Comic delivers punch, sans line

Not amused: Stand-up comic Brian Brinegar shortly after being assaulted. photos/courtesy Brinegar
Not amused: Stand-up comic Brian Brinegar shortly after being assaulted. photos/courtesy Brinegar

Comic delivers punch, sans line
Brian Brinegar assaulted at Slainte 

By Chris Busby

Local comedian Brian Brinegar was assaulted by a fellow comic on Feb. 5 during the open-mic comedy night he hosts at Slainte, a nightclub on Preble Street.

According to Brinegar, the stand-up comic known professionally as Rocco (born Charles Wayne MacDonald) was having a bad set. “He was fairly hostile to the crowd, hostile to the other comics, and very hostile to me,” said Brinegar, 35, who described Rocco trying to riff on the idea that Brinegar and fellow comedian Seth Bond Perry are a gay couple.

At one point, Brinegar said Rocco began repeating the same phrase over and over: “I haven’t been doing comedy for two and a half months, and I just told the [Comedy] Connection to go fuck themselves.”

The audience was not amused.

When Rocco left the stage and Brinegar got back up, he said he pretended to have received a text message from Perry, who was not in attendance, that read: “‘Rocco hasn’t been doing comedy for two and a half months, and he just told the Connection to go fuck themselves.’” The line got some laughs, and Brinegar soon sat back down to make way for the next comedian.

That’s when Rocco blindsided him, delivering two punches to Brinegar’s head and face, according to Brinegar and witnesses. Slainte owner Ian Farnsworth and audience members were able to restrain Rocco and get him out the door, at which time he left the area. Brinegar said police tracked Rocco down a few days later, and he is pressing charges.

Rocco could not be reached for comment and did not respond to a request for comment left with fellow comedian and friend Troy Pennell, who was present at the event but declined to discuss the matter.

It’s unclear what criminal charges Rocco is facing. The Cumberland County Jail has no record of him being brought there this month (though the clerk said a Charles Wayne MacDonald, age 31, was incarcerated about a dozen times between 1992 and 2004, “mostly for drinking”). The district attorney assigned to the case is on vacation, and spokesperson Tamara Getchell was unavailable for comment. A court clerk could find no record of a case involving him.

“It was absolutely one of the most surreal-slash-ridiculous-slash-pathetic experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” said Brinegar, who was profiled in a 2006 interview with The Bollard. “If you ever have to explain to a police officer that you got beat up by another comic at a comedy show and see the expression on his face,” he said, leaving the thought there. “The doctor’s office was even better.”

Brinegar got a black eye, bruises and various lacerations, including a split lip “clear down the back of my mouth. I have yet to go a day without bleeding,” he said. “He’s got a hell of a punch.” He’s seeking damages for medical bills, a new pair of glasses, and time he had to take off from his job as a public policy research assistant.

This is actually not the first time Rocco’s gone Rocky at Slainte’s open-mic comedy night. Perry said he was performing there a couple years ago, when the club was under different ownership, and saw Rocco, who was signed up to follow him, pacing anxiously. After his set, Perry said he approached Rocco and mildly teased him. 

“I was like, ‘Aw, was I on stage too long for you?’ and he popped me right in the throat,” said Perry. Audience members got Rocco out the door, and Perry, who was relatively unhurt, remained at the club and did not press charges. “I just felt it was one of the stupid things that happen,” he said, adding that he’s heard of a few incidents over the years in which comics have fought or scuffled inside comedy clubs.

The Rev. Brian Giles, a stand-up comic who’s known Rocco for years, said he has a history of violent incidents. Giles said Rocco “grew up really tough” on the East End of Portland and in Bayside. “He’s definitely got a violent streak,” he said, but not necessarily a bad heart.

Giles relayed a story from several years ago in which he said Rocco encountered a man assaulting a woman in the West End and intervened. The man allegedly stabbed Rocco in the gut, “and then Rocco picked up one of those metal garbage cans and beat the shit out of him with it.”

Giles said Rocco tends to drift from job to job and place to place around town. Those who know him describe him as a relatively short, slender man who’s much stronger than he looks: “He’s a tough, a standard kind of thug in a leather jacket,” said Perry.

Fellow funnyman George Hamm has also known Rocco for many years. “I have always considered him one of the top comics in Maine,” said Hamm, who is widely considered one of Maine’s top comics himself. “I know it may seem crazy, but he is a great guy and he always tries to do his best when he takes the stage.”

“I assume if Rocco could take it back, he would in a heartbeat,” Hamm continued. 

Although seasoned stand-up comics don’t show it, Giles spoke of the “fight or flight instinct” brought on by the “natural fear of crowds” when onstage. “All comics have stock lines to deal with hecklers,” he said. “It works on the lay person. But when a comic goes against a comic, it’s like you’re defenseless, so it’s easy to become angry.” Giles said he and Pennell got in a shoving match at a show years ago over similar tensions.

“There are times when it’s not just about comedy,” said Hamm. “We comics live our material and sometimes life and the stage come together and the results may not be what we planned, but the reality is a mix of emotion and struggle of where we have come from.”

Asked if he could find humor in the incident, Brinegar said, “If I couldn’t find humor in this, I should get out of the business.” He threw out a line about “buddies who’ve come back from Afghanistan” who look better than he does these days. 

But ultimately, the assault is no laughing matter. Brinegar said that in addition to the injury and lost income, there’s “the joy of having to explain to my son that I’m not going to get beat up again” each time he leaves to perform.   

As Perry said in reference to the incident, “It’s not comedy, that’s for sure.”