Brogan: A Stand-Up Comic Who Stands Alone

One school of stand-up comedy says that a comic who spends a lot of time talking with the audience is generally an amateurish or undeveloped performer.

There are many ways to refute that contention, or at least provide convincing exceptions to the rule. But one of the best and most succinct is: Jimmy Brogan .

Brogan started doing stand-up more than a dozen years ago, and has appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"--facts that pretty effectively counter the "amateurish" and "undeveloped" charges.

Moreover, Brogan--who performs tonight at the Irvine Improv--is an absolute master at interacting with the crowd, which may explain why he's often tabbed to warm up audiences before the tapings of HBO specials and other programs.

Reference points might extend from Don Rickles and Richard Belzer to new "Late Show" host John Mulrooney, all of whom have built acts around working with the audience. But where those performers tend to rattle off acerbic patter and insults, Brogan is much gentler, warmer-- nicer .

And the amiable, unassuming personality he projects while doing his act is definitely not an act. Sitting down with the bespectacled comic for a recent interview at his manager's Hollywood office, a reporter noted seeing Brogan in a variety of circumstances, including warming up audiences for some HBO tapings and a "Letterman" show in Las Vegas.

The soft-spoken comic instantly reponded: "Oh, I apologize."

He was similarly low-key and frank in addressing how he reached his rarefied position as warm-up/crowd comic extraordinaire .

After the Notre Dame grad tried a few open-mike nights in New York with some wildly inappropriate material, he took another tack. He read a book by Dick Cavett and got a slightly better understanding of what he should be doing on stage.

"So I wrote my first routine about going to an intellectual high school," he remembered, "because all the New York comedians were doing those tough-neighborhood kind of routines. . . . So I was writing jokes in Latin--which, again, was pretty far off the mark--but at least it gave me something original (to work with)."

Things did go better this time: a month later a guy who held a weekly comedy night at his club hired Brogan to headline , and paid him a whopping $5. A few months later, the slender comic passed an audition at the prestigious Catch A Rising Star club, got a spot--and bombed. "I didn't get any laughs. . . . They didn't put me on again.

"So I started hanging around at the Improvisation, and they would let me emcee late at night," he continued, noting that with shows running until 4 a.m., the regular emcees were usually happy to relinquish the stage by 1:30.

"I found that while emceeing, I couldn't do my regular act; I couldn't go up there and just do jokes. I'd have to say to the audience, 'Where are you from? They'd say 'Chicago.' And I'd say 'Gee, I bet they have high schools there." And then I'd do my intellectual high school.

"But I needed to be more direct, because (the audience) was so tired at that point and there were so few people there then that you couldn't do the big, presentation kind of act. And I just found that this dealing-with-the-audience style worked so much better than my material did."

So he continued to pursue that style over the next few years, relying less and less on written routines, in a sort of Pavlovian response to the audience response.

"It really seemed to work," Brogan, 39, recalled. "The audience would laugh, and they enjoyed that they were in on what I was doing. I still had some material, but I tried to slip it in conversationally, because the audience always seemed to notice when I went into a chunk of material. I could feel the level (of crowd response) drop."

So he dropped even more of the material, which didn't hurt his performance, but did hurt his career. Especially when Jim McCawley--the man who books comics on "The Tonight Show"--became interested in Brogan and asked to hear some jokes after a performance one night in 1979.

"Jim said: 'I'm going to stick around--could you do some material in the second show? Here 'The Tonight Show' was showing interest, which was really a thrill. And I had to say "Gee, Jim, I just don't have it--I really don't have chunks of material."

Not surprisingly, this experience convinced Brogan that he had painted himself into an artistic corner. He decided he needed to write and perform full monologues--a basic stage of development he had skipped over.

He has since learned enough to have made a fistful of "Tonight Show" appearances, and now to have the option in clubs of striking a balance between playing off the crowd and performing written material.

Still, he clearly has mixed feelings about the way he elevated crowd interaction to a high art. When young comics approach him after a set, full of praise for his skillful work with the audience, he confided: "I tell them that, generally, it's a bad way to go. . . . JIMMY BROGAN Tonight, 8 p.m. The Improvisation, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine Tickets: $6 Information:(714) 854-5455

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