By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
On stage, the skinny guy with the thin blond hair appears almost too brittle for show business. There are no big hand gestures; his motions are few. But he doesn't stumble over his words, and he doesn't forget his lines, and he is able to make 200 people laugh.
"I'm on my way over here tonight. I pull up to a stop light. These punks pull up next to me. I just happen to glance over at them. They see me looking; right away they start in."
He switches his moderately pitched voice into a scary, raspy one.
" 'Hey! What are ya looking at, ya little faggot. Look at chya, ya little skinny fag -- you look like a faggot.' " Back to his normal voice: "And I tried to ignore 'em for as long as I could, but they just kept on. So finally I said fine." Sean extends his middle finger stage left to the imaginary bullies, " 'There, is that what you wanted?' "Well, one of 'em gets out of the car, sneaks up behind me and then grabs me by my hair and pulls me out of the car. Then, the rest of 'em get out and beat me to the ground right there in the street. Then, one by one, they rape me. "Am I the only one who sees a double standard, here?" The crowd starts to break out into a titter.
The comic slowly turns his head in the direction of his assailants. "What do you say now, you little sissies!"The titter spawns into a full-on roar from the liquored-up room. Sean Rouse, 24, with molasses-slow delivery and shocking language, is "on." Competing in the Houston's Funniest Person Contest, he's up against 47 other wanna-be comics. Sean has made it to the finalist round, the one offering money to the top three finishers, and is able to pull out a second-place for the second consecutive year.
The greater part of Sean's life is geared toward being funny. Much of his dossier is not.
There is soreness all over. Shoulders and knees are real tight. The ankles just plain hurt. Overall mobility is minimal. Sean doesn't really joke about this on stage, but nonetheless it encompasses his life. Some days, Sean is able to rise and hop in the shower. Other days, he must take a few minutes after sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. Wait out the aches.
It's from the rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors originally thought it was the more dangerous lupus.
Every morning at 10, earlier when he has to, Sean Rouse eats his breakfast of fruit and downs his meds (usually eight pills) in one gulp.
On a recent morning, Sean is moving gingerly, slightly hunched while navigating his apartment. The arthritis isn't too bad now, when it's hot and relatively dry. The worst is during winter, when his joints cling to each other for dear life.
His girlfriend stays over a lot. While Sean is cutting a cantaloupe, she is watching an overly tan thirtysomething blonde espouse the benefits of some bronzing lotion, rubbing it on the arm of a pale woman for effect. She beckons her boyfriend to watch. It is a request the fair-skinned Sean has rejected more than once. "Baby, in-fo-mer-cial. Get a-way from the TV." Defeated, she plops down on the small sofa.
Sean, diagnosed during his teen years, has no health insurance from his two part-time jobs at the Laff Stop, office worker and traffic-school teacher. Luckily his mother works in a Katy clinic, where Dr. Charles Knopp sees him bimonthly.
Nearly $2,400 of his $7,500 annual salary is spent on meds -- prednisone, Hydroxychlor, methotrexate, Celebrex, Lodine, Vioxx, glucosamine and Tylenol Arthritis -- usually bought at drugstores. Sometimes there are samples from his mom's clinic. The meds make the pain subside during the day, and Sean is able to work five, sometimes six or seven days a week.
During the week, Sean spends most of his time at the Laff Stop taking ticket orders. On weekend mornings he gets to polish his routines and timing when he teaches traffic school at the club.
He weaves one-liners and comic vignettes into his delivery of traffic statistics and safety tips. For the most part, the students are unimpressed.
"What's the first thing you check after an accident?"
Insurance, says a seemingly astute thirtysomething.
A collective sigh from the class of nine. Injuries, they weren't thinking about.
"What do you look for? Cash. Credit cards. And hurry up and get to the mall because they'll call [the credit cards] in when they come to."
There are at times laughs from the crowd, but they are muffled, infrequent and rarely collective. Sean shakes this off. He knows his audience doesn't want to be spending its Sunday mornings with him. No matter, Sean is getting stage (table) time andmoney.
Sean needs a newer car because he will soon be traveling, and not all clubs pay for plane tickets. So far he has saved $1,000; he wants two grand more before he replaces the '91 Cherokee truck with too many miles. He anticipates a much better payday forthcoming: a middle act -- what Sean wants to be in four months -- can make $400 to $700 per gig, depending on the quality of the headliner, who usually makes around $2,000 for a set of shows.