A comic who regularly emcees at the Laff Stop greets audiences with "Welcome to the Laff Stop, Orange County's favorite all-comedy nightclub." He pauses before adding, "Orange County's only all-comedy nightclub."

The club's status may be a laughing matter now, but the recession of the early '80s made even the business of being funny pretty grim, and the club hasn't yet recaptured its early success.

"Before the recession, we used to have two shows a night--three on Saturday--all sold out, even on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," says Laff Stop manager Al Korn. Even after dropping shows from the nightly schedule, the 260-seat club, which nestles in a commercial strip bordering Newport Beach and Irvine, is rarely filled during the down period, Korn said. "Then after the recession eased up, we noticed things picking up again, as it did in the rest of the restaurant-nightclub industry. People had more money to go out to dinner, see a show . . . .

"This year is going to be a rebuilding year for us."

Judging from the crowds lately, comeback prospects look good; on some Saturday nights, Korn has even reinstated the nearly extinct third show. The club, which showcased such big-name performers as Steve Martin and David Letterman in the '70s--one opening night in 1976 it even featured a little-known young performer by the name of Robin Williams--presents three comedians per show, and the cover charge is usually somewhere between $5 and $7, depending on who's performing. In addition, the Laff Stop asks patrons to buy at least two drinks over the course of the evening, a standard nightclub practice.

Not standard, however, is the practice of handing out a pass after each show that either reduces or eliminates the admission cost for the next visit. Korn believes the passes may help attract college students and other young adults on a tight budget. The audience composition shifts constantly, says Korn: "It's strange. Some nights we'll get nothing but kids on dates; other nights we'll get nothing but older people. It's never the same."

Although he says it's hardly possible to pigeonhole the audience demographically, Korn, as well as talent booker Howard Trustman and many of the club's comics feel the Laff Stop crowds can be characterized as "easy" or "good"--that is, light on the heckling, heavy on the laughing. "Comics love to come to the Laff Stop because the crowds are so good," Korn explains. "Howard tells me he doesn't like to (audition) new comics here very often because the crowds tend to laugh at anything."

Trustman, 38, who also books for the Laff Stop clubs in Claremont and Houston, contends that a big name isn't required for a great show or a full house. However, he brings in a stand-up star periodically to attract people who don't normally visit the Laff Stop--and, he says, to reward those who do. Jay Leno, a veteran stand-up performer who appears regularly on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman," headlined at the club two nights in December.

Trustman says he also hunts for talent several nights a week at other comedy clubs, which also gives him a chance to monitor the progress of comics he has hired in the past. He prefers to hunt at the Comedy Store and the Improvisation because a young comedian's act must be very well developed for him or her to work at these prestigious Hollywood venues. This way, adds Trustman, the comedian is "already pre-tested." Unlike most booking agents, Trustman doesn't hire comics on the basis of their videotaped routine. When watching a comic perform, he finds it necessary to try to tune out the crowd response: "In doing this for about six years, I've learned that I have to divorce myself from the audience because a very good crowd that laughs at everything--or a horrible crowd that doesn't laugh at anything--won't help me gauge if this guy is right for my clubs."

(According to Trustman, comedy headliners need 45 minutes of strong material. A middle act needs 35 minutes, and an opening act or emcee needs 20. Starting pay for comics booked at the Laff Stop is generally $60 per night for the middle act and $100 for the headliner, although adds Trustman, "it can go way up beyond that . . . a Jay Leno might get a couple thousand." Korn, who selects the opening acts for the Newport Beach Laff Stop, says those performers receive $15 per night during the week; $20 on weekends.)

Trustman's occasional splurge in booking a big name also can benefit the performer. Leno expresses a fondness for the Laff Stop as well as the belief that it's a good place to test out new material. "It's fun for me to work there," Leno said in a phone interview from Georgia. "It gives me a good idea of what material will work across the rest of America. In L.A. you can do the cocaine-Malibu-mudslide jokes, and people will laugh. But it's different once you get outside L.A. That's why I think the Laff Stop is a good room for me to try out stuff that, let's say, I want to do on Letterman or 'The Tonight Show' because it's not the insular, hip, Hollywood kind of place."

Of course, only a tiny minority of working comics reach Leno's level, and even then it takes many years. But for those at the opposite end of that long road, the Laff Stop holds its open-mike night on Sundays. Until a few weeks ago, aspiring comedians could sign up on a first-come-first-served basis for an opportunity to perform for five to seven minutes. This system of filling the 12 unpaid slots yielded a wide range of performers--from established pros trying out new material to one-time class clowns stepping onstage for the first time.

Similarly, the quality of these shows varied tremendously, a factor Korn felt undermined the club's comeback bid. "We're changing things around because the show has been so poor," Korn said, explaining that virtually all the spots are now reserved for those comedians who already work at the club as emcees or middle acts. The two or three remaining slots are doled out to would-be comics just below that level. Korn said this change "is going to cut out the first timer" from the Sunday night lineup, boosting the quality of the program and, perhaps, aiding the club's overall recovery.

The one act at the Laff Stop that hasn't shown signs of recovery is its Monday night "All-Male Comedy Dance Revue," the male strip show that at one time was both a novelty in the county and the Laff Stop's major moneymaker. Korn believes the crowds have disappeared because a handful of local clubs now offer similar shows, and "it has become kinda old hat."

However, advises Korn, the club intends to launch a publicity campaign to renew interest in the revues.

Overall, Korn believes that because of its exclusively comedy content, the Laff Stop remains special on Orange County's club circuit.

"No matter what kind of mood people are in when they arrive at the club--they could've had a fight with their husband or wife, they might be mad at their kids or frustrated with their job--they'll forget their problems for a while and walk out of this place with a smile on their faces."

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