COMEDY : Mulrooney Has New but Improv-ed Approach

Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly covers comedy for O.C. Live!

He is known for his acerbic style, rapid-fire insults and spontaneous, sharp-tongued exchanges with his audience. But how does Brooklyn-born John Mulrooney describe his onstage persona?

"A cross between a blue-collar Chevy Chase and Don Rickles," answers the comedian, who is headlining through Sunday at the Improv in Brea. "I'm kind of rowdier than someone like Chase would be, but with a lot of physical comedy, a lot of working with the audience and destroying hecklers."

Indeed, spotting a woman in the audience with long blond hair and a low-neck red dress, Mulrooney once said: "I don't know if you know it or not, but we have Elvira's Nazi cousin sitting right up front, folks." And to a man who gruffly yelled out "YEAH!" when Mulrooney asked if there were any fellow Brooklynites in the audience, the comic asked: "Were you in 'Quest for Fire'? What kind of response was that? 'YEAH!' . . . " Whereupon he proceeded to mimic an apelike cave dweller.

And those people weren't even giving Mulrooney a hard time.

Speaking by phone last week from Miami, where he was performing, Mulrooney said he has been improvising less with his audiences and doing more character-oriented performance pieces in his act--such as a routine about his Chinese math teacher in high school, who gave out candy to students who scored high marks and would berate those who didn't have the correct answer: "You don't have the right answer? You better jump out the weeendow. "

Then there's his bit about New York cops.

"Basically, they have a very nonchalant attitude about things," Mulrooney said. "You could be driving your car 80 m.p.h.--backward, in a schoolyard for the handicapped, during recess, with a nun lashed to the roof rack, shooting a gun from the window. And a cop in New York would be like, 'Hey, hey, hey! Your tail light's out.' "

This addition of more set, written material marks the latest evolution in an act that, when Mulrooney started doing stand-up 11 years ago, consisted entirely of impressions. "I did all the hack stuff: John Travolta, Rocky--everything everybody else does," he recalls. But that changed once he discovered he could get "huge laughs" just by improvising with the audience: "I remember thinking, 'I don't even need to write this.' "

The spontaneous approach worked well for Mulrooney, but ultimately he realized it had its own drawbacks. While praising the comic's "masterful improvisational skills," a reviewer for The Times noted in 1987 that "this kind of approach is too one-dimensional to hold up for an hour."

Although much of his banter with the audience merely served as segues between written bits, Mulrooney said, "I read too many times that I don't have an act and just talk to the crowd. I want people to take me more seriously as a performer, so I'm trying to develop chunks of material."

In one current routine, Mulrooney wonders why "pepper gets such special treatment" in restaurants. "The special pepper person comes in with, like, a missing coffee table leg: 'Pepper? '

"'No thanks, but I'm missing a rung in my banister.'

"Where's the waiter with the belt sander and the big block of salt? 'Fresh salt?' Or where's the guy with a tomato and mallet? 'Ketchup for those fries?' "

He makes like he's milking a cow: "Cream in your coffee, lady?"

Despite the infusion of more performance pieces, Mulrooney has no intention of abandoning his hallmark improvisations with his audience. "It's more fun to work with the audience," he said. "If I get bored with the set stuff or something takes me off on a tangent, I'll just run with it.

"To me, doing stand-up comedy is like jumping out of a plane and knitting a parachute before you hit the ground. You'll either become a knitting champ or a road pizza."

Who: John Mulrooney.

When: Thursday, Sept. 19, and Sunday, Sept. 22, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 20, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 21, at 8 and 10:30 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 onto State College Boulevard and right onto Birch Street. The Improv is in the Brea Marketplace, across from the Brea Mall.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to Call: (714) 529-7878.

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