Stage presence: Attorney stakes her claim to value of 'comedy hour'

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 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
 
A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar. On stage is a lady with a law book, a rubber chicken, and a thong. Bartender says, “Are you here for the comedy show?” The duck says, “No, but can you tell me what’s so funny about a law book?”
 
While that is a poor attempt at a classic comedy bit, there is some truth there.
 
The lady is Connie Ettinger, a former lawyer-turned-stand-up comedienne. And it’s not that law is funny, but practicing law for Ettinger was no longer fun. The rubber chicken is a standard comedy prop. And she does use a thong in her routine. But more on that later.
 
Ettinger, 55, a Bay City native, was not always funny. 
 
“I was very studious,“ she said. “When the teacher left the room for a smoke, I was the one put in charge, watching everybody and taking names.”
 
She wanted to be an attorney since she was 7 years old. 
 
“I saw (the movie) ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” she said.
 
Ettinger grew up on a crop farm in Omar. Her father held two jobs, a farmer during the day and a factory worker at night She was the third child of four, and said her family was “very poor.” Although the kids were entitled to free school lunches, they never took advantage of those freebies.
 
“I didn’t know until later in life, when I wasn’t poor, that we were poor,” Ettinger said. “My parents did a great job hiding that, and we never went hungry, we had clothes, but there was no extra money, and we never took a vacation.”
 
Ettinger, whose maiden name is Kowalczyk, said she was a “smart kid” who was given extra work in school to keep her busy. 
 
She left Standish Sterling High School one credit shy of graduation after the school lost its accreditation, which would make attending college more difficult. After contacting the University of Michigan about her concerns, Ettinger was able to take the SAT and enter U-M on the premise of earning that last high school credit later. She started at U-M in 1975, took a full load of classes and graduated in 1977 with a bachelor in general studies. She took nearly enough anthropology courses to make it a major, but also took every class with the word “law” in it with an eye to her future.
 
Atticus Finch became her role model “because he fought for what was fair,” Ettinger said. “And I was absolutely fascinated by the idea of fighting for fairness.” 
 
Once, a biology teacher told her that life wasn’t fair, “and I never really accepted that as a valid answer, and I still don’t.”
 
Once she started law school at U-M, her interest in what type of law to practice changed as often as her classes did. After graduating cum laude in 1979, her goal was “to be a lawyer and make a living,” working for a firm that offered her stability to pay off student loans, learn the ropes, and move up the legal ladder.
 
She landed a job at Butzel Long, and specialized in employment law, wrongful termination and employment discrimination on the defense side, and was made a shareholder in the mid 1980s. But she said the structure of the firm began to change. When she began, the firm had 45 attorneys and was run by “four guys who had the firm’s best interest at heart,” and evolved into a firm with 125 attorneys and a board of directors.
 
Ettinger said she was “burned out” by a very heavy caseload, and after receiving little sympathy from her bosses, she left.
 
Her husband, David Ettinger, also an attorney at another firm, was supportive of her decision. Ettinger took nearly two years off before briefly joining another firm in a part-time position. 
 
“I was enjoying being lazy a little too much,” she said. 
 
But after several more years there, Ettinger tired of humdrum cases.
 
“I never wanted to be a slip and fall attorney, and that’s what was coming in the door,” she said after deciding to leave the law behind. “I didn’t rule out law forever, and said maybe someday something will present itself, but at that point, I decided to step back.”
 
Looking for an outlet, Ettinger took up golf, tennis, and involved herself with community volunteer activities in the Village of Franklin, where the couple lived. 
 
“But my husband kept saying, ‘You’re so funny. Why don’t you take (comedy) classes?’”
 
The couple often went to the Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak to watch acts, and he told her she was funnier than many of the comedians. 
 
“I had never, ever thought about getting up on stage and telling jokes,” she said. 
 
Being the funny person at a table of friends was one thing, but this was a different animal. But she took comedy classes at the club, starting in improv and working her way up the ladder by devising skits from current events and newspaper articles that she would create jokes from. One teacher gave her confidence to get up on stage and the classes climaxed in a comedy show featuring the students, who performed in front of family and friends.
 
“It was probably the warmest audience you were ever going to appear in front of because everybody cheered everybody on,” she said. “Even if you bombed, you got laughs and applause, and you felt great.”
 
