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Hedge Fund Comic Gets One-Liner From Crowd: Don\'t Quit Day Job

Date: Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Author: Bryan Keogh, Bloomberg

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Hedge-fund manager Ben Shoval, wearing a green Thomas Pink shirt and a $1,600 Giorgio Armani suit, grabbed the microphone last week at New York's Broadway Comedy Club to riff on his day job.

``A hedge fund is like a mutual fund on steroids,'' said Shoval, who manages $260 million for his family's firm, Ambit Funding. ``It's like the Barry Bonds of investments. Barry goes to Mexico for his juice. We go to the Cayman Islands.''

The line drew a smattering of laughs from the audience of almost three dozen, highlighting the challenge Shoval faces delivering hedge fund humor to a crowd more accustomed to wisecracks about sex and race. His non-financial one-liners got more response during a 12-minute set on Aug. 5.

``Only in New York is it cool to be gay, but you have to stay in the closet if you're a redneck,'' he said.

The 31-year-old hedge-fund manager started his stand-up career in January, taking as many as a dozen private and group lessons a month that have cost about $3,500, he says. By humbling himself before small groups at open-mike shows, Shoval said, he hopes he'll learn to perform at industry conferences and serve as a master of ceremonies for charity events.

Hedge-fund managers may need comic relief. The industry is composed of unregulated investment pools that typically charge 2 percent in fees and reap 20 percent of profits. Hedge funds suffered their worst first-half performance in almost two decades, according to Hedge Fund Research Inc.

Scapegoat Effect

``When things are bad, particularly like they are now, we seem to be a good scapegoat for absolutely everything,'' Shoval said. ``That's what's neat about the whole hedge-fund manager routine that I'm doing, because there are so many misunderstandings.''

Shoval's Ambit Bridge Loan Fund International I Ltd., with about $220 million under management, has returned 5.1 percent for 2008 through July, compared with 7.2 percent a year earlier, according to the firm, based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The company provides short-term bridge loans for commercial and residential property deals.

Never the class clown while growing up about 130 miles northwest of Wall Street in Kingston, Pennsylvania, Shoval says he got interested in comedy a year ago while speaking at a hedge- fund conference in Monaco. Two older panelists shot down his opinions, he said.

Muppet Inspiration

They reminded Shoval of the two curmudgeons in U.S. public television's ``The Muppet Show'' who heckle the performers, he said. When asked to respond, he fought off an urge to unleash his untrained wit.

``People say if you tell jokes, don't do it when you're not used to ending up with a lot of dead air,'' he said.

Shoval, who keeps on his desk a copy of ``The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jokes'' by standup comic Larry Getlen, used the incident as the spur to find a tutor. Comedy attracts executives and lawyers who want to try something new or improve public- speaking skills, said the teacher he found, Tim Davis.

``Once you've succeeded at one field, you want to succeed at the most difficult job there is -- getting on the stage and making people laugh,'' said Davis, who's been instructing aspiring comics for two decades after 20 years as a taxi driver.

Importance of Timing

Among Davis's 15 students are a finalist in the NBC television show ``Last Comic Standing'' and two New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees who joke about interactions with subway commuters.

During a three-hour group lesson at the Broadway Comedy Club, Davis spent the first 30 minutes on timing.

``If you're going to do complex comedy, you're going to have to pause and give us a chance,'' Davis said. Without timing, ``the whole mechanism of comedy won't work.''

The nine students then took turns cracking jokes on politics, their weight and mathematics. Shoval chose e-mail scams by Nigerian princes promising to reward anyone willing to give them a small loan to spirit out their riches.

``I fell for this three times,'' he said.

The hedge-fund routine may eventually work out, said Chris Grimes, a lawyer and classmate of Shoval's.

``I find audiences are really smart, and they eventually get it,'' he said. ``There's a moment when the audience clicks.''

Shoval opened his Aug. 5 act with a joke making light of the U.S. housing-market collapse and slowing economy.

``Chrysler today announced they're no longer going to be offering leases,'' he said. ``This is horrible. Millions of Americans are losing their houses, and now they're not even going to have cars to sleep in.''

The best part of being a comedian is ``that feeling when you got the audience laughing and you're telling a joke that you've written, but then you're mostly just riffing,'' Shoval said. ``They're laughing one after the next, and you really got them.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryan Keogh in New York at bkeogh4@bloomberg.net