Gary Hood stuffs the remaining cheese mixture into the thumb-sized grilled pepper and lays it next to a dozen others on a cooking sheet.
"These are bad-ass," he says, putting the tray in the oven and turning toward the cramped dining room. "These turned out better than I thought."
Two of his dinner guests have arrived - 18-year-old Marcus Gallegos and 54-year-old Josiah Loring. As the chicken simmers in a pot on the stove and the stuffed peppers get bubbly brown, the rest of the table arrives. Henry Barajas, 24, has the veggies, slightly aged green beans in a plastic grocery bag. Joel Martin, 33, comes a few minutes later, empty-handed; he just got off work at his day job with a local cellphone company.
Not yet there is Jarrod Martin, 29, Joel's cousin. Jarrod is always late to the Men's Grill. On this Tuesday night in mid-May, he makes up for it with a case of beer.
Hood - known in comedy circles by his stage name "Hoodie" - has hosted Men's Grill at his central Tucson home every week for the past four years. He is both executive chef and host, doling out tasty bits of comedy advice between tasty bites of home-cooked food. Hood is a good cook, say the diners, who perform at Laffs Comedy Caffé every Thursday for open mic night and take standup classes with Hood on Sundays.
Healthy food, advice
Hood has a lot to teach them. His comedy career stretches back the 1970s, when the Chicago native did standup in lounges and bars around the country. Comedy clubs started sprouting up in the mid-1980s.
Tucson's Laffs was the first full-fledged comedy club in Arizona and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Hood, who moved here from Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, performed at the club in the early days and continues performing special shows today, along with his roles as the club's primary talent booker and mentor to young comics.
The tradition of weekly Men's Grill dinners - they call it Mixed Grill when women show up, which is rarely - is a big part of that.
Hood prepares surprisingly healthy meals for his charges.
"These boys eat so much fiber," he says, stirring a pot of whole-wheat pasta. "I tell these guys, 'You're eating like a 63-year-old diabetic.'"
Which means they are eating like Hood, who is 63 and diabetic. This night's menu: lemon-infused braised chicken flecked with fresh parsley and celery, whole-wheat pasta drizzled with olive oil and halved cherry tomatoes, and green beans. The only decadence is the stuffed peppers. Dessert is fresh melon balls.
"I can feel my prostate (getting) better already," quips Loring, who stumbled into comedy six years ago.
the humble gourmet
Hood's menus read like gourmet affairs, but they start from humble beginnings. He shops the sales - rarely, if ever, does he pay full price - and he regularly visits a nearby dollar store for spices. Sometimes he can score one-day or two-day-old produce there, as well.
"I shop like an old coupon lady," he says.
The guys also pitch in, bringing ingredients for side dishes. Those who don't come bearing culinary gifts help out with cleanup.
The Men's Grill guest list is filled with guys like Loring, who drifted into standup either on a dare from friends or because they felt an overwhelming need to make people laugh.
"I always joked around in school," says Gallegos, a 2012 Salpointe High School grad who made his first open mic night appearance soon after turning 18 last August. "I knew I didn't want to have a job in a cubicle. I always enjoyed making people laugh."
The open mic gang think they are funny.
Some of them are, Hood says. But all of them need a little nudging to help them graduate from Laffs amateur nights to paying gigs.
Ideas, not egos
That's where Hood comes in. The weekly dinner is a chance to check egos at the door and bounce around ideas. The guys can be brutally honest with one another, but they have a single rule: It's not personal.
"It's a chance for us to get together and hash out jokes," said Barajas, who spends his days working as a news assistant for the Arizona Daily Star and his nights making people laugh on stage or through his writing.
"We hardly talk about comedy. We talk about our lives and whatever. It's like a brotherhood of guys who just get it," Barajas said.
On this Tuesday night, the conversation turns to the black-and-white photographs on the walls of great comics like Henny Youngman, Bob Newhart and the Three Stooges, along with Joe Torre, who managed the New York Yankees. Hood is a Yankees fan.
While the food cooks, the comedians chat about a friend who passed away. Then the conversation migrates to flashbacks of last week's open mic night. In between, they talk about their day jobs, families and their first times - when the audience graciously clapped or mercilessly booed.
