Armed with two beers worth of courage,
a notebook and pen, I entered Freddy’s Bar & Backroom in
Prospect Heights on a recent Wednesday evening.
I’m here to be entertained. I’m considering becoming an entertainer myself.
Mostly, I am going to watch some Brooklynites vie for a very special prize: 48 ounces of 97 percent fat-free pork with added gelatin and natural juices, valued at $2.99 a pound. A Krakus brand, canned Polish ham, to be precise.
The "Karaoke Big Ass Ham" contest is staged at Freddy’s on the third Wednesday of every month. "Are you a ham?" is the main question the contest asks of its participants, each of whom responds by singing horrendously, loudly, hammily - and often repeatedly - songs from a list of nearly 200 by all the karaoke-friendly artists you’d expect: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Don McLean, Bee Gees, Queen and Diana Ross.
The hammiest performance wins the canned meat, awarded by the KBAH Master of Ceremonies, the charming Bill Carney. The karaoke contest takes place in Freddy’s backroom, in front of about 10 wooden tables.
"This is the alternative to sliced, spiral ham," Carney says of the prize as I pore over the playlist for that perfect ham-winning song. "I think the spirals are not all they’re cracked up to be. This ham is straightforward. You cut and you serve."
I was soon to discover that KBAH regulars are liable to go to great lengths to win this cholesterol-rich prize.
"I want that ham," demands one contestant as she poses with her back to the 20-person crowd, awaiting her cue to spin around dramatically and begin: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified . . ."
Tony Limuaco, the technician who sets up the speakers and microphones and provides the free karaoke MP3s from his laptop, explains the Krakus ham’s allure.
"Krakus is a delicacy," Limuaco says. "I grew up on Guam, and around holidays, the American military would give away free Krakus hams to the locals. Oh, Krakus was fancy - much better than Hormel."
Carney agrees, explaining that the prize is "delicious" when washed (washed!?) and cooked with orange juice, honey, maple syrup and cloves, as one previous KBAH winner prepared it.
Carney kicks off the evening, buttering his voice to make it sound like Presley’s in "Suspicious Minds": "Caught in a trap/I can’t walk out/Because I love you too much baby." His performance is saucy; you’d never guess that Carney, by day, is an attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
The criteria for winning KBAH, as Carney lays them out, are a bit vague.
"There are a few options," Carney explains. "Number one: You channel the song’s original artist. Number two: You give a personal, interpretive performance. Number three: Your performance is very stylish. Whoever is number one in that entire spectrum," he says, waving a hand emphatically, "wins. It’s all equally valid, artistically."
The first contestant, Pat O’Shea - stage name Peter Granite - approaches the microphones with a strut. O’Shea, also of Prospect Heights, is a regular at KBAH and is a standup comedian by trade.
The first thing I notice about him are the massive chops - sans mustache - on the side of his face. They’re bushy and impressive, and little do I know, they’re a sign of the follicles to come. But then I notice O’Shea’s socked feet on the backroom’s linoleum floor.
"That’s funny - he’s forgotten his shoes," I think, but by then, Mountain’s "Mississippi Queen" has started, and I’m thinking, "Oh my God, he’s taking off his shirt."
As O’Shea’s abundant torso writhes to the music, his body spinning around, I wonder which is hairier: his chest or his back? Then, off come his soiled, white socks, flying though the air, one sticking precariously to the ceiling fan.
"Way down around Vicksburg/Around Louisiana way/Lived a Cajun lady/Called the Mississippi Queen."
He’s unzipping his fly.
"You know she was a dancer/She moved better on wine." How much wine has he had?
He’s doing it. The crowd hysterical, O’Shea whips off his pants, and there he is, performing absolutely jubilantly in his baggy, white Fruit-of-the-Looms.
As the song ends, we give ecstatic applause, and there’s an awkward moment while O’Shea gathers his clothing from high and low and scampers, still clad in his tighty-whiteys, offstage to get dressed in his seat.
