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 and money.
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.
There is a certain irony to Sean's life. Much of his routine consists of misogynistic jokes told at the expense of women. He attributes this to a bad breakup with his high school sweetheart years ago. At the same time, the two people he is closest to are his mother and present girlfriend.
"This one woman, gave birth to eight children at once. Did you see this? My God, what a miracle. Y'know, when I saw this, I said, 'Here's my opportunity to do something, just to let her know, that there are people living in this crazy world that still give a damn.' So I did. I went out and bought her a shiny new wagon.
"Not for the kids, just something to carry her snatch in."
The two-drink-minimumed crowd roars.
"Oh, come on, people. Eight kids in one sitting, there's gonna be some tissue damage.
"I'm just kidding around, folks." Pause. "I didn't spend a dime on the bitch."
Sean's mother raised him and his older brother on her own, and she is the most important person in his life. He sees her once a week and talks to her nearly every day. Cine Rouse (pronounced "see-nuh") works her administrative job 40 hours a week at Dr. Knopp's office.
He speaks to his father, Gene Rouse, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Houston, maybe six times a year. "He wasn't a big part of my childhood," says Sean. If there is anger toward his dad, it is "built-up anger, nothing on the surface." Dad left the family when Sean was seven.
Older brother Gene, who lives in Katy, recently graduated from University of Houston with a finance degree and was a Navy man for four years man before going to college. The brothers speak during chance encounters when Sean visits Katy.
The men in Sean's immediate family haven't been to any of his shows. He says he doesn't care.
Cine and son are taking a break from scrubbing Sean's modest Inner Loop apartment, sitting at the kitchen table. There is a fresh college-ruled notebook with names, numbers and addresses of a plethora of comedy clubs. Boise. Addleton. Milwaukee. St. Louis. Minneapolis. Cincinnati. Portland. Sean will send some a VHS cassette of his act; others will get a head shot and résumé.
"He's happy. He's doing what he wants to do. There's always the phone. He's 24; you have to let go," says Cine Rouse in her Irish accent. "I love it when he's around; we get along real well. In that line of work he's got to go where he can get the work."
Cine says she hasn't seen Sean perform on stage because she doesn't want to make him nervous. When Sean first started opening for Laff Stop shows he'd get nervous, but now he's past getting psyched out.
"I do tell him: Stick with the clean stuff," Cine says. "You have to be able to talk to all audiences."
It is obvious that Sean's content bothers her. When Sean mentions the joke in which he is raped by the roughnecks, she gives a disapproving glare then a stern "Sean!"
"It's not offensive to women, Mama!" His voice rising, he is defensive.
Cine tells him there are two things to never joke about.
Sean already knows this answer: "One, religion; and two, rape."
He explains in vain that, in the joke, it is he who is raped. She is not placated.
For the sake of future TV appearances, Sean is trying to spray his act for curse words. The only time he uses dirty language in his 30-minute set is during the punch line, which is far less than his idol. When he was in junior high, he'd play Sam Kinison's Louder than Hell cassette. Sat in his room and listened again and again.
"Remember that Sam Kinison: Not everybody would listen to him -- only some people would," Cine says.
Does she think Sean is funny?
Cine pauses. She starts to say something, then stops. She is choosing her words carefully. "He's got kind of a sneaky humor. It sneaks up on you." Her sense of humor is more the late Chris Farley and David Letterman.
Girlfriend Brandi Jordan, a University of Houston premed, met Sean when they worked together at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. Sean asked Brandi to come check out his comedy, and she was surprised to find she liked it.
She, religious like Sean's mother, is not offended by any of his material, unlike Sean's mother. The only thing that bugs Brandi is when he says, "God damn."
The couple is together all the time. Sean and Brandi say it would be difficult to keep up the relationship if they were geographically apart. For at least another year, that won't happen. But Sean aims to be a headliner by 2001. If he lived in Houston, not only would that be tough (most comics live in L.A.), he would be out-of-state most of the time anyway. Both say, in principle, they couldn't deal with a long-distance relationship; however, that's not something they're thinking about now.
