Actor-comedian Bill Bellamy finds his groove in front of an audience

Bill-BellamyThis week is the first time comedian, actor and television host Bill Bellamy has returned to Wisconsin since early in his career.

The last trip Bellamy made to the Badger State was in the mid ’90s when he was working as a VJ for MTV and visited the University of Wisconsin during a tour of college campuses.

Bellamy’s career has expanded well beyond MTV, and his comedy material has found a permanent home in pop culture. He’ll be performing Thursday through Saturday at the Comedy Quarter in Neenah.

A talent for telling jokes would propel Bellamy’s career in show business, but he didn’t always recognize that standup comedy was meant for him.

“I was always a funny guy just hanging out with the fellas,” he recalls. “But I didn’t know if I could transfer that to the stage and the microphone.”

Bellamy discovered his skills for making an audience laugh when he performed standup while attending Rutgers University. His routine helped him win a male beauty pageant. But the Newark, N.J., native chose comedy over pageantry.

Bellamy’s biggest break in comedy was his appearances on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which is produced by media mogul Russell Simmons. Bellamy calls those appearances “an amazing opportunity.”

“It’s basically like getting thrown into the big leagues,” he says. “You’re basically being stamped as one America’s hottest urban comics.”

It was during a Def Jam performance that Bellamy apparently coined the term ‘booty call.’ He realizes some people doubt he was first to use the expression now widely known as a late-night call to a lover for some casual sex. But Bellamy says you can find his original clip on YouTube. “Booty Call” was also the name of Bellamy’s Showtime comedy special.

Bellamy’s work on the screen is just as recognizable as his comedy. His movie roles include an NFL wide receiver in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” in which he acted next to Al Pacino. His other films include “The Brothers,” “Love Stinks” and “How to Be a Player.”

He recently finished two other films: “Getting Played,” a romantic comedy with Vivica A. Fox and Carmen Electra, as well as another comedy project with a cast including comedian Mike Epps and rapper/actor Ice Cube. On television, Bellamy has been the face of reality programs featuring comedians. He hosted the sixth season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” and currently hosts and is one of the producers on the TV One cable series “Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes?”

Acting has been a big part of Bellamy’s life, but there’s something he gets from performing standup comedy that’s much different than working in front of a camera.

“When you do movies and TV, you’ve got scripts to read,” he explains. “You’re reading somebody else’s words. Comedy is liberating. It’s really who I am.”

He calls comedy an “outlet” that lets him give his take on the issues of our time.

“I think now my comedy is really in the right place,” Bellamy says. “This is a great time to be funny because there’s so much going on in this country.”

The performer fully expects to give the Comedy Quarter audience a good show. Bellamy says people shouldn’t have to worry about the two-drink minimum. “You gotta buy two beers because you’re gonna knock the first one on the floor laughing.”

Receiving or delivering, pickup lines come with plenty of humor

Spring is known as a time of year when love is in the air and young men and women chase each other around like fools. Making initial contact is your first step in creating a potential love connection. But an opening line is often the toughest part of striking up a conversation. That’s why many people try to be creative.

Some pickup lines attempt to sound romantic. “You must be a sweater because you’ve got me feeling warm all over.” Some take a shot at being clever. “Are you a surgeon? Because you just took my heart away.” Others are overly confident. “If you think you’ll regret this in the morning we can always sleep until the afternoon.”

When my editor suggested an April Fools’ article on pickup lines, I paused for a moment, wondering if a prank was being played on me. I thought, “What do pickup lines have to do with April Fools’ Day?” The answer came when I talked to people enjoying a few drinks in the Fox Valley last weekend. Most of them view pickup lines as a joke – something mostly gullible people fall for – just like an April Fools’ trick.

Liz Voight of Appleton recalled a recent line used in an effort to flatter her. “One guy I met at a bar in Chicago asked me if I was from Georgia because I sure was a peach,” she said with a laugh.

Voight and her friends were having a girls’ night out at Route 15 in Greenville. They all agreed when it comes to using cheesy lines, the male species is the main culprit.

Stacy August told me the story of a pickup attempt that was unexpected and slightly inappropriate at the same time.

“We were talking about kids and family and he was like, ‘I have a son.’ I asked ‘How old is he?’ He said ‘Well, you haven’t had him yet,'” she recalled.

August said pickup lines usually don’t work, but they do make her laugh. She said if it seems like the guy doesn’t use pickup lines on a regular basis it’s “cute,” but if it’s his normal strategy for meeting women it becomes “creepy.”

A group of friends at The Bar of Appleton also told me that while men use pickup lines most often, it seems women have a better chance of being successful with a corny icebreaker.

“You can be a gym rat and be all tough in front of your friends,” said Jim Hernandez. “But when it comes to a good-looking woman, we all get a little timid. It just takes the ice right off the situation if she makes the first move.”

Maybe the ladies need to lighten up.

The nationally known pickup artist Mystery (real name Erik von Markovik) is an author, TV personality and mentor to men looking for help in their love life. His books include “The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed,” and he hosted the reality TV show “The Pickup Artist” on VH1.

