“Hi, my name is Griffin. You know, the other day I was
walking into a toy store and I saw they had a Jesse Ventura doll, and I was
thinking to myself, ‘If they made a Jesse Ventura doll, are they going to make
other political toys?'”
Griffin Newman, a 12-year-old boy with light brown, wavy
hair just past his ears, was standing, mike in hand, on the small stage of the
Gotham Comedy Club on West 22nd Street on a recent Sunday night. He wore baggy
khakis, a shirt about five sizes too large and a baseball cap turned backwards.
“So here are the ideas I came up with,” he continued, his
high, sweet voice warming towards the payoff. “Bill Clinton doll-women sold
separately, collect all 50. And also Jesse Jackson-send him $32,000 and you can
get the Jesse Jackson Playhouse with a girlfriend and a love child. Bill
Clinton’s Pardonopoly-when you have money, you can get a get-out-of-jail-free
card. Hillary Clinton doll-say something about yourself, like ‘I’m Jewish’ or
‘I’m African-American,’ and she’ll go, ‘So
am I!’ … The My Little Katherine Harris Makeup Kit-now your daughter can
look like Katherine Harris, too, with 72 pounds of makeup. And last but not
least: the George W. Bush doll, an inferior version of the original George Bush
Sr. doll with Dick Cheney remote control.”
Griffin and five other kids, ages 8 to 14, were performing
in a monthly workshop for Kids ‘N Comedy, an organization run by Jo Ann Grosman
with her husband, Stu Morden, a commercial real-estate broker who used to own
the West End Gate Café on the Upper West Side. The stand-up comedian Karen
Bergreen helps teach the workshops. Most of the audience members were parents
of the performers, but WABC News had sent a crew. The funniest kids would be
asked back to an upcoming kids’ show at the club, where they would be
performing alongside some of the most polished of their generation. On the baby
Seinfeld circuit, Griffin is among the biggest laugh-getters.
The competition that night was … well, it wasn’t exactly a
raucous night at the Friars Club. When half the performers have yet to reach
puberty, there are limits to the material. A 13-year-old boy with bleached
blond hair pushed the envelope when he did a bit using a fart machine held
behind his back. (“I wouldn’t do the fart joke,” said Ms. Bergreen after he’d
finished. “I just think you are kind of above it.”) A 9-year-old girl compared
the way the U.S. wouldn’t apologize to China to how her little sister won’t
apologize to her.
Ms. Bergreen and Mr. Morden steer the kids away from any
cursing, sexual innuendo and ethnic jokes. “We like to train our kids
classically,” said Mr. Morden.
Which does, of course, leave room for … Martha Stewart jokes!
“The other day, I was wondering what it would be like if
Martha Stewart were a professional wrestler,” said Griffin onstage. He started
yelling in a deep, gruff voice: ” Martha !
Ya got your big fight tonight! What do you think?” Then he did Martha Stewart:
“I think I’m gonna beat him, I think
I’m gonna smash him, I’m gonna pound
his head against the ring and rip out his heart! But in a nice, decorative way.
You see, I’ll rip his heart out and try to sculpt it into nice shapes for the
holidays. Whatever holiday it is. And I’ll dye it nice holiday colors.”
Griffin got asked back to perform in the show. He’s been
doing the Kids ‘N Comedy shows for two years. He found out about them when he
was 9, from an article in the New York Post. When he was 10, he did his
first workshop. “I went and just winged the whole thing,” he said. “So I didn’t
have anything planned, but I had about two good jokes.”
“It fell pretty flat,” said his father, Peter Newman, a
producer of independent films ( Smoke,
Blue in the Face , The Secret of Roan Inish ). “Stand-up
comedy is one the hardest things in the world. Even if you want to seem
natural, you have to prepare.”
“The second time I over- rehearsed,
and it wasn’t that good,” said Griffin. “I did the joke over and over again in
my mind, and when I got up there, it was just too robotic. There was no emotion
But on his third try at a workshop, Griffin figured it out.
He got asked back to do the show-which gave him his first experience with a
heckler. She was 5. Halfway into his material, his mind went blank. He told the
audience that he couldn’t remember what he was going to say and that he would
just chat with them until the next joke came to him.
A girl’s tiny voice piped
up: “Why don’t you just continue your
“Well, I’m trying to think,” Griffin said.
“Why don’t you write
it down on paper?” she said.
“Why aren’t you my agent?” he said.
“What Griffin’s got is the ability to be comfortable
onstage,” said Mr. Morden. “I think he has enormous potential. He is fearless.”
“He takes so many risks on stage,” said Ms. Bergreen. “He
does a thing with the audience where he says, ‘Ask me a question; I’m George
Bush.’ The whole point of that is so ridiculous-the fact that this guy is
willing to have someone ask a question that he will not have a prepared answer
“He doesn’t really have a schtick,” she continued. “Some of
the other kids’ comedy is more personality-driven; he’s very material-oriented.
