Throughout his career in stand-up, Ray Ellin has always sought new challenges. Now, after producing and directing documentary The Latin Legends of Comedy, the Boston bred comedian is about to see his efforts pay off big time.
By Dylan P. Gadino
As more than 200 people spill out from the showroom and enter the front corridor of the Comic Strip Live in ManhattanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Upper East Side, a clean-cut, olive-skinned guy in jeans happily greets nearly every last person, accepting Ã¢â‚¬Å“job well done” sentiments from strangers, as well as a few phone numbers from new female fans. He even gets a big hug from a young womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mother; the pair was in the audience that night, apparently developing Ã¢â‚¬â€ in between laughs Ã¢â‚¬â€ a crush on the man.
Ray Ellin owns this place. Not literally, of course. But at times like this, when he emcees a night of A-list comedy, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easy to think it. His job is a difficult one: He needs to open the show, set the tone for the night, be funny in between other comicsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ sets and keep the partially drunken crowd in check by dropping thinly veiled sarcastic comments like, Ã¢â‚¬Å“If you could order your drinks as loudly as possible, that would be helpful.”
Early in the show, he spots a couple in the front; the guy is hanging all over his woman. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Why donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t you just pee on her,” Ellin says, referring to the way an animal might mark its territory.
He then tells a story about how his veterinarian once told him that while heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s neutering his dog, he could give him testicle implants. RayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s response: Ã¢â‚¬Å“But do they feel real?” The good doc asked, Ã¢â‚¬Å“What do you mean?” EllinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s answer: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Like when theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re resting on your chin Ã¢â‚¬â€ do they feel real?” The crowd erupts.
As he tells it, Ellin loves his gig at the Comic Strip Ã¢â‚¬â€ in part because it keeps him on his toes and hones his ad-libbing, something he has become known for in the New York comedy scene. For instance, the following night at the club, stand-up veteran Jeff Garlin made a surprise appearance and did a 35-minute set while one comic never showed and another left early. So Ellin, without any prep work, ended up doing a total of 55 minutes on stage, much longer than typical hosting duties require.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing it right, the audience looks forward to seeing you,” Ellin says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When you host, you can make it like your show, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s good. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s harder because youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re breaking up your act. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easier to get up there and do a set and build a flow. When youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re emceeing, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re breaking up your bits, and youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re constantly interrupting your momentum.”
Performing well despite breaks in momentum is something all comics Ã¢â‚¬â€ Ellin included Ã¢â‚¬â€ need to do on a consistent basis. In case you thought the opposite, stand-up isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really the most stable profession. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a sort of one-step-forward-two-steps-back type of endeavor Ã¢â‚¬â€ and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re talented and lucky. But EllinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more than 15 years on the national comedy circuit has been paying off, especially as of late. Broken momentum looks to be a thing of the past.
LATIN LEGENDS AND REINFORCED CROTCHES
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t lived until youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve measured a mailmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inseam,” Ellin laughs as he reminisces about a job he once had selling postal uniforms door to door (or, in this case, post office to post office). Ã¢â‚¬Å“You know youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen it all when you can just look at a manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s waist and recommend the 12-ounce gabardines.”
Ellin was really good at selling these things. He had it down to a science. He even gave demonstrations to help drive up sales. He would get the two biggest mailmen in each office and have them each pull a pant leg in opposite directions, proving to the workers what he already knew Ã¢â‚¬â€ the reinforced crotches refused to tear. He even won sales awards, scoring a cruise one year and a Mexican resort vacation another. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was a great job,” he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You made your own hours, so I was able to sleep late, work in the afternoons and do comedy sets at night.”
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the thing: Whether itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s emceeing a show, headlining colleges or selling gray pants and blue shirts to government workers, Ellin fully commits. That includes maxing out six credit cards to fund his latest project, The Latin Legends of Comedy, a concert/documentary film that will be released on DVD by 20th Century Fox in either late summer or early fall.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I just kinda went for it. I thought it was a good gamble,” says Ellin. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Worst-case scenario, I file for bankruptcy.” Lucky for him, the film, which features full sets from longtime New York City friends, comics Joe Vega, J.J. Ramirez and Angel Salazar Ã¢â‚¬â€ is a solid piece of filmmaking and quite hilarious.
