It can be hard getting a stand-up slot in New York, so one group of aspiring comics have found their own stage - in a launderette. VICTORIA YOUNG reports
It's 9.30 on a Wednesday evening at the King Size Laundromat in Chelsea, New York. A handful of bored men and women are absently folding socks in a humdrum daze and reading the Village Voice to the rhythmic chug of around 30 washing machines.

Suddenly the neon-lit peace is shattered by the sound of tinny Sixties music blasting through the airwaves. Jodie Wasserman, a curvaceous woman in a preposterous A-line print dress, is bravely standing in front of a microphone, along with her partner in crime Danny Cohen, a short, earnest man with big teeth and bigger hair.

"Well, hello launderers!" they cry, jaunty and energetic in front of a flashing glitter sign propped in the window that promises "Live Comedy Tonight!". As well as unsuspecting launderers, the audience for this weekly show consists of passers-by who are shepherded in by an affable clutch of homeless men who, in the year since it has been operating, have become the show's self-appointed mascots. They never actually go in, but congregate outside, feasting on the party atmosphere and bestowing strangers with beery promises of great comedy. One way or another, the show has accumulated quite a crowd of regulars.

One of them, an elderly rotund man, shuffles in at 9.30pm on the dot and taps Jodie on the shoulder. "Oh, hi PJ," says Jodie, before gesturing, less than subtly, that PJ is not all there. All there or not, PJ is their most faithful regular, and has become part of the show.

When all else fails (which it sometimes does), Jodie, Danny and the rest of the comics address their thoughts and comments to PJ, whose mere presence seems to provide them with comic relief. He plants himself on a lone chair right in front of the mike and waits to be entertained.

Being a comic in New York is not easy. Open-mike comedy nights usually charge performers for the privilege of three minutes on stage. Comedy clubs require performers to bring a certain number of friends to each show (each of whom have to pay a drink-minimum and a steep cover charge), or, worse still, clean the club's toilets. Like British comics in the Seventies who took to performing stand-up in the Tube, Jodie, 28, seems to feel comfortable about carving out her own makeshift comedy space.

She describes stand-up in New York, where comics are two a penny, as "one of the hardest things that a person could ever do", but she is visibly charged by the night's activities. Beaming broadly as she marches up and down organising the comics, she looks like a cross between Monica Lewinsky and Ricki Lake in her Hairspraydays.

The launderette idea was born about a year ago when she and Danny, sick of the rigmarole of gaining stage time, were trying to think of places that would have a built-in audience.

Naturally, the downside to a built-in audience is that they are not always receptive and sometimes are not even listening. But excruciating as that can be, most performers find the low-pressure atmosphere irresistible because it is a chance to experiment away from the often hostile eyes of people from "the industry". Consequently, the night has many regular performers and the atmosphere is chaotic, spontaneous and often charged with hilarity.

Of course, some of the acts are laborious and not very funny. Like the man in a business suit who straps on pink bunny ears and sings a song about paedophilia in Finland. Or the short mousy woman who looks rather like a librarian. She starts promisingly enough ("I know I look like a dry-clean only person, but it's not true"), but quickly deteriorates into a tirade about her emotionally aloof father. If it's painful for her, then it's worse for her audience.

But for those who are drawn to the surreal, there is something about a comedy show in a launderette that is comical in itself. And the night is most successful when opportunism and improvisation rule, which they tend to.

"Hey PJ, wanna co-host with me?" asks Jodie to a blank PJ, who stares back impassively. (So far he has laughed only at their oft-repeated catchphrase about the show graduating to a stand-up spot in D'Agostino's, a chain of supermarkets.)

Meanwhile, a young woman walks in, clamped to a mobile phone. "I just came in to do my laundry," she says into it, confused. "This is very strange." Outside, performers are mingling with the homeless men who are getting drunker by the minute and dancing the hootchy-coochy accompanied by a comic called Mistress A.

Inside, Danny and Jodie are saying their goodbyes. "Just remember," they say yet again, "today the laundromat, tomorrow D'Agostino's."

PJ chuckles delightedly from the front row.