COMEDY : Wolfberg Sq-u-e-e-z-es Laughs From Audience

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

Dennis Wolfberg is enjoying his popularity, which has risen dramatically since he won the 1991 American Comedy Award for best male stand-up comic.

“It’s very nice,” said Wolfberg, who now draws sold-out crowds to 1,500- and 2,000-seat venues across the country. “I’m signing autographs by the dozens. People come with their cameras. It’s an event ! My recognition factor is way up and more people know my name now.”

Of course, he said, “I still get people who will point to me and say, ‘You’re the guy with the eyes.’ I say, ‘I can only assume I am of whom you speak, although I do have other ORGANS that are functioning.”

Wolfberg, who’s headlining at the Irvine Improv through Sunday, may be best known for his patented delivery, in which he squints then bulges out his eyes as he literally SQ-U-E-E-Z-ES out key words for emphasis. But critics also have called him “perhaps the most verbally adroit comic working today” and “one of those rare comics who can take the simplest moments of life and turn them into the greatest laughs you’ll ever have.”


Take this vintage Wolfberg routine about a new cereal called Fiber One:

“I don’t know if any of you are familiar with this rather powerful piece of breakfast fare, the GRIM REAPER of morning chow, this NUclear laxative in a BOX! This stuff is unbelievably fiber rich. It has six times more fiber than Grape Nuts and three times more fiber than raw TWINE! . . . . It’s one thing to be regular, it’s another to be unSTOPPable!”

The onetime South Bronx sixth-grade teacher, who got into comedy in 1976, views his American Comedy Award as a sign that he has finally arrived.

“It was a real culmination, a real punctuation mark,” said Wolfberg, 45, speaking by phone from Albuquerque, N.M., last week. “The year before (winning the award) I was voted by the club owners as the top-drawing comic nationwide and in another poll of club owners I was voted the top comic and so this was a culmination, almost like a Triple Crown.”

Wolfberg has a series of 10 concerts lined up in cities across the country between now and July. He could be doing a lot more lucrative concert dates, but being the father of a 5-year-old son (Daniel) and 7-month-old twin boys (Matthew and David) he doesn’t want to stray too far from his Culver City home.

As he says: “I’m busy burping and diapering these days--and not necessarily in that order. . . . . In fact, sometimes I think of billing myself as the hardest working Y chromosome in show business.”

Wolfberg said he really tries to balance his work and family life. And at this point, given the twins’ lack of sleep, he said, “traveling as a family would be quite challenging. They’re generally up four or five times a night between the two of them. They seem to have an unwritten agreement that one of them will be awake.”

Just the night night before, Wolfberg said, “I called the house to check in--because basically I’m whipped-- and Daniel answered the phone: ‘Guess what, Dad? I carried David today.’

“I said, ‘Congratulations, son, you’re getting so strong.’ To which he said, ‘I’m not that strong, I dropped him on his head.’ ”

“To which I said, ‘How is he doing?’

“And he said, ‘We don’t know. He hasn’t stopped crying yet.’ ”

Wolfberg swears that really happened and that he plans to use it on stage. His three sons, naturally, are prime fodder for his act.

“It’s the new factor in my life,” said Wolfberg, who didn’t get married (to former stand-up comic Jeannie McBride) until he was 39 and who became a father for the first time at 40. “In fact, we had the twins so I could come up with new material. We do have our priorities in place.”

Dredging the depths and shallows of his own life for material is a hallmark of Wolfberg’s comedy: “My act is basically anecdotal, reality based, which I think is why it plays across all audiences. They recognize it as reality.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally touch on current events.

Wolfberg said he was booked to play Washington, D.C., during Presidents’ Day weekend. “It was an appropriate booking for me, as opposed to when I was booked to play Mobile, Ala., during Hanukkah. Mobile, a CITADEL of Judaica, a HOT BED of Hebrew activity. Where they didn’t even know from Hanukkah. As evidenced by the guy who actually said to me, ‘Happy Chaka Khan.” Anyway, while in the capital, Wolfberg said he read a Washington Post item that said President Bush this year sent out 350,000 Christmas cards--"the same number of Valentine’s Day cards that Bill Clinton sent out.”

Such political barbs, however, are rare. “Basically,” Wolfberg said, “the crux of my act is my own life.”

But it wasn’t that way when he was starting out.

“In the beginning, when you’re first taking to the boards, you do anything for a laugh,” Wolfberg said. “You’re desperate. It’s pretty lonely up there, and who knows what they’re going to find funny: a joke, a line, a face?”

In fact, he recalled, the first bit that “propelled me into some sort of notoriety was an out-and-out slapstick bit” he used to do in the late ‘70s. At the time, Dannon Yogurt was running a popular commercial in which a 117-year-old woman from Soviet Georgia attributed her longevity to eating yogurt.

In spoofing the commercial, Wolfberg naturally played the old woman as having absolutely no control over her motor skills. With shaking hand, he would splatter the yogurt all over his face.

The point is, Wolfberg said, “I would do anything for a laugh: I sacrificed my hair, face and wardrobe basically for three years: A Man and His Yogurt, but it was basically pie in the face, the oldest comedy gambit. As the years went on, I evolved into a non-dairy act.”

What: Dennis Wolfberg.

When: Thursday, March 12, and Sunday, March 15, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, March 13, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 14, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.

Where: The Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: In the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across Campus Drive from the UC Irvine campus.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to Call: (714) 854-5455.