Mark Brier is an old hand at stand-up comedy. And on this particular Monday afternoon, that hand is wearing a green glove as he takes the stage at the East Meadow Public Library.
"When we moved to Florida," he tells the crowd of roughly 40 people, "I was 14, and we had a neighbor, Mr. Tony Dinato, the nicest man, and he was always planting in the garden. My mother told me he had a green thumb, I didn't know what it meant. Every day, I would sit and talk to Mr. Dinato, and I'd be waiting for him to take his gloves off so I could see the green thumb."
That joke plants the seed of laughter that comes from the audience, about half of whom are newcomers to "Laughs at the Library," a comedy showcase hosted by Brier, 65, once a month, in which he tells jokes and shares the stage with several of his stand-up pals who drop by on any given show day. It's free entertainment with the promise of coffee, cookies and big laughs for all who attend.
Library laughs since 2004
The "Laughs" program has been a staple at the library since September 2004, and who knows what surprises are in store for this Monday's edition, which will mark Brier's 100th show there.
"Laughs at the Library" might never have happened if Brier hadn't struck up a conversation eight years ago with Jude Schanzer, head of public relations and programming for the library. Schanzer, who had tried once before to book comedy at the library, found herself laughing the whole time they talked. "She wanted to bring comedy to the library. I said, 'I'm a stand-up comedian,' and she said, 'Sit down,' " Brier recalls.
So they gave "Laughs at the Library" a shot, and it was an immediate hit. Brier and his colleagues usually perform in East Meadow on the last Monday of the month. "This is a program where you can laugh for an hour and a half," Schanzer says. "We're not going to do brain surgery. And there's a sense of community, which is important . . . especially right now. It gets a decent crowd. They get together and have some coffee. He tells jokes, they tell jokes. This could bring peace to the Middle East."
Brier preferred not to disclose how much he gets paid, but Schanzer says at East Meadow his payment "covers his expenses."
Keeping it clean
The program usually consists of Brier and his guest comics who drop by to tell their jokes. "I never know who's going to show up," Brier says. "I've had as many as 10 comedians show up and give them 10 minutes each.".
The guidelines for the show are simple: Keep it as clean as possible, and keep it funny. "I'm still able to get away with some stuff, but there's a line," says veteran comic Harry Freedman, 59, of East Norwich, a frequent visitor who does professional stand-up, has opened for Ray Romano and performs at many corporate events, where he takes on a stage persona as a faux doctor. "You don't want to ram into them with vulgarity. I change the wording of some of my jokes from what I might do at a comedy club."
At the same time, the seniors who come to Brier's show don't mind if the humor veers into PG-13 territory. "They can handle a little bit of blue, but we try not to curse," says Eric Haft, 45, a musician from East Northport who started doing standup four years ago. "It should be funny, and they like it when you twist it up a little. They don't want it to be dumbed down. If you try to hold back too much 'you,' you lose the essence of the material."
Haft's routine touched on everything from marriage to Shakespeare, with just a smattering of double entendres thrown in for good measure.
"It's a great place to try out new material and also give back to the community," says comic Pat Gagliardi, 51, of Farmingdale. "I don't want to get on 'Letterman.' " After mulling that thought, he says, "I mean if it came my way, that would be wild, but it's a fun hobby."
It's not a tough crowd
Brier also encourages audience participation at his library shows, with some members sometimes tossing off a one-liner between sets. But the crowd is always respectful of the comics, says Freedman. "That's one of the things I love about performing for this group: There are no hecklers," he says.
Every summer, he also heads off to entertain at baseball fantasy camp with Jon Warden, a former Detroit Tiger who's gone from pitching fastballs to pitching one-liners.
Doing comedy at baseball camps seems like a natural progression for Brier, who grew up in Long Beach where, he says, one of his boyhood pals was Billy Crystal, whom he played ball with. Even though Brier loved comedy, he opted for a career in accounting after graduating from Hofstra University. It wasn't until he was in his 30s and was recently divorced from his first wife that he decided to give stand-up a try.
"Two other guys and I were all getting divorced at the same time, so we rented a house together. It was like 'Animal House,' " he jokes. "Some of the guys were upset they were getting divorced, but the way I dealt with it was comedy."
Practicing on roommates
Brier found a captive but willing audience in his housemates, who thought his jokes were hysterical. With their encouragement, he began trying his shtick at "Gong Shows" at various comedy clubs. "These guys made me go on the stage, and I got gonged. Then, I got gonged again, and then, I won one of these gong shows," he says.
From there, he got bookings at an Israeli nightclub in Island Park. "I worked there every Saturday night for a year. The whole show was a belly dancer, a singer and me," he says.
Despite getting gigs at other clubs, Brier still continued to work full-time as an accountant. (Mostly retired, he still does accounting work during tax season.) Now he's found a fulfilling second career through comedy, one that's equally fulfilling for patrons at his shows, like first-timer Edward Paley of East Meadow.
"I came today because it was free and I was free," says Paley, 56. "I'll definitely come back. What these guys do is hard. I work as a clinical social worker, and I've done workshops on laughter and the power of humor. Laughter is so important, especially after all we've been through with Sandy."
And that ultimately is what keeps Brier eager to continue sharing his gift for laughter. "I've had people come to me and say, 'This is the first time I've laughed since my spouse passed away," he says. "When you get something like that, that's your big payoff."
Get in on the laughs
On Dec. 17, Brier will be presenting Laughs at the Library in East Meadow for the 100th show at that location, and everyone who enjoys laughing is invited.
WHAT "Laughs at the Library" with Mark Brier
WHEN Monday at 1 p.m., East Meadow Public Library, 1886 Front St.
INFO Free. For details call 516-794-2570 or go to eastmeadow.info.
Think you might want to try your comedic prowess on a friendly audience? If your jokes are clean enough, speak to Brier after the show about possibly doing a stand-up set at a future date. Brier also welcomes jokes from the audience.