When Tony Walker, 47, of Wantagh, began battling cancer in 2002, he realized he had to make changes in his life.
Walker said that he loved comedy — but was only able to perform occasionally because he worked full-time for Verizon to support his family. After his diagnosis of osteosarcoma — a rare bone cancer — he went on disability leave. Although he was cancer-free within a year, the chemotherapy and surgeries took a toll on his body, and had to have a leg amputated in 2005.
Walker realized that he shouldn’t waste more time. “You should do something you really love,” he said. “[Comedy] is what I truly love doing.”
Because Walker wanted to make the best of a bad situation, Knock ’Em Dead Comedy — a troupe of 12 performers from Wantagh, Seaford and other Long Island communities — was born 15 years ago. The group will take its interactive stage show to Domenico’s Italian Restaurant, at 3270 Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown, on July 27 at 7 p.m.
To understand what the performers do, Walker said, forget everything you know about comedy routines. Their main show is a scripted murder mystery, which takes on different themes such as ’80s high school reunion and “redneck wedding.” Audience members sing and dance with performers in addition to solving the murder.
In addition to the dinner show, the troupe offers humorous trivia game shows and children’s performances. Walkers noted that it also creates custom skits and does almost anything a client wants.
“We’ve been hired to just crash parties,” he said with a laugh. “The tailoring and the customization is just another part of what we do.”
Unlike stand-up or improv performers, Knock ’Em Dead members prioritize audience interaction and personalization. For example, Walker said, in game shows, trivia questions and jokes can be based on information the client gives them: their likes, dislikes, memories and inside jokes.
The customizable nature of their work lends itself to different venues, such as restaurants, catering halls, summer camps and firehouses. Although the troupe has been everywhere from Maine to Pennsylvania, members mainly perform on Long Island. Locally, they’ve staged shows at the Seaford Knights of Columbus Hall and at Domenico’s.
“We’ve done small rooms of 10 people, catering halls of 400 and everything in between,” Walker said. “Our performers will walk around the tables as we’re doing the show, and we constantly go off the script because we see something going on at a table, or they pick on us for something they saw.”
Walker said that interaction is non-stop at Knock ’Em Dead shows. For instance, he said, at the redneck wedding show, the performers ask an audience member to be the groom. “We get someone to come up, dance with us, play a game with us, joke around with us,” Walker said. “I think that audience interaction is something you don’t get anywhere else.”
Sal Catura, 47, of Wantagh, and Ally Zack and Steve Kalomeris, both Seaford natives, are members of the troupe. Zack, who now lives in Manhattan, joined Knock ’Em Dead three years ago, after filling in for a friend.
Zack, 28, has performed comedy and improv her whole life, but she said she had never participated in shows such as the ones Knock ’Em Dead stages. She said that she quickly fell in love with the group’s immersive theatrics.
Her favorite character to play is an “obnoxious, over-the-top diva” named Heather in the ’80s high school reunion show. “It’s so different,” Zack explained. “I never have to worry about feeling silly or looking dumb. That’s the beauty of comedy.”
Kalomeris, 47, a 20-year murder mystery show veteran, agreed that Knock ’Em Dead is unique. He said that he loves performing with the troupe and entertaining people. “I love seeing the people have a great time and laugh and enjoy what we do,” Kalomeris said. “Hopefully they leave a little happier than when they came in.”
Since turning Knock ’Em Dead into a full-time endeavor, Walker said that he has more work and more fun in his life. The group rehearses once a week, for three hours, year-round.
On the day of a show, Walker arrives at the venue four to five hours early with sound equipment, costumes and props and sets up to make sure everything goes smoothly. Each performance lasts about two hours, he said, and the troupe tries to set a festive, party-like tone.
“It’s a full day — no different than anyone else’s job,” Walker said. “The preparation is the work part. The pay-off for me is after all of that is done, we get to go out and perform and have a lot of fun.”
Walker said that Knock ’Em Dead has brought him and his fellow performers hilarious memories — so many that he could not pick a favorite. From his prosthetic leg falling off during a show, to a food fight breaking out, to a drunken man singing a perfect rendition of a Frank Sinatra classic, he said that the performances always stay fresh.
“I laugh at every show,” Walker said. “I just crack up at what everybody else is doing, and I have a great time with it. It’s what I feel I was meant to do.”