As a kid growing up in Boston in the '60s and '70s, comedian Jeff Joseph says, his family was poor but his parents had "middle-class sensibilities."
"When I was very young," he says, "I won a scholarship to go away to prep school, so I never knew how to speak like other black kids. I had to get that Berlitz record: 'Repeat: I be, you be, he be, we be.' "
That joke reflects an added dimension to Joseph's melange of high-energy, character-oriented and topical humor: Now he's reaching audiences by doing material with a more personal bent.
"In the last six or eight months I started opening up and started talking more and more about my own life," he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
"Everybody talks about men and women. Comedians say, 'Did you ever notice when men get into an argument they're quiet and when women get into an argument they talk a lot?' More than generalize I really try to personalize. I don't always succeed, but that's my game; that's my goal."
There's no denying that Joseph, who made his debut on "The Tonight Show" last year and is scheduled to make a return visit in a few weeks, is succeeding. He'll be at the Brea Improv through Sunday. (He also can been seen on a recently taped segment of "Comic Strip Live," which airs Saturday night at 11 on Channel 11.)
Joseph, who studied acting at New York University and Julliard, turned to comedy in 1984 after appearing in a number of off-Broadway plays and realizing, "I wasn't making enough money to get by in New York, so on a bet I started doing stand-up."
He hasn't abandoned his acting career, however, having appeared in a number of movies ("Scrooged," "Roxanne") and TV shows (most recently as a regular on the HBO series "Dream On").
Joseph also has had several brief stints as a TV show host, including Fox's defunct "The Late Show." (To keep that low-rated show going, he jokes that he even changed his name to "Jeffsenio Hall," but nothing helped.) On a more positive career note, he served as a writer on the pilot episode of the Fox hit "In Living Color," for which he shared an Emmy nomination last year.
As a stand-up, he's a versatile performer who is pleased with the more personal direction his comedy has taken.
"I was doing more social comment before," he said. "I was doing a lot of current event stuff and political stuff--more commenting on things than exposing myself. I now do a lot of very personal things about my life and growing up and dating and stuff like that. I try not to speak in generalities--black and white and men and women--but speak about myself."
His thoughts on dating:
"I like to freak girls out," he says in his act. "My ex-girlfriend would always ask me questions like, 'Did you see Lisa's boyfriend, John? Isn't he cute?'
"What am I supposed to say? 'Oh John's cute, but his brother Rico's fine. ' "
Different types of material, Joseph said, generate different kinds of laughs: "There are laughs you can get out of shocking people and there are laughs you can get out of people understanding what you're about."
Although the laughs generated by the personal material may not be as loud as the laughs sparked by shocking an audience, he said, they are more meaningful: "People take away something when they leave, like they know you.
"For me, I just find it more fulfilling because I'm expressing myself more than trying to please people and do things that everybody experiences. I just say things I've gone through in my life. I think people relate to it on a different level than if you generalize."
That's what he admires about such comedians as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.
"When I listen to them, they're talking about their life," he said. "I feel I know them. I feel like I'd know how Bill Cosby would react to different things."
There is still room in Joseph's act, however, for observations on current events, such as the video-taped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.
"I feel sorry for the cameraman," he says. "One dark night he's going to have to call the police: 'Someone's burglarizing my house and they've tied up my wife. Please help me!' And the police will be like, 'Why don't you just video-tape that, pal?'
"The L.A.P.D really got caught red-handed and then they lied. They said King was driving down the freeway doing 115 miles an hour--in a Hyundai! The press contacted the Hyundai Co. which said, 'Our car doesn't even fall that fast. Schwinn's beat us."
And regarding the recent war in the Persian Gulf, Joseph says:
"I hate George Bush. But because of the war I was put in a situation where I had to pray that he lived. Because if he died and Quayle became commander in chief we'd be over in Iraq working in their 7-Elevens."
Who: Jeff Joseph.
When: Thursday, April 4, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, April 5, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 6, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 7, at 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Improv, 945 E. Birch St., Brea.
Whereabouts: Take the Lambert Road exit off the Orange (57) Freeway and go west. Turn left on State College Boulevard and right on Birch Street. The Improv is in the Brea Marketplace, across from the Brea Mall.
Wherewithal: $7 and $10.
Where to call: (714) 529-7878.