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But Seriously, Folks . . . : Big-name comics still pack ‘em in, but others are seeing a lot of frowns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All right, there’s this guy, right? He walks into this bar, and he sees this other guy standing at the bar with a duck on his shoulder. The duck orders a Scotch, and the bartender gives him the drink.

The guy thinks this is amazing, so he walks up to the other guy and says, “Wow, what a duck.” And the other guy says to him, “That’s no duck. That’s my wife!”

No, wait a minute. That wasn’t right. The duck wasn’t the guy’s wife. It was some endangered species. That’s it. Or maybe the other guy was from Romania or something. Well, anyway, it was pretty funny. Really. You should have been there. We were all laughing really hard.

So maybe comedy isn’t our strong point. Luckily there is no dearth of comics in Ventura County who can remember their punch lines. For a while, on almost any night of the week, a slew of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels were offering comedy nights.

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“When I first started doing this, the only clubs around were in Los Angeles and New York,” said Jimmy Brogan, a comic who has appeared on several television comedy shows and recently performed at the Ventura Concert Theatre. Now, Brogan said, there are a lot more performing options for comics.

“Maybe it’s the recession, maybe it’s the time we live in,” he said. “But people really want to laugh.”

And when they laugh, they laugh a lot--several comedy outlets have two or three comics per show, many of whom are big-name performers fresh from television appearances and Los Angeles comedy-club stages.

“Big-name is the key,” said Mark, owner of Cheers in Simi Valley. Mark, who was hesitant about disclosing his full identity, said his last name was “just Mark.”

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“Whenever I bring in recognized comedians,” Mark said, “I can put two shows together and completely sell out.”

That’s the good news. In the famous words of Steve Martin, comedy is not pretty. And backstage, the talk around town isn’t always so funny.

Some spots that were going for the laughs earlier this year have decided to give comedy the hook. Club owners complain that audiences are fickle, alternately packing the clubs and staying away in droves. And comics, most of whom come here from L.A., have suggested that things out here are, well, a bit different. Ventura County audiences, many say, just aren’t all that hip.

First, about our hipness.

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At Club Soda in Ventura, where the dance floor is now filled each Thursday night with rows of small tables and chairs, a Los Angeles comedian is swishing across the stage and talking about his boyfriends.

He grabs his crotch a few times. Then he baptizes the audience by dipping his fingers in a glass of an unidentified liquid, sprinkling a few unfortunate people in the front row. Next come a few AIDS jokes.

The crowd loves it.

“You think that’s funny?” the comic says to one woman who nods her head as she laughs. “Then you must be really sick.”

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“We’ve only been doing comedy for two months, but it’s already been a huge success,” Shay Burke, Club Soda’s manager, said. “We’re pushing really hard for top-quality comedians. That’s what brings people in.”

Burke said the club’s typical comedy-night audience is “an older crowd. You know, between 30 and 35.” What they don’t seem to like, he said, is raunchy humor. “Most of the comedians say that Ventura is generally a more conservative crowd. They (audiences) want it cleaner.”

Except that the club is also eager to book Andrew Dice Clay. “He has such a big name, it wouldn’t matter,” Burke said by way of explanation. “We could pack the place.”

What everyone seems to agree on is that local audiences don’t like political humor.

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“I did some stuff that was poking fun at politics, and sometimes the crowd hissed,” said Hugh Fink, a Los Angeles comic. “It didn’t go over very well.”

Fink, who has appeared at several clubs in the county and is appearing this month on an HBO special with Rodney Dangerfield, said he makes it a habit not to try out new material in Ventura County, “because it’s not typical of the audiences I generally play to. It’s more remote, so I don’t get an accurate reading for what I want to do nationally.”

He does make an exception of Simi Valley. “I was driving this long dark road to nowhere, and I thought it was going to be awful. But they ended up being very enthusiastic,” he said. “They were amazingly hip there.”

Compliment or not, it’s that kind of statement that just gets the dander of a lot of locals up.

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“A lot of people look down on Ventura County, but we’re just as smart as everyone else,” said Ed Wasco, assistant general manager of Mullarkey’s in the Radisson Suite Hotel in Oxnard.

“We laugh at everything other people do. It’s a bad rap.”

Mark was feeling a bit depressed. He has watched business at his club Cheers--where pool tables remain in use while comics are on stage--dwindle of late.

Three years ago, he said, audiences were so hungry for belly-laughs that they were packed in four nights a week. Last month, Wednesdays were dropped. Now Cheers is down to Saturday nights only.

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On this particular Saturday, a dwarf has climbed onto the stage with difficulty. She is blond with a pretty face, dressed completely in black.

“Don’t you just hate it when you get knocked unconscious by a doorknob?” she asks the crowd. There is sparse, uncomfortable laughter. Pool balls collide in the background. “And don’t you just hate it when a dog tries to bury you because it thinks you’re a bone?” The room is silent, save for some soft coughing in a corner.

