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BOSTON (CAP) - Local comedian Paul Welker puts the microphone back on its stand, mumbles thanks in a barely audible voice, and with a quick wave to the small audience, hops down off the stage. Some encouraging words and a few pats on the back from other comedians greet Welker as he emerges backstage at Nick's Comedy Stop, but he's too busy wallowing in his own self pity to notice.
"I died out there - absolutely died," Welker tells CAP News as he fumbles for his pack of cigarettes. "That bacon joke used to kill, but these days I'm lucky if I can segue into the Miss Piggy-Wilbur bit without getting booed off stage."
Welker isn't alone. All around the country, stand-up comics who once staked their reputations on Trichinosis jokes and other pig-related material are struggling to regain their notoriety or find another niche where they fit in. It's been a year since H1N1 took the livelihood away from these comedians, and they want it back.
"When swine flu tore through the nation back in 2009, it tore up this subsection of the entertainment industry," said CAP News comedy analyst Tony O'Dell. "Much like the faltering economy, everybody thought it would just last for a little bit and then correct itself, but that hasn't happened."
Over the past year, promising projects have ended up on the cutting room floor. Films like the live action version of Pigling Bland or the big screen adaptation of Hamilton Goes Haywire (from the creators of Maggie & The Ferocious Beast) may never see the light of day and if they do, it'll be straight to the discount DVD bin or the 'free movies' section of On Demand.
"These days, you might - and I stress, might - get a chuckle or two of nervous laughter, but overall people just aren't comfortable laughing at it yet," said O'Dell. "The hurt is still too close, the memories too current.
"You know, people and the media talked about the farmers impacted by swine flu, the ailing pork industry," O'Dell noted, "but these guys have been flying under the radar, struggling just as much to climb back. We need to give them their just due."
The Trichinosis joke epidemic is not without precedent. When Big Bird succumbed to avian flu back in early 2006, the torrid pace of bird-related comedy never faltered and lived up to the mantra that the show must go on. Now, four years later - there is no bird joke industry.
"Remember what happened to Archaeopteryx Al," said Welker. "Last time I saw him, he was busing tables at IHOP. Here's a guy who had it all - the beautiful wife, the summer home on the Cape, a regular gig at all the Boston colleges. And now? Nothing. He's a broken man, and when you look at him, you have to think - that could be me."
Welker said he knows that this sort of thing takes time, but he and his fellow comedians are almost out of time. As such, he and a group of area comics have banded together to raise awareness for their cause. Famed celebrity spokesperson Sally Struthers has agreed to tape a series of public service announcements for them, beginning next month.
And while it may not solve all of their problems, when it comes to Trichinosis jokes, every little bit helps.
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