Ettinger and a few others put on a comedy show for women called “Sorry about the Apples” about Adam and Eve and the apple thing, “and it was a nice warm show, and I got hooked,” she said. And for the next 13 years, Ettinger has signed up for all the open-mic gigs she could find, perfecting her sardonic, sarcastic stand-up routine. Anywhere and everywhere she could find a show, Ettinger was there, “trying out material and earning your stripes.”
 
They were not all pleasant experiences. Once she and a friend drove for hours through a blinding snowstorm to a club only to find no one there. 
 
“But that’s how bad you had to want it, you just kept plugging away,” she said. 
 
Once she did a show in Taylor for three people, and found out they were only there for the karaoke. Ettinger said comedy school did not teach her how to be funny, but the formula for writing and building jokes. Much of it comes through trial and error, persistence, and watching other comedians but being careful not to mimic them. 
 
“We had more ‘Jerry Seinfelds’ out there than you could shake a stick at,“ she said of young comedians parroting his delivery.
 
Her claims to comedic fame occurred when she performed at Laugh-A-Palooza at Meadowbrook and a short stint on “The View” as part of the “Hysterical Housewives” contest. The Meadowbrook gig “was the pinnacle of my career,” Ettinger said. 
 
“Two thousand people, and I was riding the waves. It was the most fun I had in comedy because I didn’t stumble, or forget anything, and I was spot-on.”
 
Although she did 90 seconds on “The View” about eight years ago, Ettinger did not win the contest but left with a bag of memories “and it was a lot of fun.”
 
“It was a really good television credit, and I have a good story about how nice Barbara Walters is,” she said.
 
Now, Ettinger’s stand-up routine evolves into a narrative, and she begins by talking about – surprise! – lawyers, how she hates those ads they push on television, “and personal injury attorneys who are messing with the evolutionary process.”
 
Ettinger rails about people who sue for large sums of money by doing stupid things, such as getting burned by hot coffee at a drive-through. 
 
“I believe that stupid should hurt, and that pain is a wonderful educator, but instead of stupid hurting, we reward stupid.
 
“I make fun of the law, and the audience loves it,” she said. 
 
Ettinger said attorneys are ridiculed, and “this is chance to connect with people.”
 
“I always confess that I’m a lawyer, but have been clean for 17 years now, on the side of the angels, so please don’t throw anything at the stage or I’ll come back out of retirement and sue you,” she said.
 
Ettinger said now everything comes with a warning label. “Don’t drink the Draino, don’t use Windex as eye drops,” she said. The warning labels are now overused as a protection for those too stupid to use common sense, she claims, and should be eliminated altogether. 
 
“Let evolution take over, let the dumb people fend for themselves, and that way, we’ll thin out the herd and things will go a lot smoother.”
 
Her act progresses into how certain products need warning labels, such as “Victoria Secret” catalogs, and how it does not portray the average woman “who is not seven-feet tall, wears size double-zero, and throws up everything she’s put in her mouth since the seventh grade.”
 
Ettinger, who can turn her act blue when the audience and location call for it, also talks about men using the catalog for other reasons, and how her husband bought her a thong – here it is! – and she fiddles around with it, eventually turning it into an eye patch. 
 
“And I end the show by being a pirate,” she said.
 
Now, Ettinger considers herself a regional comedienne, performing close to home, emceeing comedy shows and working for Comedy Productions, booking shows for corporate events, office parties and private parties. But she continues to work on her own stand-up act, for the laughs, the applause and the social validation that comes with it.
 
But her heart lies with the small, gritty, down river rooms she’s played “where you can just let loose and say crazy stuff, there is little or no cover, and the audience is all liquored up.”
 
“There’s no high like that in the world,” she said, better than money, and, dare we say it, better than sex. “Oh, it’s way better,” she said. “I’ve had good sex, but I’ve never had good sex make me want to dance around for seven hours afterward.”
 
She said comedy is mainly a boys’ club, and she has bombed a few times and thought about quitting. 
 
“You have to have really thick skin, and a really funny act,” she said. 
 
She also is her own worst critic. 
 
“But I try to bring as much joy to the stage as I can, because I truly love what I’m doing.”
 
A priest, a rabbi and a duck walk into the same bar the next day. Bartender says, “You guys back for the comedy show?” Duck says, “No, but that chick winked at me yesterday, and I think we have a thing going on.”
 
To get more information on Ettinger, and the upcoming shows she will either appear in, is MCing, or has booked, visit www.comedypro.com, and www.conniethecomedian.com.

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