IF Michael Somerville is not yet instantly recognizable, give him time. And keep your eyes open for a 6-foot-1 man wandering around northern New Jersey in a graduation gown or a bathing suit.
Mr. Somerville, a rising stand-up comic and a regular on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” and Nickelodeon’s “Nick at Nite,” has been cracking jokes since he was old enough to sneak out of his Berkeley Heights bedroom to watch Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” But it’s the one about his disdain for doing laundry that is fast becoming his signature.
“I hate laundry,” Mr. Somerville bellows on his debut CD, “Welcome to Somerville,” self-released last fall. “I put laundry off till there’s nothing left to wear. My friends are like, ‘Hey, what do you want to do tonight?’
“Well,” he continues, after waiting a beat. “Based on what’s left in my closet, I can either go swimming or graduate from high school.”
It is typical Somerville humor: self-directed, inoffensive, easy to relate to. And while Mr. Somerville, who is scheduled to appear on “Last Call With Carson Daly” next month, would be the last to suggest that it comes effortlessly — “there’s this misperception of the entertainment business, that it’s all whimsical fun,” he said with a good-natured eye-roll — he is quick to acknowledge that his background gives him an edge.
“Comedians from New Jersey are sharp, they’re sarcastic and they’re cultured, but they also like to have fun. It’s a special breed,” he said recently, sitting at Di Maio Pizza, his favorite local spot for a slice since childhood. He still lives in his childhood home here with his parents, keeping a tiny studio in Manhattan.
“I met Joe Piscopo once in Atlantic City, at a comedy show I did. He said: ‘Good job, kid. You got something.’ That was huge. There’s a real fraternity feel to it.”
There’s also a frat-house feel to Mr. Somerville’s shtick. Shuffle through the 20 tracks on “Welcome to Somerville,” and you get the sense that he filters most life experiences through the hazy lens of a hung-over college kid. “Manual Labor,” about his reluctance to put his brawn to use, finds him breaking up with a girlfriend in lieu of changing her flat tire. On “Apartment,” he explains that wearing socks is like having paper towels attached to his feet — the better to clean up spilled drinks.
The youngest of three sons and, by his estimation, the fourth-funniest person in a family that valued a good joke almost as much as hard work, Mr. Somerville grew up watching his father get on a Lakeland bus every morning, briefcase in hand. He imagined that was his destiny, too: “I always envisioned myself that same way, with the suit and the job at G.E., the picket fence.”
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1994, he took a job as a media planner at a New York advertising agency. Within two years, he was voted funniest person in the ad business in an interagency poll. He started doing stand-up at open-mike venues. By 1999, comedy was his full-time job.
Last year he performed 340 shows at comedy clubs and other nightspots across the country; this year is shaping up to be just as hectic. (Mr. Somerville will open for the comedian Richard Lewis on Feb. 23 and 24 at Comix in Manhattan.) He has appeared as a talking head on VH1 shows including “100 Most Wanted Bodies” and “40 Greatest Pranks,” and was the host of the Starz network’s “Stand Up or Shut Up” series.
The road to success has had its pratfalls. “One of the starkest moments I’ve had was right after I quit my job,” he said. “I agreed to do a Christmas party for this investment bank, and they had me dress up as a huge pink bear. I could barely fit the costume over my head, and I couldn’t see out of the eyeholes. And all I could hear was my boss yelling at me: ‘Dance! Dance!’ ”
He was never tempted to return to his 9-to-5 routine, however. “I discovered there was this whole other world out there, that you didn’t have to be a doctor, a lawyer or a businessman,” he said. “I was also putting that marketing degree from Notre Dame to work to get shows, and that made my parents happy.”