Arena mustered the nerve early last year to audition for the Improv's monthly amateur night at its downtown club. He thought his jokes sucked, but the club's managers gave him three minutes of face time. Ever since, he's periodically emceed the comedy venue's shows whenever big-name acts roll into town. "It's a nice place to start, because they'll critique you," he says. "You can see what it feels like in front of a real crowd. For an A-level club, they're more select. Which is nice, because it makes you feel like you've earned it."
On Friday, Arena plays Bassa Vita's Raw Dogs of Comedy night, along with headliner Steve Brewer of Detroit and local comics Jason Lawhead and Joe Howard. For his 20-minute set, Arena plans to riff on his trademark "wife-and-kids type stuff," which he first tried out on his buddies back at his kitchen table. "My delivery and stage presence have evolved from there," he says. "I've since learned how to write, be more concise, and get to the punch lines faster. After a while, your three-minute routine becomes five minutes becomes ten minutes. It may be the same material, but you've tweaked it and gotten comfortable enough with it that you can do it in your sleep. And now I've got about a half-hour's worth of material."
Arena doesn't limit himself to just hometown audiences. When he's not at his day job, investing other people's money, he takes off for comedy gigs in Indianapolis and Buffalo. He's not getting rich from all the work, but he's hoping the exposure and experience will land him bigger gigs. "It's a craft that a lot of people don't understand -- how much goes into it, as far as the writing, the stage presence, the timing," he says. "And you don't realize until you start doing it that minute things can make or break a joke, like a facial expression or emphasizing a certain word."
Back in town, Arena steadily plays Kennedy's on Playhouse Square, the Palace Theatre in Lorain, and his "home club," the Improv. And he's more than happy to take newcomers by the hand and show them the ropes. "I tell anyone who wants to do this to just get up there as many times as you can, even if it's just an open mic in a bar with three people there," he says. "God knows, I've done plenty of those."