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With his TV show on hold, Adam Ferrara returns to standup

For a lot of his fans, Adam Ferrara is known mainly for his acting roles on the acclaimed TV shows "Rescue Me" and "Nurse Jackie," and as a co-host behind the wheel of the American version of "Top Gear." But underneath all that, he thinks of himself first as a comic.

Now that he's on his first extensive comedy tour in about a decade, including two shows Friday and Saturday at Flappers in Burbank, audiences are expressing some surprise. "People who come see me know me from either 'Rescue Me' or 'Jackie,'" he says. "And they go, 'I didn't know you do standup.' I say, 'Well, thanks for trusting me and coming to a comedy club. I don't know what you thought was going to happen.'"

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He was born in Queens, N.Y., and still keeps a loft in Manhattan, but is based now in Santa Monica with his wife and dog. Work can send him from one coast to the other.

"It's like being a migrant farm worker," he says. "You look at the sun: 'They're planting over there, papa. We can find work!' You dance wherever the music's playing."

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The U.S. branch of "Top Gear" usually had him planted west. With the show now on indefinite hiatus while it finds a new network to call home, Ferrara's schedule opened up enough to allow time for a tour. He needs that time onstage, he says.

"If I go for more than two weeks, I get twitchy. My wife is like, 'Will you please go out and make somebody laugh?'" he says, noting that his act charts the course of his life. "I'm a confessional comic, so it's always about where my life is going and what has my attention at that time. I'm the same guy but at a different stage of my life.

"My wife is a hippie — I'm sorry, she prefers 'Bohemian.' So my diet has changed significantly. I've got a lifestyle out in California now."

His discovery of the power of standup came at age 12 after seeing a Richard Pryor concert movie on VHS. "It just ripped my head off," Ferrara recalls. "I remember saying out loud: 'Look at what this man can do!' I didn't know I wanted to be a comic. I just knew I was profoundly affected by what he was doing."

After college, Ferrara decided to finally pursue his comedy dreams. He announced to his parents that he was about try his luck onstage at a local open-mic night, and watched to his horror as half the neighborhood showed up. Ferrara did well that night, and his father looked at him a little differently the next morning.

"I said, 'Pop, I want to try doing this,'" Ferrara remembers. "He took a long drag off his Lucky and said, 'Do it now, before your life gets complicated. If you're going to try this, you give it everything you've got because the worst feeling in the world is getting up one morning and looking in the mirror and seeing an old man looking back saying, "If I'd only tried a little harder."' That was great advice I got from my dad."

Acting came as an unexpected offshoot of his comedy career, but he took it seriously and studied. At his first-ever scene on camera, all went smoothly. Too smoothly. "The director went 'Cut! Thank you very much, moving on...' And I went, 'That's it? Where's the laughter? I need applause. Someone needs to love me now!' It took some getting used to."

Ferrara's efforts to learn the craft of acting has resulted in a career tapping into a range of emotion. His first major television gig was as a recurring character on 19 episodes of "The Job," the 2001 series staring fellow comic and actor Denis Leary. They collaborated again on seven seasons of "Rescue Me," the comedy-drama about New York City firefighters.

"I've been very fortunate to be able to do different things," says Ferrara. "On 'Rescue Me' you were able to do fall-down funny and heartbreaking drama. The same with 'Nurse Jackie.'"

Until he's back on camera for "Top Gear" or another project, he expects to be spending more quality time on the comedy stage. "It's always good to come back to standup after you've been away for a while because you come at it with new energy," he says. "I write a lot onstage. I'll take an idea and play with it. The audience is a great chisel — it's like sculpture. It's very exciting to see what I can create with the audience. It's very much a work in progress."

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What: Comedian Adam Ferrara

Where: Flappers Comedy Club, 102 East Magnolia, Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Friday, Aug. 26 and Saturday, Aug. 27

Tickets: $20

More info: (818) 845-97211

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Steve Appleford, steve.appleford@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveAppleford

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