Comedian-impressionist Craig Shoemaker was sitting in a Philadelphia bar with his buddies eight years ago when an idea for a comedy bit hit him: What would it be like to see Jack Nicholson at the moment of birth?
Covering his entire head with his sweat shirt hood, Shoemaker began: "We take you now to the hospital room of Mrs. Nicholson: 'All right, Mrs. Nicholson, take it easy now. That's it. Breathe deep. Come on, bear down. That's it! PUSH, Mrs. Nicholson!"
With that, Shoemaker's face began to emerge out of the hood, slowly revealing the trademark Nicholson grin, then the devilishly arched eyebrows, followed by the comic piece de resistance: Nicholson's classic line from "The Shining," "He-e-e-e-re's Johnny."
The bit went over so well with his buddies that Shoemaker--a master of facial and vocal impressions--immediately put it into his act, ultimately adding a rapid succession of nearly two dozen other celebrities emerging from the womb.
There's an air-headed John Travolta popping out to lamely say: " . . . What? . . ."
A lisping Mike Tyson: " 'Scuse me. If you touch me, then I'll beat the hell outta you."
A whining Andy Rooney from "Sixty Minutes": "You ever look at the inside of a uterus?"
A Neanderthal Sylvester Stallone as Rocky: "Eh-uh-h-h-h!"
And, of course, Rambo: "Eh-uh-h-h-h!"
The birth routine, which Shoemaker still does, caught on quickly with audiences and helped the bright and inventive comedian to make the jump to headliner status at comedy clubs around the country.
But Shoemaker, who's appearing at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach through Sunday, now has another routine that is fast becoming a signature piece.
He calls it the Love Master.
"Look at you girls laughing at me," he'll say to a table full of women next to the stage. Then his voice deepens and he takes on an impossibly self-confident, sensuous air, saying to one of the women: "I'm the Love Master, baby. Who you laughing at? Come on up here, baby. . . . Walk nasty for the Love Master."
In the hands of another comedian the bit could be both crude and lewd, but with Shoemaker, who usually resembles John Boy Walton (though currently he sports a beard grown for a serious role in an upcoming episode of ABC's "FBI: The Untold Story"), it's just plain funny.
In a phone interview last week, Shoemaker explained that the genesis for the Love Master routine came to him while talking to a friend shortly after waking up one morning.
"My voice is lower in the morning, so (the Love Master) really does kind of channel through me," he said, laughing. "It's sort of my alter ego--that's what I like to say."
The Love Master surfaces repeatedly throughout Shoemaker's act as he reacts to women in the audience.
"I have to have some sort of stimuli--whether they're saying something or whether they have a short skirt in the front row. I get back at them as the Love Master," Shoemaker said. "It's a lot easier than as myself. That's the advantage of doing characters. I can actually think of things in that character that I'd never think of myself. Words just come to me."
Shoemaker has been doing voices since he was 12 and started mimicking Paul Lynde and Jimmy Stewart. As with many comedians, comedy served as a form of self-protection when he was growing up. At only 5-foot-1 and 92 pounds in high school, the now 6-foot-2 Shoemaker recalls that "I used to get beat up a lot. If you're getting beat up and you don't have the physical capabilities, you better come back with something. So I used to make people laugh."
Still, said Shoemaker, who majored in radio, television and film in college, "I never knew comedy was going to be the career goal. My mother, still to this day, thinks it's a phase I'm going through."
In his act, Shoemaker does everything from Pee-wee Herman as a guest host on "Wheel of Fortune" to a boxing match between the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz" and Barnie Fife from "The Andy Griffith Show":
Cowardly Lion: "All right, put 'em up. Put 'em up. . . ."
Barnie: "(Sniff) Yeah, well, you listen here, Mr. Lion. Andy! Andy! Andy! We got a hot one here. You better back off! These things are certified lethal weapons!"
Despite his skill as an impressionist, Shoemaker said he is beginning to do fewer celebrity voices and more material focused on growing up.
Shoemaker said he has always explored childhood for material, but the more he has learned about himself the more he has realized his own family is fertile ground for comedy. Indeed, he said, his mother belly-danced for his friends at their high school graduation, and his father, who left when Shoemaker was 3, runs mule rides in the Pocono Mountains.
"It wasn't the Cleavers, believe me," he said.
Growing up, Shoemaker was the only male in a household made up of his mother, his grandmother and his sister.
"My first shave was with a Flicker," he recalls. ". . . I can change all my clothes at a stoplight."
Who: Craig Shoemaker.
When: Thursday, Jan. 2, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 3, and Saturday, Jan. 4, at 8, 10 and 11:45 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 5, at 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach.
Whereabouts: From the Corona del Mar Freeway, take the Irvine Avenue/Campus Drive exit onto Bristol Street and go south one block.
Wherewithal: $7 to $10.
Where to call: (714) 852-8762.