"I like the rush of comedy," says Loring. "When you step on stage, it's all or nothing. You have to pay attention to every sound you make."
Loring focuses his comedy on observation, pointing out why we do the things we do. He imagines ridiculous scenarios, like road rage involving a guy on a scooter, and questions why anyone would want to introduce daylight savings time in Arizona.
"We have 100 days of 100-degree weather. Who wants to save that?" he says.
"Out of 15, 20 minutes of comedy, I've probably only sat down and written two or three jokes," he says. "The rest flows from observations. And that's what Hoodie taught us, to look around."
"It's like having a baseball coach," Hood chimes in from the kitchen. "You already know how to hit the ball but the coach comes in and says you're crowding the plate."
Hood tends to his pots while the guys regale one another with jokes and comic scenarios. Barajas talks up his trip over Memorial Day weekend to Phoenix Comicon, the annual comic book and pop culture event.
"I love writing jokes and writing comedy and writing humor," he says. "I have a way with people and I love to (mess) with them."
Hood shoots back with a one-liner aimed at Barajas: "I don't go to Comicon because the smell of Clearasil makes me nauseous," he says, and a couple of the guys chuckle; Barajas gives him a playful look of disdain.
the last laugh
Dinner's ready. Hood brings the platter of chicken and pot of pasta to the table, which is set with mismatched dishes, jelly jars for cups and an array of well-worn flatware.
The comics take their seats; Joel Martin sits on the bench nearest the kitchen window. Hood is at one end of the table, Loring is at the other. Barajas sits on a bar stool that is higher than the table, and Gallegos snags the chair next to Hood.
"All right, serve. What are you waiting for, grace? Grace isn't coming," Hood snaps, digging into the chicken and scooping pasta onto his plate.
"Boys, there's some lemon and lime should you care to squeeze some on," he adds, and Martin takes him up on the offer.
"Those stuffed peppers are delicious, Hoodie," Martin adds.
For a few minutes, no one speaks. Everyone eats. There's enough stuffed peppers for three apiece. Did someone set a couple aside for Jarrod? Hood asks. Someone cracks wise about being late and missing out, but another diner has Jarrod's back. He slips two peppers on an empty plate.
"How do you like the pasta?" Hood asks, and a couple of the guys nod between bites.
In less than 15 minutes, dinner is over and the guys are leaning back in their chairs, praising Hood for another well-executed meal.
"I have a top 10 list of my favorite meals and five of them came from this table," Loring says after a few minutes, as the guys begin clearing their dishes.
"I love these kids," Hood says with an aw-shucks to his voice. "It's like being a dad."
Cleanup plays out like a choreographed dance. One guy clears the table, another puts away the food and another washes dishes.
They add chicken and pasta next to the peppers on Jarrod Martin's plate and leave it on the table. A few moments later, the tardy comic strolls in, beer tucked under one arm.
He grabs a bottle for himself and hands one to Hood, who explains what's on his plate.
Martin stabs his fork at the chicken and takes a bite, with all eyes on him. He chews and smiles, then takes a bite of the stuffed pepper.
Everyone is watching him.
"This is the time we all watch Jarrod eat," Joel Martin says, turning to face his cousin.
Jarrod Martin has been doing comedy for four years. He hasn't quite nailed what direction he wants to take it; he describes his approach as observational laced with word play.
He says he is taking Hood's Sunday standup class.
"It doesn't help, but he comes," Barajas quickly chimes in.
Hood sneaks in the last laugh as Martin eats: "It's so nice to hear all of (Martin's) jokes without the interruption of laughter."
If YOu go
• What: Open mic night at Laffs.
• Where: Laffs Comedy Caffé, 2900 E. Broadway
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays
• Cost: Free with two-item purchase from bar or restaurant. 21 and older only.
• Details: 323-8669 or laffstucson.com
• Tonight's show: Catch Montana-raised, California-corrupted comedian Rich Brockman with Jr. DeGuzman, Gavin Meyers and Shane Murphy, hosted by Bryant Tarpley at 8 p.m. $10 at the door or online at laffstucson.com
"It's like having a baseball coach . … You already know how to hit the ball but the coach comes in and says you're crowding the plate."
Gary Hood, who teaches standup and books talent at Laff's Comedy Caffé
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642.