring. I’d rather be out helping people make their New Year’s Eve really special.”
The occasional drunken audience member is an occupational hazard for comedians, and one might think that would be more the case on New Year’s Eve. But Tony V, Sweeney, and MacFarland say their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Still, Sweeney prefers the early crowds, before people have gotten a chance to imbibe too much champagne. He says comics may have to have tough skin to play these gigs, but the type of heckling they might experience is of a different quality than at a normal gig the rest of the year. “I’ve got to say, none of it’s, like, mean-spirited,” he says. “It’s not ugly. It’s just people are drunk. It’s more celebratory. Cheap champagne and stupid party hats and horns.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been a nightmare scenario or two. Tony V remembers playing a country club gig in New Hampshire, which the promoter had advertised as featuring “hats, noisemakers, and toast.” The wording implied a champagne toast, which is not what the promoter provided. “He actually thought it would be a gag to hand out pieces of toast to people,” Tony V says. “[It] all ended up back onstage. Because people were pissed that they didn’t get actual champagne. They didn’t get the clever play on words. And they now had sharp-cornered, burnt, crispy-like material. With butter. So it ended up being a giant food fight.”
MacFarland used to work a club every New Year’s Eve that would hand out noisemakers. “Why would you give people noisemakers?” she asks. “You might as well have given them bows and arrows. It just makes it challenging. So I at one point made them all put their noisemakers down and hands up. It was an exercise to see if I could get everybody hands-free, and once they did that I said, now don’t pick them up again till I’m done. I’ll tell you when I’m done and then you can be as loud as you like. And that seems to work.”
After 20 years of working New Year’s Eve in the restaurant business, Van Delft wasn’t particularly eager to work that night again as a comic. Her opening slot on the show with Sweeney at the Shubert will be her first New Year’s Eve gig, but she’s confident that she knows the crowd. “People expect so much on that night,” she says. “Even when I was in the restaurant business. Everybody that came out expected everything to be perfect and magical, almost. And just different than any other night.”
After the ball has dropped and the last joke is told, Tony V says, it’s likely he’ll wind up at Giggles catching up with other comics. But Sweeney says he’s usually home by midnight, finishing out the night on his couch in peace and quiet. “When your business is being around people all the time,” he says, “your greatest vacation is just to relax and read a book.”
Tony V and Ken Rogerson
Dec. 31, 7:45 p.m. Admission with First Night button. Hynes Convention Center Hall D, 900 Boylston St., Boston. www.firstnight.org
Steve Sweeney and Friends
Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. $33.
Citi Shubert Theatre,
265 Tremont St., Boston. 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org
Kelly MacFarland, Paul D’Angelo, and Jimmy Dunn
Dec. 31, 5:30, 8, and 10:15 p.m. $35. Dedham Community Theatre, 580 High St., Dedham, 781-326-0409, www.dedhamcommunitytheatre.com
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.