Here He Is, Ladies and Jellybeans! Our Cutest Comic, Griffin Newman

“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

to it.”

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

show already?”

“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.

“George Bush”

“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

for.

“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

school.

“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

W. Bush.”

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

questions?”

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.

Another question?”

“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.

“Stu.”

“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.