Comic with a conscience: laughing with Larsen

It’s 30 minutes before show time at the Fanatic Lounge inside Howard Johnson’s Plaza Hotel in West Bremerton. The small bar is packed with about 60 people.

“Already my palms are sweating,” said local comic Cris Larsen.

You never get used to the stage fright, he said. Or as he likes to describe it, “the excitement of performing before a live crowd.”

Larsen, a resident of Illahee, has been doing stand-up comedy since the 1980s. He knew he’d finally made it when he saw his name up in lights in a New York theater in 1996.

The theater had a celebrity crowd.

“Tara Banks (the model) was in one of the front rows,” recalls Larsen. “I told the audience ‘I know I’ll never get another chance like this.’ Then I pulled out a stage-prop ring and asked her to marry me.”

Larsen doesn’t have to advertise. At this point in his career, “The phone just keeps ringing.” He’s on the comedy circuit, performing in clubs large and small from Bremerton to New York, Chicago to Kalispell, Mont. He’s toured Canada and been to the Virgin Islands.

“Some of the best places are not in the big cities,” he said, “but in the small towns. In the big cities they’ve ‘seen it all.’ But in the small towns you really feel appreciated.”

On a recent Friday night at the Fanatic he did a 15-minute gig between the opening act, comic Michael Schneider of Seattle, and the Canadian headliner, Henry O. Rockson. Larsen, 39, explained that openers are usually young “up-and-comers” who get the crowd warmed up, and headliners are always veterans brought out to bring the house down.

Stand-up comedy is more physical than people realize. Larsen, a large man in an Hawaiian shirt and shorts, was visibly perspiring as the jokes spewed out.

Larsen was born and raised in Kitsap County and is a graduate of Olympic High School. He first got interested in the stage in high school.

“They finally asked me to leave when I re-wrote the closing to ‘Inherit the Wind,’” he joked. “Hey, I wanted the other side to win just once” he said of the play based on the famous 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial, in which the teaching of evolution was put on trial in a courtroom.

Now he’s gone on to meet many of the biggies in comedy. He considers George Miller, who’s appeared on the “David Letterman Show” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” as a mentor. He had a bit part on the television show “Frasier.”

“I’ve had Steve Martin call my house,” he said.

Ron Cochrell, Larsen’s teacher at OHS and still marketing teacher there, had nothing but praise for Larsen.

“He still meets with students every year to run our Outreach Dinner for the homeless,” said Cochrell. The dinner is held at the Eagles Club the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

“He’s really dedicated to this community,” said Cochrell. “Good business people always give back to the community as much as they take out ... Cris gives back more than his share.” Larsen is a longtime member of the Rotary Club of East Bremerton.

Not all of Larsen’s rise to success has been been glitz and glamour.

“I can remember in Montana doing $25 gigs,” Larsen said, “and then having the manager of the (bar or club) tell me ‘that sucked. I’m not paying you.’”

On those nights, the joke was on Larsen.

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