DANVERS — Gordon Ulen lives in a world of numbers. He's a certified public accountant, a tax preparer and financial planner at The Retirement Financial Center in Danvers. Can you imagine anything duller?
Well, Ulen, 61, isn't dull. He's funny.
"I've always had a dry sense of humor," he says.
And only a few years ago, he decided he was funny enough that the world of spreadsheets and audits could no longer contain him. He decided to become a standup comic.
He even went to comic college. That turns out to be North Shore Community College, where he took a course from working comedian Dave Rattigan. Ulen's final exam was a five-minute standup routine in front of more than 100 guests at the Onion Town Grill in Danvers.
It must have gone well, because he's still doing an act and developing a comic persona.
All this might sound unlikely. When's the last time your accountant had anything funny to say? But there is a precedent: Accountant Bob Newhart abandoned his adding machine for standup and acting in the late 1950s, eventually becoming a star on two successful network television programs.
"He's one of my heroes," says Ulen, whose own style is "a little more edgy" than the soft-spoken Newhart. "But that's what comes of being alone with the U.S. tax code," he says.
Newhart made a dramatic transition at the beginning of his professional life. In contrast, Ulen isn't quitting the numbers game; "it pays the bills." And his venture into comedy comes at a later stage of life. But, he says, "It's something I always wanted to do. It's a creative outlet."
Born in Springfield, Ulen graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1973. He moved to the North Shore in 1973. "Peabody." He adds grandly, "WEST Peabody."
The decision to tell jokes to strangers surprised his wife and two grown children.
"You're doing what?" they asked.
"My wife won't go to my shows," he says. "She already knows all my jokes. She won't go until I get new material."
Ulen provides the material himself.
"You can find comedy in just about anything," he says, adding that he looks for the humorous even in his working life.
A man comes in with a notice from the IRS, he says. "The man is shaking. He says he hasn't filed in seven years. He asks, 'Is that a problem?'
"I tell him, 'No. That's not a problem. I need a new BMW."
He began with small steps, performing in community theater in the 1970s.
"There are no small parts," he jokes when asked about the roles he played. "Only small actors."
For a while, he honed his skills as a speaker with the Toastmasters Club in Peabody. Everyone's afraid of public speaking, he notes. "Jerry Seinfeld says people are more afraid of public speaking than death. They'd rather be in the box than speaking over it."
Those first ventures standing up before a crowd generated a lot of butterflies.
But he seems to enjoy the freedom comedy gives. His routine isn't as raw as some, but he notes that before an open mike — in contrast to a hired performance — "You can say anything you want."
It's only required that you be funny.
"I'm protected by the First Amendment," he says. "I just have to worry about people who believe in the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms)."
His first ventures into standup have mainly paid for his gas.
And his business customers are beginning to catch on to his after-hours activities.
"It's out of the bag now," he says.
Ulen isn't worried that his reputation as a jokester could conflict with the sober demeanor expected from someone who handles money.
"People are more in awe of it," he says.
Some think Ulen is part black, given his Jamaican roots, he says, and some think he might be Jewish, since he's preparing for a performance at Temple Shalom in Salem on Sunday.
But he defies stereotypes. He's British/Jamaican and Norwegian, and he's discovered that making a crowd of people laugh has nothing to do with ethnicity and is quite a bit more exhilarating than helping to balance someone's checkbook.
"It's a great feeling," he says.
Featuring: Magician Ed Gardner, Las Vegas comedian John Pizzi, comedian/ventriloquist Bob Carroll and local comic Gordon Ulen.
When: Sunday, 4:30 to 7 p.m. Doors open at 4 p.m.
Where: Temple Shalom, 287 Lafayette St., Salem
Cost: All seats $36, includes all-you-can-eat deli buffet. Cash wine and beer bar.
More information and tickets: Call Temple Shalom at 978-741-4880 or visit www.shalomsalemcomedy.