So in March 2004, production began. The comicsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ sets were filmed over the course of one night at the Comic Strip, the place where all three got their start. While two shows were shot, Ellin Ã¢â‚¬â€ who not only produced and directed the film but also appears as the host Ã¢â‚¬â€ decided to only use footage from the early show.
The film does an excellent job of not only showcasing how funny these three well-respected comedians are, but also subtly distinguishing their unique styles. Vega is a classic stand-up; heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s well dressed, and his delivery is debonair. He talks a lot about sex, relationships and the things we can all relate to. J.J. Ramirez Ã¢â‚¬â€ known as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Latin Lunatic” Ã¢â‚¬â€ is a huge Don Rickles fan and has no problem using that same attack style with the audience. Salazar, who quite literally swam to America from Cuba when he was 14, is simply out of his fucking mind. He has been known to don miniskirts on stage. In Latin Legends, his finale consists of an audience participation musical number that finds Salazar just about naked.
So how did Ellin, a Jewish guy from suburban Massachusetts, get involved with this? He was introduced into the Latin comedy scene when he began working for a Latin entertainment company, becoming a co-creator and producer of La Familia, an animated series starring John Leguizamo. His work on the show helped him earn a job producing the 2002 Jack DanielÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Latino Comedy Series (a 13-week comedy festival in New York City) and the 2003 Jack DanielÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s series, which branched out to Chicago and Miami.
Although Ellin worked with up to 35 different comics at a time during these events, he became most intrigued with Vega, Ramirez and Salazar, as well as their 20-year friendship. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It hit me,” Ellin says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Why are these three guys not bigger. Part of it could be that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve pretty much stayed on the East Coast; part of it could be luck. They each did some big things, but they kinda flew off the radar. They werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t as big as, say, Paul Rodriguez.”
Ã¢â‚¬Å“And then a bell went off,” says Ellin, a graduate of Boston UniversityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s film school. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I remember thinking theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re friends, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re great, they each have their own style, but they complement each other really well. So I thought there was a movie here.”
He was right. Not only that, but thanks to a chance meeting with a script at the Phoenix Film Festival (where he was showing Latin Legends), Ellin was asked to direct the upcoming comedy, The Bourbon Brothers, starring academy award winner Mercedes Ruehl. Filming should begin this summer.
TALES OF A SIXTH GRADE SOMETHING
Since Ray Ellin was 11, he knew he wanted to be a comedian. He even performed a stand-up bit at his sixth grade graduation. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I killed amongst my fellow sixth-graders, so I got hooked early on,” he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was quiet in the house but really loud in class. If I was a kid now and I acted the way I did when I was a kid, they wouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve totally put me on Ritalin.”
Ellin grew up just five miles outside of Boston, in the mostly affluent community of Brookline Ã¢â‚¬â€ Conan OÃ¢â‚¬â„¢BrienÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hometown Ã¢â‚¬â€ with his parents and two older sisters. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I always got away with murder,” he admits. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was the only boy, and I was the youngest. By the time I got a little older, there were no curfews.”
Dad was an engineer and designed cameras for Polaroid: Mom was a classical pianist and piano teacher. Ã¢â‚¬Å“My Mom was always a little cooler about me wanting to become a comic since she was already in the arts,” he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“My Dad is a much more logical thinker. He wouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve rather me become an engineer or an orthodontist or something. It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t until about eight years ago when he saw me perform that it turned around. There was a line down the street to get into the club, and the show turned out really well. Since then, he hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really said a word. In fact, he would start e-mailing me to suggest joke topics.”
Always looking for new challenges, EllinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s career in stand-up has routinely lead him to more work, including movie roles (indie flick Killing Cinderella), commercials (Budweiser, Volkswagen, Sci Fi Channel) and television-hosting duties (NYCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s MetroChannel show New York Now).
If Ellin ever leaves stand-up, it wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be due to a lack of interest. Turns out, the man just has more to give. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Stand-up, to me, is a constant,” he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I love doing it. But in life, and in showbiz, you often get pigeonholed. I feel like you can do lots of things.”
So far, it seems EllinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s formula to gather the most from life is working. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You have to take advantage of opportunities,” he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“There has been other things that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve gotten involved in over the years that werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t worthwhile. But you have to investigate, and not just wait around. You have to get your name out there. And you have to be assertive without being an asshole.”
For more info, visit www.rayellin.com.