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Been There, Dunked That by Brian Dunkleman: Full Circle

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I guess you could say my first comedy performance was in 1987 at Jenna Rogan’s house when I was 15 years old. She had all the basketball players and cheerleaders over for a party after one of our games.

At some point that night, I made my way to the kitchen and helped myself to a giant one-gallon container of ice cream. It was just me and two of my buddies in the kitchen watching me eating Rocky Road right out of the tub when I started reciting Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” album. I had memorized the entire thing and could do all the same impressions and voices that Eddie did.

My two friends started laughing so loud that a couple more kids made their way to the kitchen to see what was going on. Gradually more people came in until finally the entire party was crammed in that room, watching me eating ice cream, doing Eddie’s act and improvising. Everything I said and did was getting a laugh.

I had them.

I kept going until I finally looked down and realized I had eaten the entire gallon of ice cream. I still remember the feeling I had in that kitchen all these years later.

After that night, whenever we were at a party in a neighboring town, my friend Tommy would just announce to the entire crowd of kids, “Hey everyone, listen to the voices my friend Dunk can do.”  He’d then make me go through all the characters from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” or just shout out other cartoon voices for me to perform. He almost always ended up making out with some hot girl as a result.

In February of ’92, I was attending college at RIT in Rochester and was driving back to Ellicottville on weekends to work as a bar-back at Madigan’s. They started doing a comedy night there and, after seeing one of the shows, I had what was most likely a couple too many drinks and approached owners Kevin and Grace Kell to inform them that they should consider letting me host sometime.

Once they did some quick math and figured that if just my immediate family alone came they would do well at the door, they informed me that I would be going on in two weeks.   

What did I just get myself into?

I had never set foot in an actual comedy club, so I just started preparing a list of all the things that made my friends laugh. A few days before the show, I had a rehearsal in Brian and Donna McFadden’s basement in front of a few friends who gave me some notes and suggestions.

Finally, the night of the show arrived. The show I had seen there a few weeks prior had a crowd of around 20 or 25 people. That night, it was packed with over a hundred.

Kevin and Grace know what they’re doing.

When I walked in and saw how many people were there I immediately regretted it. What the hell was I thinking? I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t believe the intensity of my nerves. I did about 4 or 5 shots just to get up enough courage to make my way to the stage. Everyone gave me a huge round of applause when I was announced.

Friends and family will do that for you.

The first couple of minutes were shaky. Very shaky. At one point I just blanked and started rocking back and forth muttering, “OK, let’s see…” I still have the show on a VHS tape and you can hear my brother-in-law in the audience say, “uh oh.”

The crowd gave me some shouts of encouragement and I finally managed to pull it together and got my first real laugh.

Everything shifted.

I got another laugh. And then another. Then applause. Then cheers.

I ended up doing about 20 minutes that night, which I would later learn was an absurdly long time for someone who was just starting out, let alone being on stage for the first time. Now truth be told, if had been in a comedy club in front of a bunch of strangers that night, I might have peed myself and run off stage crying and never tried it again. But the support in that room was so overwhelming that it allowed me to ride it like a wave.

Over the past 24 years, I’ve done thousands of shows in almost every state in the country. I’ve performed at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and on “The Tonight Show.” I had my own Showtime comedy special. I’ve performed countless times at the Improv, Laugh Factory and Comedy Store in Los Angeles – on the same stages where Richard Prior, George Carlin, Robin Williams and David Letterman have stood.

But the most gratifying show I’ve ever done was last week, just a few hundred feet from where I stood in Madigan’s that very first night, right here in Ellicottville.   

Thank you to everyone at Villaggio. Thank you Nick Pitillo. Thank you to Kevin and Grace for being there, once again, two and a half decades later. Thank you to my family. Thank you to everyone who came out to see the show.

It was almost bizarre how utterly devoid of nerves I was. I kept telling myself: “You had no idea what you were doing all those years ago, and they still laughed. Now you know what you’re doing.”   

It’s the support of this community that made that possible. For that, I am truly grateful.

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