Getting to the Punch Line

“Good evening, laa-adies and gentlemen !” a voice cried over the loudspeaker. “Welcome to the world-famous Comic Strip! It’s time to start our Monday 8:30 show, and to help us get started, please put your hands together and welcome your M.C. for the evening, Ms. Starr-rla Muraz! ”

There was a scattering of applause. Ms. Muraz, a firm-shouldered woman with auburn hair and rose-colored cheeks, bounced onto the small stage in the dingy comedy club on Second Avenue near 81st Street. She wore a white blouse and a faded pair of blue jeans. She grabbed the microphone and fixed the audience–seven people–with a tight smile. It was Sept. 17.

“I feel the love,” Ms. Muraz said, scanning across the sea of empty chairs and tables. “Thank you soo-oo much. Well, how are you folks doing this evening?” There was more applause. “Good? Feeling good? You all New Yorkers? Yeah?”

“Kind of a strange week,” Ms. Muraz said. “Not a particularly good week for jokes. But it was a good week for New Yorkers, boy, I’ll tell you. Because there’s something about this great city–something really bad happens, we’re really good, and when good stuff happens, we’re really bad. That’s just our nature.”

There was a mild laugh.

“I was watching the commentary on TV,” Ms. Muraz continued. “Everyone was so amazed that New Yorkers weren’t looting and everything.” She paused a beat. “I wasn’t surprised that New Yorkers weren’t looting in this situation, because we just have a shitty attitude about stuff like that. To us, life is hard enough without having to haul a fucking TV home.”

Again, a mild laugh. Ms. Muraz looked relieved. Next she told a joke about a false rumor that Whitney Houston had died. Then she told one about getting a phone call from her godson in Connecticut on the morning of Sept. 11.

“He said to me, ‘Auntie Starla, the tourists are bombing New York.’ I mean, why would they do that? They’re only visiting .”

That didn’t get much of a laugh.

“But life goes on, as we all know,” Ms. Muraz said. “And we’re happy to have all of you folks here tonight. Seven people strong.”

Ms. Muraz finished her act and introduced the next comic, Richard Chassler. Mr. Chassler told a penis joke about the microphone and then one about asking to “use the bathroom” at a friend’s house and taking a long bubble bath. “Just get fucking pruney,” he said.

“How are you guys doing?” Mr. Chassler asked a moment later. “You alright? You feel pretty good? The whole last week and that stuff? I just flew out here from L.A. on Sunday, so I’ll tell you guys: First of all, if you are going to fly, definitely go to the airport early. They have definitely upped all the security precautions and everything. Now they ask you if you have a knife.”

“Quick impression of bin Laden!” Mr. Chassler barked. ” Lalalalalalalalalalala-lalalalalalala! ” He flicked his tongue wildly. Then he did an impression of Mr. Magoo and James Cagney having intercourse.

The next comic, John Bush, told jokes about his family and growing up in Minnesota. He did impressions of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, too.

But Mr. Bush sounded a little disappointed. “There were all these bits I was working on, current events, and now they are not current events,” he said. “Like a shark thing.” He told a joke about the boy who had his arm bitten off by a shark this summer in Florida and was saved by his uncle, who wrestled the shark to shore and removed the arm from the shark’s mouth, allowing surgeons to reattach it.

“That kid is going to be needing that arm to mow that man’s lawn for a long time,” Mr. Bush said. “Even if he’s kind of a bad-touch uncle, he kind of has to be cool about it.” That line got a big laugh from Mr. Chassler, now sitting in a corner of the room.

Mr. Bush told some jokes about his problems with women. At one point, he twisted his glasses on his head and stared, dazed, into the lights. “I’ve been going up to girls lately and saying, ‘Dude, I was down there .'”

Everyone seemed to know what Mr. Bush meant by “down there.” It didn’t get a big laugh.

Later that night, Mr. Bush stood at the bar, talking to a group of fellow performers. “People always say, ‘It’s too early–you can’t do that right now,'” he said. “You know, there are no rules. There are people who can pull it off and people who can’t.”

Mr. Bush said he wasn’t one of those comics who planned to address the subject head-on. He said he intended to tell comforting jokes, like ones about his Midwestern family, or maybe “perimeter”-type jokes, like the one with his glasses.

“That’s a perimeter joke,” he said. “It’s still something I can come back from if it doesn’t work. I can apologize.”

The men agreed it was going to be hard for a while. “People here in New York, it’s probably an 80 percent chance they have been affected by it personally versus someone in Colorado or something like that,” said a comic named Edward Cho. “So here, you got to be a little more touchy-feely.”

In another part of the bar, Ms. Muraz sounded perplexed about how she was going to handle the situation. She had watched on Tuesday morning from the ferry landing near her home in Staten Island. That Friday, the Comic Strip re-opened after three dark nights. Normally, they get 600 people on a Friday. They got 30.

“I think everybody feels that it’s a very hard thing right now,” Ms. Muraz said, leaning against a wall. “I think we’re all pretty hard-pressed right now to figure out how to make this funny. I think it’s going to be a long time, if ever.

“There hasn’t been a day this week where I haven’t cried,” she said.

–Jason Gay

Paper Trail

Items found on the afternoon of Sept. 11 on the roof of a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn:

One expense sheet from Morgan Stanley.

Two interoffice mail envelopes from Morgan Stanley.

One interoffice mail envelope from Aon Corporation.

One pie chart.

One time sheet from an unknown company.

One meeting schedule for an unknown manager.

Three paper clips.

Several staples.

Five papers burned beyond recognition.

One memo concerning a fight at the Rainbow Room.

–Ian Blecher

Prep Cooks

On the morning of Sept. 12, chef Daniel Boulud and his staff made 600 filet-mignon and leg-of-lamb sandwiches and a 40-gallon pot of mulligatawny soup with saffron and sent them to the Javits Center for distribution to the World Trade Center rescue teams. In the coming days, Mr. Boulud (as well as other city restaurateurs) loaded police-escorted trucks and Spirit of New York cruise ships with food, twice daily.

Because the food was donated by restaurant suppliers, Mr. Boulud and his executive chef, Alex Lee, had to translate random ingredients like 1,000 pounds of frozen chicken, a truckful of heirloom tomatoes and bologna into 2,000 meals. “They [the rescuers] were getting sick of all those sandwiches, so tomorrow we’re making macaroni and cheese–except this will have three cheeses,” Mr. Lee said on Friday, Sept. 14, standing in the upstairs kitchen at Daniel, Mr. Boulud’s eponymous East 65th Street establishment.

Nearby, a cook wrapped quail legs in foil. The downstairs prep kitchen bustled with handsome Frenchmen, chopping chicken and vegetables for curry and soup. Pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini stirred puréed apricots into 40 gallons of Arborio rice pudding. “At least they’ll be happy for five minutes,” Mr. Iuzzini said of the emergency crew downtown. “For their breakfast tomorrow, I’m planning a table of Viennoiserie: pastries, brioches, pain au chocolat ….”

–Christine Muhlke

Help Wanted

“Are there going to be any jobs in New York now? If the job market in New York was bleak before, it is utterly devoid of hope now. What on earth am I going to do?”

–message posted Sept. 14 on, a New York-based journalism job Web site Getting to the Punch Line