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Potential (Sigh) Doesn’t Pay Rent : Young Upstarts Hope to Laugh Way to Riches

“Don’t quit your day job.”

That’s advice that Steve Martin, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Johnny Carson know too well. As struggling stand-up comics, they heard the warning when no one laughed at their jokes. As famous comedians, they passed the words on to their proteges--fledgling comics who might be good enough to do gigs on amateur night, but not funny enough to make a living at it.

Not yet, anyway.

In San Diego, a handful of young comedians are well-acquainted with the caveat. A local lab technician, a grocery clerk, a McDonald’s manager and a waiter are on the brink of quitting their day jobs to try comedy full time. Like the comics in the hit movie “Punchline,” the hopefuls slave all day, waiting for 15 minutes of fame at night.

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On good nights, laughs roll over the stage like waves on nearby Mission Beach. Other nights, the ocean of faces before them barely ripples. In comedy, always a fickle mistress, only the consistently funny can make a living, and potential doesn’t pay the bills.

Worked as a Weatherman

So they try to remember that Letterman worked as a weatherman in Indianapolis and Carson paid his dues hosting TV game shows.

Carson’s studios in Burbank may as well be a million miles from the Culver City supermarket where would-be comedian Phil Barney stocks shelves.

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“All day long you think, ‘I’m gonna kill tonight!’ Instead, you go on and bite the big bawanga,” said Barney, who’s been hanging around San Diego comedy clubs since he was 19. He recently moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of clubs there. He’s on the verge of giving up his grocery gig to stock jokes for a living.

During a recent show at the Improvisation in Pacific Beach, Barney was heavily into the bawanga. Dressed in a black silk smoking jacket and jeans, dark hair greased back and sporting two days’ worth of Don Johnson stubble, Barney looked a little worried.

As the show’s emcee, he had to warm up a pretty chilly audience.

“When I was a kid, my mom sent me to school with Velveeta and ketchup sandwiches in my lunch box. Now, who am I going to trade that with?” he asked.

People in the audience barely giggled. Barney peered at them contemptuously. Suddenly, he leaped across the stage, fell on his back and thrashed his legs while telling a ludicrous joke about break dancing. Anything for a laugh, and they did laugh. Barney looked like every nerd they ever knew in high school.

Pressure When Paid

A funny nerd, though. Funny enough to play not only the Improv and the Comedy Store in La Jolla, but Encino’s LA Cabaret and the Long Beach Comedy Club. The Improv gave him his first break two years ago, offering him a paid gig

when another comedian canceled. Most fledgling comics work for nothing.

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“I was scared to death,” Barney remembers. “When you get paid, you feel the pressure more.” Even when the pay is only $50.

Some up-and-coming comics are happy to get as little as $10 a night. They dream of making it big on the Comedy Road Show, where they can earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year working night clubs across the nation.

“I keep looking at all these people making thousands and thousands of dollars doing comedy, and I figure, why would I want to be a teacher?” said Steve Florian, 23. The former education major traded his plans to teach high school for work as a waiter at Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla so he could practice comedy.

“You get a little edgy. You think, ‘Why am I working here when all these other guys are getting on stage?’ But you have to be patient.”

To ease the creative tension, Florian transformed his workplace into a stage, practicing jokes on colleagues and customers at the restaurant.

One diner commented on Florian’s blazing sunburn. The freckled redhead replied, “When I was a kid, everyone called me ‘The Blister.’ ”

The retort gets a lot of laughs on stage.

The comedians’ struggles to make money provide some of their best comic fodder.

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Frank Manzano, 33, learned early that comedy doesn’t pay, when he started telling jokes as a sixth-grader. “I didn’t get paid for it then . . . and I still don’t get paid for it,” he says. “Then, the best thing about poverty is it’s so inexpensive.”

Wrong Kind of Blood

To subsidize his comedic habit, Manzano works full time as a lab technician at Chula Vista Community Hospital. He draws blood from patients during the graveyard shift, all the while thinking that he’d rather be drawing blood on stage.

“I like comedy. It’s what I enjoy. It’s what I live for--that five minutes up on stage,” he said.

Manzano’s act hinges on self-deprecation, usually involving his Mexican heritage. During a recent show, he told the audience that he and his father had their first man-to-man talk at the border.

“Son,” said his father, pointing. “There is America. So stay low and hide in the bushes.”

Manzano began performing stand-up comedy in 1981 at PM’s Comedy Club in Bakersfield. He moved to San Diego a year ago and began working regularly at the Improv and the Comedy Store.

Manzano, one of the funniest young comedians on a recent Monday night dedicated to good new talent, nevertheless is hesitant about quitting his full-time job.

“To make it in comedy, you have to hustle, set up a lot of gigs. I’m not a hustler--it’s not my nature,” he said.

