COMEDY REVIEW : If Name Ritch Shydner Doesn't Ring a Bell, His Comedy Routine Does

Ritch Shydner. Remember that name--including the t . Shydner, who opened a six-night stand Tuesday at the Irvine Improvisation, may be the best comic you've probably never heard of.

You are more likely to recognize his face than his name: He has appeared in films ("Beverly Hills Cop II," "Roxanne") and on television. He was a semi-regular last season on the Fox Network sitcom "Married With Children," and he has made a handful of appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." His second visit to "Late Night With David Letterman" is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Actually, the biggest mystery surrounding Ritch Shydner is why he doesn't have much wider name recognition. But smart money would bet that it won't be long before his career breaks wide open. He is certainly as talented and deserving as other comics who have clicked recently.

The guy is good.

Maybe his material isn't as consistently well written as, say, Jerry Seinfeld's (but, then, whose is?). But Shydner's bits and pieces are often more effective and affecting, and every bit as sharply drawn. They're also equally clean but less antiseptic. His act is more poignant, more lived in; he doesn't mind exposing the pain and pathos behind the funny lines.

The core (though certainly not all) of Shydner's material is grounded in the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships and, a major subtopic, the differences between sexes. In stand-up, this area is discussed as frequently as driving, flying and dining at fast-food outlets. But few comedians can match Shydner's eye for detail and his ability to evoke the wrenching emotions attendant to the turbulent side of romance.

While addressing how rapidly feelings can change between a couple--specifically, how quickly an argument can flare up--he noted that one moment you might be thinking " 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And your next thought could be ' How can I fake my death ?" '

Never mincing words, Shydner dissected the contrasts between the way men and women treat everything from getting a haircut to coping with breakups ("By the end of the week, I find myself chasing small animals with a weed eater.")

In stitching together these observations and anecdotes, Shydner summoned details that were so minute, perceptive and universal that he began to get laughs of recognition before the punch line--sometimes just a few words into the set-up. Then, when he actually hit the punch line, he would generate a whole new wave of laughter and applause.

Where most headliners would be running out of "A" material--or running off stage--after about an hour, Shydner did 90 minutes. And you got the impression he could do another 90, and you still wouldn't hear the bottom of the barrel scraping.

By the end of his set, Shydner had touched on quite a cross section of topics, from the difficulty of getting friends to help you move ("Yeah, Ritch, I'd love to help you, but I'm reading a book now, and I don't have a bookmark") to, in a piece on vices he has quit, Camel non-filters ("These babies cause cancer in cigarette machines . . . the surgeon general says: 'You're on you're own, pal.' ")

At the tail end of his performance, he began interacting with the audience quite a bit--which was good--and shifted into a bizarro rumination on religion and what heaven means to various religions--which wasn't so good.

But as he crept further into esoteric territory--temporarily losing the crowd and the energy in the room--it didn't take long for him to he realize his misstep. And he turned it around immediately by mocking himself, then saying, "The people in the front row are going: 'Can you get back to the linear jokes? . . . I don't want to get God involved; I just want to hear some jokes."

Not to worry--they heard plenty.

Headlining a very strong bill that also includes Bill Scheft and Bernadette Luckett, Shydner continues at the Irvine Improv through Sunday. There are shows tonight at 8 and 10.

The Improvisation Comedy Club and Restaurant is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $8 . Information: (714) 854-5455.

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