There is just something about his stuff where you say, ‘I can’t believe a
little kid thinks like that.'”
Griffin lives in a nice building near Washington Square
Park. He has a 9-year-old brother and a 3-year-old sister. He has bunk beds,
but he doesn’t have to share a room. He is in the sixth grade at the Calhoun
School. He wants to be an actor and a toy-maker when he grows up.
One week after the workshop, Griffin was having lunch at a
café on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street with his parents and his
3-year-old sister, Romilly. His mother, Antonia, a petite strawberry blonde, is
a former actress who produces documentaries. Griffin was wearing a large
T-shirt that hung almost to his knees, baggy khakis, a black hooded sweatshirt
and the backwards baseball cap. He wasn’t nearly as impressed as the rest of
the diners in the restaurant were when his little sister borrowed her father’s
cell phone to wander around and talk to her grandmother.
Griffin loves movies. He reads the movie reviews in The New York Times every Friday.
Although he is going to sleep-away camp for a month this summer, he has
resisted it in the past because he didn’t want to miss the summer blockbusters.
His comedic inspiration comes from almost anyone who has
ever been on Saturday Night Live .
“Not only do I watch Saturday Night Live
right now,” he said, “but I watch all the repeats on Comedy Central and I’ve
also seen all the videos of the 70’s show, and I’m a fan of all of it.”
Many of his friends live on the Upper West Side, near his
“I have two worlds,” he said. “I have all the things that I
do uptown and things I do downtown.”
Uptown, some of his favorite haunts are the Galaxy Diner,
“which,” he said, “was discovered by two of my friends a couple of weeks ago”;
a shop called Essentials (“Kind of just like a convenience store, but everybody
goes there”); and Alphabets, a store, he said, that sells “all this weird
stuff, a lot of racy stuff.” He started to giggle. “Everyone likes it because
they’ve got that racy stuff,” he said. “They sell, like, those pens that you
tilt upside-down and the girl’s top comes off …. But the new thing me and my
friend have started doing is, we go in there and we get a lot of those popper
things. We line them under big cars. We plant them out in places that people
are going to step in. The people there don’t like it very much.”
Griffin Newman says he has always been funny. “I always had
a knack for it,” he said. When asked if he was the funniest kid in his class,
he paused to think. “I think so,” he said hesitantly. “But I can never be sure.
I’m known for being funny, but there are a lot of funny kids in my grade.”
Two weeks after the workshop, Griffin was back onstage,
performing in the show with others who had made the cut. He was sporting a new
haircut. He had written notes on his wrist, just in case.
“I’d like to end off my portion of the show with a little
Bush,” he said. “This is going to be my interpretation of a Bush press
conference. In order to do this, I need to have questions from the audience,
O.K.? Ladies and gentleman, here is the President of the United States, George
He squinted his eyes and nodded at the audience. There was a
low rumble of laughter.
“Ah’m the President,” he said in a Texas accent. “Any
Griffin’s father, seated towards the back, jumped to the
rescue. “What do you think about guns?” he asked.
“Guns? I think guns are cool,” he said, nodding. “I like
hanging out with my daddy and shooting some things. Sorry. My daddy told me not
to do that. Other questions?”
“What are your future plans?” asked a woman.
“Plants? I think plants are good. Because we get everything
from plants. We get our fruits and vegetables from plants, right? We get the
medicines from our plants. I think plants are very important for our future.
“How do you think that you did with the Chinese crisis?”
asked Mr. Morden.
“What’s your name, young man?” Griffin put up his hands to
block the lights.
“You know what, Stu? That is a very excellent question.”
Then he turned and walked off the stage.
After the show, another comic, a 13-year-old with spiky hair
named Ed Ubell, was telling Griffin and his family about an animated video he
had seen in his health class, which had been hosted by a walking, talking
penis. “He was walking around like this,” said Ed, getting on his knees and
leaning back. “And he had arms, and a watch!”
Griffin was laughing hysterically. Ed asked Ms. Grossman if
he was allowed to use the word “penis” in a show.
Ms. Grossman said, “No.”
But Griffin and his pals don’t lack for material-they are,
after all, growing up as children of the most child-obsessed, neurotic and
confused generation in the history of humankind. Every day at school, for
example, is a trove of comedy.
“We didn’t really have a theater class at my old school,”
Griffin said one afternoon. “We had ‘ Rhythms’,
which was like artsy gym. So the
teacher would say, ‘I want you to run around the room-but don’t just run, make it different each lap.’ So
we’d have to do a lap as a horse or whatever. And then they’d give us Hula-Hoops-but
we weren’t allowed to use them as Hula-Hoops, we had to come up with something
else to use them as. I think that gym and theater are important classes-but all
we had was just the weird ‘ Rhythms’ class.”
He chuckled to himself. This, he knew, would make them laugh.