Lonely Hotels, Cold Pizza

It’s hard to fault Manzano’s resistance to working the nightclub circuit. The sacrifice may not be worth the fame and fortune.

Successful comedians travel 40 to 50 weeks out of the year. Although they pull down annual incomes of up to $100,000, they spend plenty of lonely nights in hotels eating cold pizza. After touring for four or five weeks, playing clubs from New York to Houston, they vacation for a week or two before hitting the road again.

Lamont Ferguson has the hustle that Manzano said he lacks, and the willingness to hit the road. The comic, 23, already has spent several weeks playing clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Punchline and Holy City Zoo in San Francisco and Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County’s wine country.

To get the gigs, he sent out videotapes, pestered club managers and finally ended up with confirmed dates. Ferguson is driven. He compares himself to Eddie Murphy, and gets upset wondering why he’s not already famous and bringing in millions a year. After his trip to San Francisco, he decided to “really crack down and see how far I could go. And really, I’m doing quite well.”

And with all the gigs, Ferguson is well on his way to leaving behind a full-time managerial position to pursue comedy. Giving up his job as manager of a McDonald’s in El Cajon isn’t the world’s biggest sacrifice. In fact, Ferguson said he’s become so familiar with day-to-day business in the hamburger store that it has ceased to be a source of comic material.

Job Loses Its Humor

“I see it so often it just isn’t funny,” he said.

Recently, however, he did wonder why another McDonald’s manager arrived carrying a briefcase for a job that requires no paper work. “What did he have in there? The blueprint for a Big Mac?”

A graduate of Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, Ferguson confessed that he wasn’t voted the funniest in his class.

“But there was a lot of politics in that election.” He has a low-key style that centers on humorous anecdotes from his childhood.

Successful comics have an uncanny ability to understand nuances of the human condition and discuss it in a funny way, according to local comic Larry Himmel.

Take burly comedian Sam Kinnison. His obnoxious yet somehow poignant stories about disastrous relationships with women send his audience into a frenzy. The funniest stories are sexually deprecating and border on tastelessness, yet an uninhibited audience responds with uproarious laughter.

Kinnison, a hefty, slovenly man whose hallmark is screaming into his microphone, has paid his dues, sometimes playing five clubs a night. Only during the past three years has his off-color act become widely known.

Ferguson, far younger and cleaner than Kinnison, still hopes to make it that big. He can earn about $100,000 a year, he said, working 40 to 50 weeks on the road. While the life style is far from appealing, it beats reserving his jokes for co-workers at McDonald’s.

Local Boy Makes Good

The up-and-comers could take a lesson from San Diego comedian Rene Sandoval, a former tile layer who now works all over the country. While he was a business management student at Fresno State University, Sandoval won second place in the “Funniest Person in Fresno” contest.

A former Catholic school student who took his share of abuse for being the class clown, Sandoval said the contest gave him his first positive reinforcement for being funny.

“What I used to get in trouble for, I now get paid for,” he said.

Sandoval quit college 32 credits shy of his degree, moved to San Diego and worked in tile while perfecting his routine. With the help of Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store night clubs, Sandoval hit it big. He became a headliner at Shore’s main Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Until last year, Sandoval was still doing manual labor, which included tiling the interior of San Diego’s Improv. Now on the road to fame, he’s playing some of the best clubs across the country, including New York’s Improvisation. He’s opened for comedians and bands, including Jerry Seinfeld and Los Lobos.

“I was looking for a job as a comedian a few years ago, and the Improv gave me a job building their building--which was great. You know, Jay Leno painted the ceilings at the Improv in New York,” Sandoval said.

Tiling walls seems staid compared to Rick Rockwell’s former full-time job. Before moving to California and landing the role of surf nerd Skippy on the now-defunct “San Diego at Large” with Himmel, Rockwell sold feminine hygiene products to grocery stores in Pittsburgh.

Pretty Hard to Take

Fresh out of Penn State in 1979, the physical education graduate worked for Johnson & Johnson Co., filling shelves with panty shields during the day, working in comedy clubs at night.

“For the guy who was No. 1 in his college class, it was pretty hard to take,” Rockwell said.

But he was in for a good trade-off. Less than a month after arriving in San Diego eight years ago, he became an Improv regular.

He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where there was more work. This time around, Rockwell didn’t take a day job. Like Kinnison, he spent days searching for gigs and nights performing three or four times. Like Tom Hanks’ character in “Punchline,” he couldn’t find enough places to do his routine. A bus stop, a banquet hall. Just about any place people gathered.

“I was unrelenting. Any place I could find a stage, I found one,” he said.

Now 31, the former salesman works full time as a professional comedian. He headlines at the Improv, plays clubs around the country and has appeared in two movies.

His advice for the likes of Barney, Manzano, Florian and Ferguson: “Make sure your skin is thick, and get a big supply of pinhead repellent.”

And get rid of that day job.


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