A Hot Time at the Ice House : Comedy Club to Celebrate 30 Years of Laughs

Times Staff Writer

By the time Kat Simmons goes on, the audience at the Ice House in Pasadena has already been goaded, charmed, ambushed and tickled by a half-dozen other stand-up comics, and everybody's haw-hawing merrily along. Most of the familiar targets have been trotted out: game show hosts, hyperactive kids, K mart, fat ladies in stretch pants, the save-the-whales movement, "Fantasy Island," liposuction and, memorably, Kellogg's Mueslix cereal.

"In Switzerland, that means wholesome goodness," says Eric Pielstieck, speaking in the rounded tones of a television commercial voice-over. Then his eyes go stony, and his voice shifts gears. "Maybe," he snaps. "But in this country, partner, it means you've got a sinus condition and maybe you should cut back on the dairy products."

The Sunday-night audience clamors for more.

The tall, redheaded Simmons totters onto the stage, big wedges of brass dangling from her ears and a crooked, irrepressible grin on her face. The crowd titters as she sizes them up. They're a lot better than her last audience, she tells them. That was in a psychiatric ward.

"It was an audience of paranoid schizophrenics," she says. "There were 15 of them. Seemed like it was 30."

Simmons, a new comic who is just starting to venture into the rocky terrain of dinner theaters, small-town comedy bars, one-nighters in Palm Springs and "open-mike" nights at the established clubs, is fast becoming a connoisseur of audiences.

The tough ones, she says between sets, are the dinner-club crowds ("You have to wait 'till everybody swallows and pays attention") or audiences that have already been conditioned to lewdness by the last comic. "If you follow a comic whose mind is in the gutter, you seem like Mary Poppins following Arnold Schwarzenegger with a hemorrhoid," she says.

But the best audiences? No question. They're at the Ice House in Pasadena, says Simmons.

Stand-up comedy, concentrated in a handful of big-city clubs until the early 1980s, is now performed in more than 200 clubs in 41 states, according to comedy trade publications. The widely reported "comedy boom" has new clubs popping up like mushrooms, from Bossier City, La., to Kent, Wash. The Pasadena club, however, is already at the threshold of middle age. The Ice House--a tidy little place with an entrance on an alley, a small side room and a main room that echoes with giggles and guffaws--will be 30 years old next month.

"I'm not laying claim to being the oldest comedy house in the country," says owner Bob Fisher, a short, bearded man who watches his performers cut up on stage with wooden-faced detachment. "But put it this way. Steve Martin was doing comedy here 12 years before the Comedy Store (one of Los Angeles' premiere clubs) opened."

It's an intimate place, with no one sitting farther than about 25 feet from the stage. The chairs are straight, the tables tiny and the walls unadorned brick--all deliberately Spartan. "No carpet, no acoustic tile," Fisher explains. "The room stays lively."

It's also, as far as many comedians are concerned, unusually performer-friendly. For people who routinely cross swords with hecklers, drunks and the generally unresponsive, the Ice House usually offers appreciative audiences. "It's like comedy heaven," says Barbara Scott, an Ice House regular, whose act often includes a send-up of a steamy guitar-playing torch singer. "You don't have to prove yourself over and over again. Because you're on the stage, they seem to accept the fact that you're funny."

The Pasadena club debuted in 1959 as a folk music cafe. Even then, comedians were usually part of the show, says Fisher. Lily Tomlin, the Smothers Brothers and Bob Newhart cut early records there. In the early 1960s, Pat Paulsen stirred things up by pouring paint on his head and swinging head-down from a rope in the main room, letting his hair brush across blank pieces of paper. He'd sell his "cranial paintings" to members of the audience.

"There was comedy here from Day 1," says Fisher, who bought the Ice House in 1978 and turned into an all-comedy venue.

The comedy boom may be, as some cynics suggest, just a cheap way of getting customers into a bar ("You get a headliner for $900 and two other guys for $200, and you sell $5,000 worth of liquor," says one road-hardened comic), but it's drawing hundreds of new young performers into the field.

With comedians making it big in the movies, cable television companies planning all-comedy channels and that national network of comedy clubs getting bigger all the time, the opportunities seem endless.

"Everybody's a comic nowadays," says veteran comedian Sam Kwasman, another Ice House regular. "Everybody's got five minutes."

Maybe so. But few among the 2,000 or so comics making the rounds in the United States are getting rich at it. "It's really just an expensive habit," says Scott, who traveled to the Ice House from Venice last week to perform for free, just so she could make a videotape of her performance.

Outsiders find it difficult to grasp the pressurized, manic-depressive world of the comedian, with its lonely pursuit of laughter, comedians say. "Comedy is a serious business," says Kwasman, a former dancer who does cartoon voices in his act (he recently auditioned to replace the late Mel Blanc as Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam).

In the Pasadena club's Green Room, a sitting room where comedians waiting their turn can watch what's happening on stage through closed-circuit television ("Just like Johnny Carson," says Fisher), the talk often turns to the frustrations of the business.

"I'm doing open-mike night at the Improv (another major Los Angeles club) tomorrow," says Simmons, who gave up a job as a Lake Tahoe real estate broker to pursue comedy. "Last time I did it, they told me I'd be fourth. I waited 12 hours to go on for five minutes. It's real humbling, but it keeps you doing the footwork."

Wade and Karen Sheeler, a comedy duo, toast each other gaily with antacid bottles--each with a straw and a little paper parasol--and Pielstieck calmly paces the floor, getting in the mood for his first ever stand-up performance.

There's usually a mutually protective camaraderie among them all, from hungry-eyed young pistoleros to comedians who have already done Carson and Letterman, says Simmons. "People warn you about working for a guy in Phoenix, because he'll stiff you, or another guy who physically hit a female comic who wasn't receptive to his advances," she says. "A lot of icky stuff happens on the road."

The show unfolds rapidly. Bill Kelly, a bespectacled and overweight young man from Illinois, hitches up his pants and talks about a "religious experience" in his hometown. "My mother found a silhouette of the Virgin Mary in the lint trap," he says. Sheeler & Sheeler do fast-paced skits about Siamese twin detectives and about a pair of game show hosts on a blind date.

He: You can keep the flowers!

She (gesturing dramatically): Suggested retail price--$8.95!

Pielstieck does his mad tirades, John Robisch plays an endearing clod and Jim Fleming, a young man with cerebral palsy, improvises on his own disability.

There's an underlying pessimism to most comics, says Robisch, after his performance. "We all grew up as the class clowns," he says. "There's a need for attention. Tear away the facade and it's not a pretty sight."

Simmons trots out some familiar targets of her own: feminine hygiene products, self-serve gas stations, small towns. She's from Gardnerville, Nev., she tells the audience in her good-natured manner--"where men are men, and sheep have their own rape crisis hot line."

The audience (liberally sprinkled with Simmons' friends) loves it. "They were putty," she says pleasurably later on. "I could have stayed on for an hour."

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