Mystery has some interesting theories on the so-called art of seduction. For one thing, Mystery believes a man must approach a woman he’s interested in within three seconds of noticing her. Otherwise he’ll become too nervous, get caught staring at her and blow his chances. That’s right fellas, according to Mystery, you’ve got more time to pick up a piece of food that fell on the floor than to make your first move on the girl across the bar.

Mystery also says one reason men get so nervous about approaching women is because the fear is wired into our genetics. He presumes that early man learned if he approached a woman who was taken by a tribal leader, or one of the leader’s friends, that man would receive what we now call a beat down. Apparently, things haven’t changed much since the Cro-Magnon days. You have to wonder if there was a caveman version of Vince Vaughn telling his buddy, “You’re so money and you don’t even know it.”

The methods Mystery suggests may or may not work for you. He tells his students “to get a woman interested you have to be interesting.” Mystery accomplishes this by wearing giant fuzzy cowboy hats, painting his fingernails and reciting odd mathematical trivia. If that’s not your style, you can probably find your own way to be interesting.

The girls at Route 15 have a friend who met his future wife by passing a note across the bar asking “Do you like me? Circle yes or no.”

Women can get creative as well. Beth Manteuffel of Freedom told me how she caught the attention of an old high school crush she noticed on one of her many trips to the mall.

“There was this really hot guy who worked at Spencer’s Gifts,” said Manteuffel. “Finally, one day I noticed him in the food court. You know what I literally did? Sign language.” Manteuffel said she used hand gestures to pantomime the words I think you are hot. “The kid walked over, I met him, and we’re friends to this day,” she said.

Back at The Bar, the table came to the consensus that you don’t have to get crazy when you approach someone for the first time.

“I’ve had people come up to me and they don’t smoke, but they ask for a cigarette just because I have them sitting in front of me,” said Jody Suprise. “Then they try to strike up a conversation.”

Hernandez said, “When you’re at a bar, who hasn’t been asked ‘Do you come here often? Is this your place to hang out?'” That night, he was at The Bar with Jessica, his wife of nine years. She had quite a few stories about getting hit on, which she assured her husband were far in the past.

There is one opening line Jessica suggested all men avoid. “Are those real?”

The art of bartending: You must know more than just how to pour

Jeff Thurber, Flair Bartender

You’ll find a wide variety of people serving drinks at your favorite local bars — young and old, male and female, sharp-witted storytellers and sympathetic listeners.

Just as different artists have different ways of expressing their individuality, bartenders use their own talents, personality traits and life experiences to create what could be called an art form.

Brittney Metz, part owner of The Bar of Appleton, understands just how much it takes to tend bar.

“The art of this business is extreme,” she explains. “You get to be an actress, a psychologist, a friend, a babysitter, an entertainer … the list is endless.”

The business of serving others has always been part of Metz’s life. Her family has been in the bar and restaurant industry for more than 50 years. She started helping out at a young age but never lost her passion for the job.

“Each day you have fresh new people that walk into your life and you are the one that has to want to have the open arms and mind to take care of them,” Metz says. After working at The Bar for a decade, Metz became a partner with the organization in 2007.

She uses her expertise to bring up new bartenders like 19 year-old Kelly Lautenschlager, who won the Fox Cities Hub Best Bartender Contest. Metz is proud one of her employees was chosen the winner, and thinks it’s because Kelly treats her customers like family.

A close relationship with people on the other side of the bar is also something Wendy Charon from Route 15 in Greenville sees as the most important part of being a top shelf bartender. She’s been serving drinks for about 10 years, but it’s more than simply her experience tending bar that comes in handy at work.

“You have to be able to relate to your customers in a very rounded way,” Charon says. “I’m 34, so obviously I have some life experience under my belt. I’m also a mom so that helps as well.”

Most bartenders are very social people, and the majority will tell you that mingling with the people they serve is their favorite part of the job. But it’s not always jokes and Jell-O shots. Charon says being a bartender is a lot like being a counselor. Sometimes customers turn to her for more serious conversation.

“If they need to get away and have a drink because of life’s craziness, they know that I’ll give them the best advice I can, and I’ll be honest with them.”

Charon has found many of the qualities she’s known for as a bartender translate toward her future career. She’s studying at Fox Valley Technical College to become an occupational therapist.

“Right now I’m doing my fieldwork at the emergency shelter in Appleton. So I work with the homeless population a lot, just teaching life skills to them,” Charon says. She also admits some of her regulars could also use a little life coaching every now and then.

Being a student and a mom on top of bartending isn’t easy. Charon says it can be hard to stay upbeat in front of Route 15’s customers after waking up at 6 a.m. and then closing down the bar that night.

Back at the Bar of Appleton, Metz agrees. She knows all bartenders battle that feeling of being burnt out once in awhile.

“The biggest challenge is to always maintain that great energy,” she says. “When there is nowhere to run or hide, you have to swallow it down and keep your head held high.”

Jeff Thurber from The Durty Leprechaun in downtown Appleton considers himself somewhat of a showman behind the bar. He pulls off stunts like Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie “Cocktail.”