It wasn’t always this way. “In the beginning, there could be some good people and some bad people, and the audience kind of accepted it,” Mark said with a sigh. “Now I have to put two headliners up there to really draw people. There is no room for being mediocre anymore.”

Part of it, comedians and owners speculate, may have to do with the spate of comedy shows that are now on TV. With so many professionally honed acts at the tip of a channel-changer, people are less inclined to pay big bucks for small yuks.

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“Most comics will tell you that people are more demanding of good comedy these days,” said comedian Brogan, who has appeared on both “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “Late Night with David Letterman.” “But I think that, because of it, the comedy boom will die down. Only the good clubs will stay open and present quality.”

Getting consistent quality, Mark said, is a problem. “I would pay big bucks for the big names, but I can’t get them,” he said. “They don’t like Simi Valley because we’re not a professional comedy club. People are playing pool and the comedians get upset about it. They think they are superstars. They are not superstars,” he said. “They are in Simi Valley.”

Cheers isn’t the only club in the county that has struggled with waxing and waning attendance. Just last month, the Breakers at the Holiday Inn in Ventura discontinued its weekly comedy night.

Carmen Circillo, a Canoga Park comic, booked comedians for the Holiday Inn. “The hotel was like something out of ‘The Shining,’ ” Circillo said. “You know, where Jack Nicholson is running through the empty hotel with a knife? Well, there wasn’t a soul in there.”

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On one comedy night, he said, seven people showed up. “The waitress and the bartender sat down. The manager sat down. It was probably one of our best shows.”

LOCAL LAUGHS

* The Comedy Club, located inside Hornblower’s at the Ventura Harbor Village, features three new comedians each week. This week: Charlie Marko, Paul Dillery and Billy Elmer. Performances are at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays ($6), 8 and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays ($8). Reservations are required; 21 and older. No drink minimum. 1559 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura. Call 644-2041.

* Cheers in Simi Valley presents two comedians Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. for those 18 and older. No drink minimum; $5. 1308 E. Los Angeles Ave.

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* Mullarkey’s, a restaurant-comedy club inside the Radisson Suite Hotel in Oxnard, features a free comedy show with dinner. Admission without dinner, $6. Three comedians perform 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Must be 21 or older; no drink minimum. This week: Dave Lefkowitz, Eric Champnella and Stevie Ray Fromstien. 2101 W. Vineyard Ave. Call 988-0130.

* Club Soda in Ventura showcases the Rex Meredith Comedy Show each Thursday at 9 p.m. Two comedians perform; $5. No drink minimum; must be 21. 317 E. Main St. Call 652-0100.

* Ventura Theatre offers the occasional “Comedy Night,” featuring four professional performers. Also, the theater has scheduled several big-name acts for the coming months:

Friday: “Comedy Night” ($8)

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Sept. 6: Bob (Bobcat) Goldthwait ($19.50)

Sept. 20: George Carlin and Dennis Blair ($23.50)

Oct. 11: Emo Philips and Judy Tenuta ($19.50)

Nov. 2: George Wallace and Dennis Wolfberg ($17.50)

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Occasional age restriction enforced. Two-drink minimum. 26 S. Chestnut St. Call 648-1888.

* Thousand Oaks Teen Center welcomes three professional comedians--some of whom are veterans of the comedy circuit--the last Saturday of each month. This one’s open to high school teen-agers only. Performances are held 8 to 10 p.m.; admission is $5. Because of Labor Day, this month’s show will be moved up to this Saturday. 1375 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. Call 494-5156.

* For laugh-aholics who can’t make it to a comedy club, they might consider tuning their radio to KMDY 850-AM for continuous laughter. KMDY, which claims to have the only all-comedy radio format in the country, features taped comedy routines from big-name performers past and present.

* Even the Ventura County Fair is offering a mini-comedy circuit with three acts performing throughout the event. Remaining performances:

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Today

Noon, Budweiser Stage: Comedy ventriloquist Ken Karter; Seabreeze Stage: musical-comedy impersonations with Phil Birdsell; 1 p.m. Seabreeze Stage: Phil Birdsell; Wine Garden: musical comedy duo Roquemore & Jarrel; 2 p.m. Budweiser Stage: Ken Karter, Wine Garden; Roquemore & Jarrel; 3 p.m. Wine Garden; Roquemore & Jarrel

Friday

3 p.m. Seabreeze Stage: Ken Karter; 7 p.m. Wine Garden: Roquemore & Jarrel; 8 p.m. Wine Garden: Roquemore & Jarrel; 9 p.m. Wine Gardnen: Roquemore & Jarrel

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Saturday

1 p.m. Youth Building: Ken Karter


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