Monday, January 31, 2011

John Kawie

I may have written before that journalists seldom have the opportunity to do anything that approaches a long-form interview. Usually the first question that I ask once I've been told I have an interview scheduled is "how much time do I have?"

It was a refreshing change of pace to sit down with John Kawie and his wife to discuss his DVD without a publicist setting a time limit. Kawie is a very likable guy – heck, he's a Springfield boy who remembers the Wicky Wacky Cloud Club, for goodness sake! – and I could have spoken with him much longer than I did.

It made me feel good. I hope he liked the story I wrote.

Sometimes cliches aren't trite and John Kawie has indeed made lemonade out of the lemons life has handed to him.

In 1997, the Springfield native had successfully made a difficult career transition. After almost a decade of hard work, he had left his role as a business owner and become an in-demand stand-up comedian.

A week after his wedding, Kawie faced the aftermath of something he never anticipated: a devastating stroke at age 47.

Kawie's journey through his recovery is presented in his one-man show, "Brain Freeze," which has just been released on DVD.

Kawie spoke to Reminder Publications during a visit to the area. Although a long time resident of New York City, Kawie, who grew up in the Hungry Hill section of Springfield, has family and friends here.

He recalled fondly going to Springfield Indians matches at the Coliseum and Giants games at Pynchon Park while growing up.

Even though he successfully headed the business founded by his father, Kawie said, "My first love was to make people laugh." When someone approached him to buy the business, Kawie saw this as his opportunity to follow his dream.

He took a course on writing humor, which culminated with a performance at a Connecticut comedy club.

"I had a great set and I loved it," he recalled.

He was hooked.

"If you follow what your heart tells you to, doors will open," he asserted.

He decided to move to New York City and pursue a career as a comic.

"I was broke, but I was working," he said.

Kawie explained that in the late 1980s during the boom of stand-up comedy, there were a lot of clubs in New York City, but not all of them paid. Many club owners considered giving stage time to a new comic to be enough compensation.

Kawie noted with appreciation the owner of the Improvisation as someone who would regularly give the comics at least a token payment that could pay for carfare.

To help make ends meet, Kawie landed a job at a Gap store as a clerk, while seeking time on stages at clubs. He said there is a difference between staying in New York City to work as opposed to touring. Comics watch each other in New York City and tend to write better. On the road, he explained, comics learn they can be sloppier with their performances.

Kawie was seen as an up and comer, opening for comics such as Dennis Miller and Howie Mandel. He had his own special on Comedy Central and he developed a unique niche as the country's first Arab-American comedian.

He became a writer and performer on "The David Brenner Radio Show" and wrote for Bill Maher's monologue on Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect." He also was a substitute host for Dick Cavett on his radio talk show and he wrote for Dennis Miller's show on HBO.

He recalled with a smile fellow comics, such as Dave Attell and Sam Kinison, who encouraged him.

"Life was good," he said.

One week after his own wedding, he and his wife Marilyn attended the wedding of a friend. The next day, Kawie didn't feel just right, but he chalked it up to a mild hangover. When he realized that his condition far exceeded his initial reaction, he was taken to a hospital.

He had had a stroke and he thought at the time he would be released the next day.

Instead, he spent months in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics regaining his abilities. He admitted, "My memory was shot."

His left arm was paralyzed and he had difficulty walking.

His outpatient therapy years were "the dark period of my life," he said.

Participating in group therapy, Kawie began to tell a joke each session as a way to work his way back. He started writing again and thought about a project.

Kawie's comic idol was Richard Pryor. He explained there are several schools of comedy. Comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld offer observations, while someone such as Pryor deal in telling truths about themselves and society.

Before his stroke, Kawie had become interested in the monologues of Spalding Grey and Eric Bogosian and Kawie began to think about turning his experience into a one-man play.

His acting coach helped him for six months, writing and honing what would become "Brain Freeze." He had trouble memorizing his work and would listen to a recording of it over and over to learn it. Memorization didn't help the comic timing he needed and he had to learn where to pause.

He said that those around him always encouraged his effort.

"I always got green lights. "I didn't get red light," he said.

Kawie started performing his show at hospitals and rehab centers to others facing the same challenges he faced. The reaction was so positive, he started performing in "off off Broadway" theaters.

He expanded his writing activities by writing a column, "Life at the Curb," for the American Heart Association's magazine, "Stroke Connection."

A performance in 2003 at the New York Fringe Festival led to an award, "Best Solo Show," and to glowing reviews in the New York Times and the New York Daily News.

He acquired an agent Spalding Grey's wife and took the show all over the nation.

In the show, Kawie speaks about dealing with the aftermath of his stroke from using a plethora of Post-it Notes to trying to button his overcoat with one hand.

While at his 40th high school reunion at Williston Academy, Kawie met a fellow alumnus who heads PARMA Recordings.

"That's how the DVD was born," he said,

Kawie said the release of the DVD will "get it out there to rehab centers I couldn't go to."

He intends to continue touring with the show, but will do far less traveling. He is now thinking about a book on his experiences.

He admitted that he "sometimes" misses performing stand-up, but sometimes not."

"It's a grueling lifestyle," he said.

He wouldn't want to be a young comic starting these days. He noted that some club owners are concerned about political correctness in comedy.

"It's better when you let the comic go, let him fly," he said.

To learn more about "Brain Freeze," visit its Facebook page or go to here.

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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