Hermosa Beach

JOKE: "How many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

PUNCH LINE: "One."

Few things are more painful than a failed attempt at comedy, both for the comedian and the audience. In place of the hoped-for laughter is uncomfortable silence and perhaps a palpable feeling of sympathy for the comedian, who quickly rushes to the next joke.

Among comedians, bouncing back from such trauma is the mark of a trouper.

At the recent auditions for "The Funniest Person in America," there were many troupers--and many bad jokes.

The tryouts, sponsored by the cable network Showtime and held at Hermosa Beach's Comedy and Magic Club last week, were supposed to draw the cream of Los Angeles' comedic crop. But as Showtime producers readily admitted, it was a skimpy harvest.

Open to anyone who had not been paid to perform comedy on national television, the auditions drew dozens of comedians from throughout the Los Angeles area--all of them hoping to become semifinalists for the final laughdown that Showtime will air this spring, when audiences throughout the country will phone in their votes for the funniest person. The winner will get national exposure through televised spots on Showtime's cable network and will tour the country conducting next year's search.

Huddled in the club bar, the entertainers ranged from those who had labored a lifetime over comedy, like Cookie Kobnig, to upstarts like Alfonso (Fonz) Freeman, who had created his routine the day before over an office lunch.

Kobnig, a pale, stolid-faced man who put his age gingerly at "fortyish," traced his comedic roots back to childhood.

"I used to do a lot of shows as a kid," the former Miami businessman said. "All my material is tested. Trial and error, that's what it is. You gotta approach it like a business. Testing is the key." Unfortunately, Kobnig, who closed his women's clothing business several years ago to try for his big break in Los Angeles, arrived too late at the club to be among the those selected for that night's auditions.

Others, like Freeman, had a more seat-of-the-pants approach to comedy.

Freeman, a 26-year-old ringer for comedian Eddie Murphy, said he had heard about the auditions on the radio the day before and decided to try his luck.

"Sure I'm nervous," he said, shuffling anxiously, moments before the show. "But if I bomb, I've always got computers to fall back on." Freeman said he is a data entry programmer by day.

Whether they had a bad night, bad timing or just bad jokes, many of the 25 comedians who performed that night--to put it delicately--bombed.

The tone for the evening was set by the debut of "The Maniac."

Garbed in a red fright wig, straw hat, rhinestone-studded glasses, and an oversized red-and-white polka dot tie, The Maniac's humor was almost as sophisticated as his outfit.

"I called up to see if this was the Funniest Person contest, but they told me looks didn't count," said Les Mathias, of Torrance. "My goodness sakes." Da-dum dum.

Mathias started his comedy career in Georgia, when he was a military policeman in the Army. That's right. A military policeman.

At the Hermosa Beach audition, Mathias was unfazed by the lack of audience response, and in the true tradition of the stand-up comic plowed ahead for an agonizing, eternity-stretching eight minutes.

"Well, it takes a lot of guts to get up there," audience member Dave Cronin said tolerantly, as the jammed club yielded scattered applause to the departing Maniac. "Someone must have told him he was funny."

Those whom the audience did find funny were rewarded with grateful laughter.

"You can really feel an audience being pulled down when a comedian's dying up there," master of ceremonies Guy Davies said later. "It makes it really tough on the good comedians. They really work hard to bring the crowd back up."

Originally scheduled eighth on the lineup, comedian Chris Titus was pulled up to No. 2 as Showtime producers scrambled frantically to undo the damage the Maniac had done.

"Yeah, I died a little inside when they told me I was next," said the 21-year-old Titus. "The public thinks it's rough to follow a really good act, but it can be tougher to follow someone who maybe wasn't having the best night. On the other hand, if you get them all laughing with you, agreeing with you; that's the greatest high in the world."

However, comics such as Titus were few and far between, and a seemingly interminable procession of jokes about premenstrual syndrome, jock itch, sex, swearing, movies and minorities were to hone the crowd's good nature to a razor thin--and sometimes ugly--edge.

Midway through the line-up, one heckler was quietly escorted out in a modified chokehold by club bouncers.

"You were making too much noise in there," a policeman told the heckler.

"But he wasn't funny," the heckler said in an exasperated tone, referring to David Gorsky, the self-billed "Polish Comedian" who told the light bulb joke. "He just wasn't funny," the heckler mumbled to himself, as if that explained everything.

For some comedians, the biggest laughs came from material that was not in their routines, as they deftly turned embarrassing situations into just part of the act.

Seconds into his routine, comedian Mickey Chastain barely skipped a beat as a woman in the audience loudly informed him that he'd left his fly open.

"Whoaaa, I got a date for later," he leered, his cheeks momentarily flushed as he hurriedly zipped his pants to uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Other comics, upon realizing they were dying, tried an earnest approach.

"I had all these jokes, and they were good. Really, they were," Patty Di Francisco told the crowd after plainly admitting she had forgotten her routine.

Di Francisco's honesty touched the audience, and they threw out lines to her--"How good were they?"--which she vainly attempted to convert into laughs before scurrying offstage.

"I was horrified," the first-time comedian from Hermosa Beach later said. A customer service representative by trade, Di Francisco said her roommates had talked her into performing, over a champagne brunch the week before.

"You get up there, and you want the laughs so bad. When you don't get them right away, you panic," said the petite comic, who at one point in her routine screamed, "Roommates--Help!"

Later, clearing out the comedy club, doorman Shawn Zifo rendered a blunt--if disdainful--opinion on the evening's offerings.

"I could have lived without this show, that's for sure," the burly Zifo said. "I'm used to seeing really good comedy here. These guys went for a lot of cheap laughs--you know, sex, cussing. That's not real comedy."

Producers speculated that Los Angeles' best comedians may be "too hip and too jaded" to show up at such a comedic cattle call.

"After a while, I just stopped watching," Showtime producer Phil Eigner said, a pained expression crossing his face. "We didn't get the best of L.A. Not by a long shot."

Comedy and Magic Club owner Mike Lacey agreed.

"I think most of the really good comedians don't like to compete," he said. "None of the people we normally get at the club showed up for this. I didn't even recognize most of the comedians here tonight.

"What really scares me about a show like this," he said, "is that someone in Idaho is going to see this and think that these are the best stand-ups in L.A. comedy out here. Now that's a frightening thought."

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