"This kind of thing usually doesn’t happen until 11 or 11:30," Carney observes. "That’s the disadvantage of starting the night late."
It’s a tough act to follow, but valiant KBAH regular Josh Reynolds gets up and does an energetic rendition of the Coasters’ "Yakety Yak." Up next, there’s newcomer Chad Casey of Park Slope.
Casey has kind of a tough-guy look about him. When his friend Mikey Palms describes him as one of Park Slope’s "old gangstas," although I don’t know exactly what he means, the description seems apt. In short, Casey is the last person one would imagine singing at all, much less singing Presley’s "I Can’t Help Falling in Love," which is just what he proceeds to do.
Smiling charmingly with his arms gesturing about, Casey’s performance builds from singing to talk-singing to shout-singing to howl-singing. His face red, he is very happy.
"Karaoke’s like a natural high," Casey says. "I never did it before tonight, but tonight I was drunk, so I thought, ’What the hell?’
"You should do it," Casey tells me. "You say you don’t want to, but I know that deep down you want to."
Casey’s right: I want to. I scan the list again for songs I know.
The Bangles’ "Eternal Flame"?
Heather McCabe, another regular who happens to sing in New York City’s oldest choir, St. George’s Choral Society, performs Doris Day’s "Que Sera Sera" and Alicia Bridges’ "I Love the Nightlife," and Ellen O’Shea - Pat’s wife - does Joan Jett’s "I Love Rock ’n’ Roll," condensing the foot-stomping, hip-swinging and eye-narrowing, as most of us would, into the "me, yeah, me" parts.
Stephanie Wissinger, a regular who has performed under such stage names as Surly Temple, Ivana Winna Ham and Ana Monopea, sings Men Without Hats’ "Safety Dance." It’s ambitious because it’s a "spelling bee and karaoke combined," she says: "S-s-s-s A-a-a-a F-f-f-f E-e-e-e T-t-t-t Y-y-y-y/Safe, dance!"
The night is plagued by minor technical difficulties, mainly affecting the duet singers because of a troubling microphone discrepancy - one mic is piercingly loud and the other is inaudible. McCabe and Reynolds, in particular, sing Cher’s "If I Could Turn Back Time," all the while struggling over the good mic.
In a later duet, O’Shea and Wissinger avert the problem by cozily sharing one mic during "California Dreamin.’ "
Then there were two
Pat O’Shea returns with a nerdy "Whip It" by Devo, marching around and again baring his hairy chest, at the end proclaiming: "That song was for everyone who didn’t get laid until they were 22."
Gangsta Casey, evidently, wants that ham, too, as he revisits the stage with the Monkees’ "Daydream Believer." Although he sings earnestly, the lyrics, presumably blurry on the sheet he’s holding, escape him, and he becomes aggravated.
"Eaaggh!" says Casey, veins popping from his neck, frustrated as he misses another cue. "I love this song!" I begin to think Casey should get the ham for the humor and drama of his passion.
O’Shea, now Casey’s arch rival, returns with "Crimson and Clover," impressively simulating the underwater effect at the end: "Crimson and Clover/Over and Over."
Casey approaches me again.
"If you’re in the crowd, you’re almost expected to sing," he says. "Either you’re with us or you’re not. So do your thing."
I want to be with them.
I decide: CCR’s "Bad Moon Risin.’ " Short and easy.
But it’s too late.
It’s time to give away the prize; I’ve missed my chance.
"Who’s the ham now?" I think.
"Tonight, the ham goes to the hairiest performer of the evening, Pat O’Shea, a.k.a. Peter Granite!"
"All I had to do was strip twice," O’Shea says appreciatively, accepting his reward.
There is much applause from the audience, and, as the noise dies down, someone shouts, "Don’t get too much hair on the ham!"
The "Karaoke Big Ass Ham"
contest is held at Freddy’s Bar & Backroom (485 Dean St.
at Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights) on the third Wednesday of
each month. For more information, call (718) 622-7035 or visit