Comic Steve Bjork hits Manchester
If not for his tight New England bonds, things might have been different for Steve Bjork. In the late 1990s he was approached for the role of a young Fred Flintstone in the prequel The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. Problem was he’d have to audition in Los Angeles. Bjork politely declined; he’d left his native Massachusetts to try the West Coast for a while, and decided it wasn’t for him.
“It occurred to me seeing some people that were struggling in L.A. for decades that I could potentially be one of those,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Or I could go home, have comedy and my family and everything I wanted.” He was married, with a stepson and a day job, spending his weekends doing standup. Bjork wasn’t looking to change any of that.
However, the eager casting agent was undeterred and called back two days later.
“She goes, ‘Listen, I keep hearing your name, I’ve seen your headshot, I’ve seen a clip, and we really want to see you. How about we move the audition to New York City?’ I said, ‘No, I appreciate it, but I’m not chasing that anymore.’”
The movie got made, with British actor Mark Addy in the lead. Addy went on to star opposite Jamie Gertz in the sitcom Still Standing, which ran for four seasons, and later played Robert Baratheon on Game of Thrones.
“Hypothetically speaking, I could have been on TV, married to Jamie Gertz and then King Robert Baratheon,” Bjork said with a laugh.
It turned out OK for Bjork, who regularly headlines throughout the region, including an upcoming show at Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester on Oct. 28. His family grew when he and his then wife fostered and later adopted four kids from a troubled background. They’re now in their teens and the source of some great material, including a memorable bit about getting them all off to school on time.
The experience of turning down a role weighed on him, though, to the point where he would leave comedy.
“I was working full-time,” he said, “and Friday afternoon, I’d be like, ‘I don’t feel like doing my show tonight.’ It occurred to me: who the hell am I? People want to pay me to tell jokes and I’m not that interested in it? I should get out of the way for somebody who has more passion.”
He left the business for 10 years, returning, he said, “because I couldn’t stay away anymore. Now, every single time I get on stage I’m thankful. If there’s five people, if there’s 15 hundred, it’s the highlight of my day. My goal is to connect with the audience, not just make them laugh … after the show, I want them to be compelled to come up and talk to me. Hopefully, I brighten their day.”
Inspired to become a comic by listening to Bill Cosby as a kid, Bjork always works clean — comedy parlance for no profanity or adult content in his set. “Unless he’s dating you, there’s nobody cleaner than Cosby,” he said. When Eddie Murphy put out his first record, his mom bought it for their family to hear together, an experience that steeled his resolve.
There were no lovable Saturday Night Live characters on Murphy’s album. “It was standup, and everybody knows at this point, it’s filthy,” Bjork said. “It’s hysterical by the way — but it’s filthy.” He watched his mother squirm for about eight minutes until she ended the ordeal. The aspiring comic then vowed he’d never make anyone feel that uncomfortable if he could.
While studying at Salem State College, he got a kitchen job at a nearby comedy club and studied the craft. “The boom was huge,” he said. “This club in the middle of nowhere was selling out every night. There was this big dirt parking lot, and the line was stretched out to the street.” By the time he started working, things had cooled a bit, and it’s ebbed and flowed since.
These days Bjork likes what he’s seeing in New England comedy.
“Since I started, it’s gone through peaks and valleys as far as interest from the public,” he said. “Right now there’s a lot of shows going on; people are coming out. We’ve got a younger generation that’s working at it, and working hard. It’s a great scene.”
There’s another trend that Bjork finds encouraging: “People are a lot more personal on stage,” he said. “Showing vulnerabilities, talking about their real lives as opposed to, ‘What happened to peanuts on the airplane?’ Gary Gulman a couple of years ago did this entire special about his battles with depression. It was really empowering, and I think so helpful to so many people who struggle with that. It was very brave of him.”
One reason Bjork likes this comes from his other work as a speaker.
“My phrase is ‘mental health is contagious,’” he said of the talks he gives to corporate audiences. “Look, life is crap wall to wall. Moments of laughter … you really need to embrace those, cradle them, and hold on to them as well as you can; even think back to them when you’re struggling again. That’s what gets you through.”
Steve Bjork w/ Mona Forgione, Emily Mame Ford and TBA
When: Saturday, Oct. 28, 8 p.m.
Where: Murphy’s Taproom, 494 Elm St., Manchester
Tickets: $20 at humantix.com
Featured photo: Steve Bjork. Courtesy photo.