Thurber follows in the footsteps of legendary bartender Jerry “The Professor” Thomas. Thomas is believed to be one of the first barkeeps to turn serving drinks into a performance art. The flashy dresser and expert mixologist juggled bottles from coast to coast during the late 1800s. He’s also credited with popularizing the cocktail in the United States.

Thurber talked up his own skill on his Fox Cities Hub Best Bartender profile. “I have plenty of bar flair to go around, but my favorite has to be the stacked shot pour!” Thurber has spent eight years honing his bottle flair, but he also prides himself in creating a fun atmosphere by choosing the right music and “getting the patrons fired up by pounding on the bar.”

While every bartender in Wisconsin must complete a course to obtain a license to serve alcohol, that’s only part of learning how to do the job. Wendy Charon says you also must learn to go the extra mile by adding a personal touch.

“You can come to work and be a bartender but what else are you giving up?” she asks. “What’s your personality?”

Working late night hours, dealing with rude customers, handling the hectic mess with a smile on your face — it seems like a thankless job at times. However, Metz says there’s an upside that makes all the hassles worthwhile.

“The biggest reward is knowing that you somehow made a difference in another person’s life,” she says. “The best feeling is knowing that there will be people returning to come and see you.”

Caustic comedian Ralphie May looking for laughs in Neenah

ralphie-mayRalphie May has been looking forward to getting some laughs in America’s Dairyland. The boisterous baby-faced comedian played to large crowds in Milwaukee and Madison last weekend. He’s spending this weekend at Comedy Quarter in Neenah.

“I have tons of friends who love Wisconsin,” May said. “I can’t wait.”

Club owner Rich Wickesberg is also looking forward to having a comic of Ralphie’s caliber in town for a special event this weekend. You can see the often racy but usually loveable comedian at one of his five shows tonight through Saturday.

“He’s playing mostly all theaters,” Wickesberg said. “He’s down at the Pabst Theater … then he’s in Madison, which all hold 1,600-plus people, and then he’s coming to Neenah to come play our club. We’re excited about it.”

While May started performing comedy as a teenager in the late ’80s, America didn’t get its first big dose of Ralphie May until 2003. That’s when he appeared on the first season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” May fell just short of the title, losing to Dat Phan in the show’s finale. Many thought May was robbed of the win, but he’s far from bitter about the experience.

“We were like kids, we had a blast,” May said. “We had no idea when we were making that show that 150 million people would watch it over the course of the year. We had no idea it would be Emmy nominated. We just wanted to make an entertaining show.” The exposure helped bring May’s scathing comedy to a much wider audience.

“It propelled me to a whole new place,” he said.

Since then, May’s list of accomplishments has included recording three one-hour specials for Comedy Central, becoming a regular on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and recently landing a role in an upcoming movie starring Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Sedaris. The film, “The Best and the Brightest,” is about a suburban couple that moves to New York City and tries to get their daughter into an exclusive kindergarten.

“I play a security guard at a school that they’re touring,” May said. “It’s just a little scene, but it’s a funny scene.”

Long before any of his recent success, May got his first big break from one of the most prolific comics of the ’80s. He was 17 years old and taking college classes at the University of Arkansas while still attending high school. Friends in a study group, which met at a Shakey’s Pizza, encouraged him to try out for a stand-up comedy contest at the restaurant.

After winning several rounds, May eventually won the grand prize — a chance to open for the legendary Sam Kinison at a big comedy concert in the area.

A former Pentecostal preacher known for his controversial material, ear-piercing screams and a reputation for partying hard, Kinison was a true rock star comedian. His untimely death in a 1992 car crash shocked the comedy world. May remembers driving to the gig with the fiery comic and talking some shop.

“He goes, ‘Kid, are you nervous?’ I said no. He said, ‘Kid, there are going to be 3,000 people there and no one is paying to see you.'”

Kinison told the young comic that the audience would love him if he yelled and cursed at them during his set. Ralphie took the tongue-in-cheek advice seriously.

“A couple of jokes bombed and I remembered what Sam said so I started yelling,” May said. “Thirty-five-hundred people in unison start to boo me.”

When Kinison came on stage he acted just as angry as the rest of the audience, telling the crowd Ralphie May would never work in comedy again.

“At that time he was the most powerful person in standup comedy, and he says I’m never going to do it again,” May said. He remembers being nearly in tears while talking to his mom on a pay phone. That’s when Kinison’s brother came up to him and assured the novice comedian that everything was OK. Sam Kinison never thought Ralphie would actually follow his advice, but found the whole thing to be hilarious.

May was invited to a party after the show, which he describes as “no place for a kid to be.”

“Me, I’m drinking half a beer and pouring the other half out,” May said with a laugh. He left that night with a stamp of approval from Kinison, and the confidence to continue telling jokes to crowds.

“Eight months later I left Arkansas never to move back, and moved to Houston to pursue comedy,” he said.

May’s life has been full of comedy ever since. He even married fellow comic Lahna Turner. She’ll be appearing at Comedy Quarter April 7 through 11, and comes with a reputation for having a sense of humor even more twisted than her husband’s.

Rich Wickesberg at Comedy Quarter says tickets for the shows this weekend are going fast and some performances are close to selling out.