Comedian Price Embraces His 'Family' Ties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hit sitcom "Family Ties" ended production two years ago. But comedian Marc Price has found that shedding his image as the Keatons' lovably nerdy neighbor, Skippy, is not easy.

Not that the boyish-looking comic, who is appearing at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach tonight, is complaining.

"Granted, nine out of 10 people go, 'Hey, you're Skippy from "Family Ties"! ' But there's that one person now who says, 'Hey, I saw you in Milwaukee,' or 'Weren't you on 'Evening at the Improv' last night?' "

As Price sees it, "I've actually started to make my climb up the ladder. And 'Family Ties' helped me. It helped me introduce Marc Price to people."

And just who is Marc Price?

The son of veteran Borscht Belt comedian Al Bernie, Price began doing bits on stage with his dad when he was 9. At 12, he was a member of the Too Short for Prime Time Players, a troupe of young performers that had a long run at the Roxy in Hollywood. At 13, he did his first comedy club stand-up solo, followed by a guest comedy spot on "The Merv Griffin Show."

At the same time, TV acting guests shots paved the way for Price being hired to don a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and become Mallory Keaton-chasing Skippy Handleman.

But throughout his long run on "Family Ties," the young comic continued honing his stand-up comedy act. The result: Price is a refreshingly bright, impish and likable comedian who, at only 22, possesses the stage presence and confidence of a seasoned performer.

As an Australian critic put it in the wake of Price's sellout shows in Sydney and Melbourne last summer: "His is a high-energy act, full of preppy humor and jibes at '60s hippies and '70s liberals. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, along with images of contemporary American life, are acutely observed with wit, irony and a healthy dose of youthful skepticism."

But still there's that "Skippy" thing.

"I've chosen to look at the positives, which really outweigh the negatives," said Price, citing what he called a "wonderful" education in comedy-acting from his stint as a regular on the series. "Family Ties" has also led to his recent signing to co-star in a new sitcom being developed by director Ron Howard's production company, and it's the reason Price had sold-out shows in Australia, where first-run episodes of "Family Ties" are still airing.

"It was the No. 2 TV series for four years in a row. I'd be silly not to deal with it," he said. "There are comedians (from TV shows) who choose not to, who want to break the stereotype, and they ignore it. The way I deal with it, I embrace it."

Price usually addresses the Skippy issue at the outset of his act, talking about what it was like growing up on a hit TV show.

"I'm recognized all over the world . . . as a geek," Price says on stage. "Michael J. Fox is this major motion picture star, and I could end up on 'Super Password.' I have a recurring nightmare"--here he lowers his voice to a stage whisper--"The password is . . . has-been .'

"Remember 'Happy Days'? Has anybody heard from (fellow nerd) Potsie Weber lately? These are the kinds of pressures I have to deal with."

But, as Price also notes in his act, "Opie, Meathead and Laverne have gone on to become some of the leading forces in comedy. There's hope."

Price, however, has no ambition to follow the path taken by Ron Howard, Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall: "They do directing. Stand-up comedy is the car I'm driving . . . and it gets much better mileage."

If stand-up comedy is the car Marc Price is driving, his father gets credit for helping him learn how to drive.

"It was through him that I learned the excitement of making a crowd laugh, the power of that and the fun of that," Price said.

In the late '70s, Price recalled, his father took him to the handful of comedy clubs that were beginning to crop up in New York City.

"He pointed to the guys on stage--Robin Williams and David Brenner and Richard Belzer--and said: 'This is it, this is the future. It's not going to be mother-in-law jokes.' He was right. It was so exciting for me. My feet were rooted in modern comedy before it blossomed."

Despite his unusually early start in stand-up comedy, Price said it wasn't until he was 17 that he really began blossoming on stage.

At 14, he said, "I knew timing and knew what sounds funny," but "I was doing Jay Leno stuff, joke-book stuff, or a friend of mine would give me a line; I was learning. When you're learning you're not going to be Bob Newhart."

Or Marc Price, for that matter.

"I now know how to have a good time (on stage)--that's the key," he said. "I didn't know that then."

He also learned a valuable lesson that separates the name-brand comedians from their generic counterparts.

"I talk about things that are true to me, and that's the trick," he said. "Anything I consider talking about I think, 'Can anybody talk about it?' The best material is material that no one can steal. I try to talk about things that affect me. "

Getting older, for example. As Price once pointed out: "I'm happy to say my act has changed as much as my voice."

"Each year I've had to deal with my age," he said. "When I turned 21 I said I lost at least 10 minutes of material: 'I'm legal, what am I going to do now?' " (One of his routines dealt with all the things you miss out on because you're not 21.)

He has even had to retire his Boy Scout uniform shirt, which he wore for years on stage underneath a sweater. In the middle of his act, he'd remove the sweater and announce, "I find that women get turned on by a man in uniform."

Price spends what he calls "a disciplined amount of time each week" working on his act. TV commercials are one topic he tries to avoid.

"Early on I found I had too much of that, and it's easy: Every comedian talks about TV commercials," he said. "Now I talk about things, issues. I'm not too radical, but I deal with malathion spraying, the tone of life in America, things I see on the road."

Indeed, Price makes a point of getting out of his hotel room on the road to meet people and explore. In St. Louis he toured the Budweiser brewery. "I don't have anything in my act on that yet," he said, "but I plan to."

It's important, Price stressed, for a comedian to expand his sphere of knowledge. But then, concerned he was coming across as some sort of comedy expert, he added:

"I don't claim to be some almighty power in that department. I'm not there yet. Maybe that's one thing I learned from my father: Once you're 'there,' there's nowhere to go. My dad still calls me and says (excitedly), 'I found this new way of performing. . . .' And that's what it's all about.

"I'm nowhere near what I want to be. I'm Marc Price; I'm a work in progress." He paused. "But I don't want to scare anybody off. . . . It's a good work in progress.

"I'm a rebel without a clue."

* Marc Price performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday at the Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach. Tickets: $12.50. A $25 Valentine's Day package for couples includes flowers and champagne. Information: (714) 852-8762.

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