It’s Sunday night at The Comedy Studio, an attic venue atop Harvard Square’s Hong Kong Chinese restaurant no larger than a classroom, packed with long cafeteria-style tables and people drinking giant vats of alcohol called Scorpion Bowls.
Coming straight from a wedding, Bethany van Delft slithers through the crowd to a makeshift backstage area during the middle of another comedian’s set. He’s telling the unmoved crowd, in a thick Downeast accent, about his experience with LSD.
“Sunday’s a rough night,” Amina Sutton, the Studio’s assistant manager, says. “It’s when we try new comics, and when our regulars try new stuff. It’s not always successful.”
To anchor the night, the studio enlists the help of a few house favorites &-&- the featured and headlining comics that make up the final two acts.
Van Delft is one of them.
“She’s a lifesaver,” says Sutton. “Some people come just for Bethany.”
To the club’s owner, Rick Jenkins, one factor is all it takes to make van Delft truly outstanding in a sea of stand-up wannabes &-&- “She’s been on TV.” On Comedy Central, no less.
Comedy Central appearances aside, Van Delft is also the founding member of New England’s first and only women of color comedy showcase, “Colorstruck,” and has been featured in high-profile comedy festivals such as New York City’s Underground Comedy Festival and, most recently, Montreal’s 2010 Just for Laughs Festival, in which she was a finalist.
But even if being on TV is enough to convince Jenkins, cracking up a tough crowd is the ultimate funny test. And tonight’s crowd is as cold as the $2.50 Shock Top drafts offered at the bar.
Van Delft rolls onto the tiny stage &-&- face aglow in the cheap lights, jeans tight and hiked up with a studded belt, iconic hair pulled back tight into a ball &-&- and starts by fantasizing about the result of “little blue eyed, blonde-haired babies” growing up under the influence of Jamaican nannies. The crowd doesn’t stop laughing till the red light flashes from the booth opposite the stage, signaling the end of her time allotment.
She cruises off stage, shaking Jenkins’s hand and sporting a smile that nearly severs her face in two, and heads for the bar.
“People ask me how I pick my comics,” quips Jenkins. “For Bethany, I just went up to her and asked if I could touch her hair, and the rest is history.”
That hair &-&- big, wild, kinked, “ethnic” &-&- is fodder for much of van Delft’s material. But with two so-called “Marxist” parents (one Puerto Rican and one white), a part-time job as a bartender, a love for baking and even a little modeling experience, van Delft is definitely not short on things to joke about.
“I’ve done an ad for pediatric anti-seziure medication,” she says, laughing deep and loud as she clutches a shining red Budweiser. “Those experiences are the best for material.”
Being able to tell audiences stories about the funny little happenings of everyday life, van Delft says, is what always attracted her to doing comedy.
“I’ve been a fan of Saturday Night Live since I was a baby,” she says.
She gave it a whirl herself, starting on tiny stages just like the one at The Comedy Studio, at a time in her life “when everything was great.”
“I started exploring things that I’ve always wanted to do, but was too afraid to do,” she adds, cracking up. “With the help of my therapist.”
After a stand-up class, and a few shows at the Studio, she became a regular there. But the commitment, she says, was rough, and she fell out of the circuit for a while. Then, five years ago, van Delft says she realized comedy wasn’t out of her system.
“I’m like, this is what I wanna do,” she says.
Although her face is smooth and her laugh is girlish, van Delft is actually, she says, old for her field. She hesitates to reveal her age &-&- and says it’s fine with her if the exact number doesn’t make it into the article.
“Everyone’s so young in this business,” she says, recalling the 21-year-old comic whose birthday celebration is raging upstairs, as she speaks, in the karaoke bar sandwiched between the comedy club and the Hong Kong restaurant. “I know people talk about [how old I am]. They don’t say it to my face, but I hear things.”
“It’s such a crazy business, so soul crushing sometimes,” she adds.
“I’m totally into following my dreams. The older I get, the more dreams I have to follow, because, you have your mortality looking down on you,” she says.
Living in a city like Boston, van Delft adds, is a good springboard for not just her dreams, but also her comedy.
“Comedy nationally has more people from this area than anyone else, so of course it’s awesome for that,” she says.
“The whole living in the city thing is really funny.”
She tells an anecdote about recently meeting a girl from Montana, and being in awe that living in Montana, one never has to think about all the things city people do.
“You live in Montana, it’s like, you and the earth, like that’s kinda it,” she says, seriously. “It kinda reminds you of what’s important. Not the T, not trash day, not having to wear heels and think, “Why’s everything cobblestone here?”
It’s the “first world problems” of a metropolitan lifestyle, she says, that run her life and fuel her comedy. First world problems like being too old to be a comedian, for example, or not being able to share her second passion, baking, with her health-conscious husband.
“He started with this going-to-the-gym bulls–t, he says I can’t bake for him anymore,” she says. So she took up a part-time job at a bakery in the South End, where, she says, she can “outlet her love of baking” without tempting her husband.
“He’ll be like, “What’d you make today?’ and I’ll say, “Apple cake,’ and he’ll want some, but I say he can’t have any because he told me I couldn’t share anymore,” she says, arms crossed over her chest and head cocked to the side.
But judging by the way she rescued tonight’s show and the way she humbles not only her crowd, but her fellow comedians, it’s clear that van Delft, no matter how exclusive she is with her baked goods, won’t have any problem continuing to share her comedy for another 40-something years.