In April '95, shortly after the abrupt breakup with his high school girlfriend, Sean returned home to Katy following a year at Blinn College in Bryan, inconsolable. "I couldn't stand [Bryan] -- bunch of rednecks. Just not my kind of town. I just wasn't too interested in college."
After that, he was just partying all the time. "Borrowing money from my mom. Just running around and stayin' wired up. Just partying."
The booze started flowing around the age of 13 or 14. The hashish was burned from around 15 or 16 years old. There used to be a lot of cocaine. Even tried crank.
'Shrooms are bountiful in Katy, and a local pastime, Sean says. A particularly funky kind grows out of cow doo-doo: golden tops with a purple ring lining the upper insides. Shake the little suckers and inhale the spores. It's akin to an acid trip.
Through the inebriated and hallucinatory haze, he job-hopped for a while. He was a loan teller for a bank five minutes from his house. Next was an apartment complex maintenance man job he got through a friend.
The jobs weren't great, but he was already writing his comedy, and to this day uses many of those original jokes. Unlike many comics, Sean says, he does not write material every day. He writes when things come to him, which is usually as he's falling asleep or driving.
In the spring of '97: "I was just sitting around all day, sitting on my ass, smokin' grass," when he told himself it was time to get on stage. He had been writing the material for two years, "knowing I wanted to get on stage."
Sean aspires to join an elite group that launched during Houston's comedy bull market of the early '80s. Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks, both remembered as mavericks, spent their rudimentary days here.
Brett Butler, who went on to early-'90s TV sitcom fame, not only played comedy clubs, but was one of a small, hungry group that played strip clubs. Janeane Garofalo tinkered with her act here before returning to her native New England.
Andy Huggins, a local comedian who shared the stage with the soon-to-be-famous acts, remembers about five clubs for comedy then. One of the hottest was the Comix Annex at San Felipe and Shepherd. Only the Laff Stop and Comedy Showcase survived the late-'80s/early-'90s low point for comedy. There are now four clubs.
Houston isn't recognized as a comedy spigot. But Laff Stop owner Mark Babbitt, to whom Sean attributes much of his success, says the current young comedian crop is awesome. The burly yet soft-spoken former nightclub owner has the only comedy club in Houston with an open mike, averaging 40 to 50 performers per show. Half of those who go up have a shot to be successful, he says.
Sean is one of the funniest young comics around, says Comedy Showcase manager Peggy Gutierrez. "He takes a long time to get to that punch line. By then, the audience is really anticipating it."
Mass exposure usually starts in L.A., and last year, at the behest of an agent friend of Laff Stop owner Babbitt, Sean went there to perform at an amateur showcase at the Melrose Improv. Agents and recruiters lurk in the dark depths of the showroom, looking to nab the next Jerry Seinfeld, or Chris Rock, or, in Sean's case, maybe the next Norm MacDonald. No scouts approached Sean after his set, but it was the first baby step toward recognition.
Then last winter Sean opened for L.A.-based headliner Doug Stanhope, who says Sean will make it big as a national headliner. "He's brilliantly funny and original, which is very rare to see" in a young comic, Stanhope says. "He uses silence, which is rare for someone new. He allows for silence, doesn't rush."
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Last month, using Stanhope's word of mouth for a hookup, Sean went on to the Comic Strip in El Paso where, for the first time in his career, he was a middle act. The first week he "killed," he says, and was asked to stay another five-day stint. Sean's second week at the Comic Strip started slow, but audiences warmed up to his 30-minute set as the week progressed. The club's owner asked Sean back to perform next year. It was the first time a club had paid for Sean's plane ticket and hotel, which was "cool."
Mild-mannered by day, Sean Rouse releases whatever demons possess him at night, on stage. There are no alternative career options. At age 12 he saw Eddie Murphy's Raw with a friend and immediately knew.
"I always wanted to. There's nothing like it, really. It's a total rush."
E-mail Seth Landau at firstname.lastname@example.org.