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COMEDY : Jack Coen Learns the Hard Way What’s Right and What’s Left

<i> Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Jack Coen has learned to take his dyslexia in stride, even when his 8-year-old son, Sean, is fascinated by it.

“Dad, do you reverse whole buildings?”

“No, Sean.”

“Dad, is that airplane going backward?”

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“No, Sean.”

When the comic, who is appearing at the Irvine Improv through Sunday, was younger, however, he wasn’t so casual about it. Because it surfaced so rarely and in such small degrees, he didn’t even realize he had the disorder, an impairment of the ability to read.

“I used to feel really stupid when it would kick in,” the 35-year-old comic said in an interview from San Diego, where he was performing last week. “Dialing a phone, I’d reverse the last two numbers and get frustrated and feel stupid and hate myself for not getting it perfect.”

But that wasn’t all.

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“I remember dreading playing Twister because I didn’t know left and right,” Coen said. “And I didn’t know why I didn’t know. I couldn’t figure it. And everybody would make fun of me. I wasn’t big so I couldn’t kick anybody’s ass. That must have been where I got the cutting wit. It comes in handy now when hecklers try to attack me.”

Fortunately, the disorder is somewhat under control.

“I don’t do it all the time. When I’m tired or I’ve been reading too long, I’ll notice I’m switching words. I don’t have it really bad, but I’ve got some cross-wiring up there. I wear a watch on my left hand to remind me it’s my left hand. But I don’t feel stupid now.”

Coen didn’t even realize something was wrong until he was 27.

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“My wife caught it. When I started dating her, she asked me to read something after I’d busted a couple phones because I missed a couple of numbers. She put it together that I was reversing things.

“In my set, I’ll reverse words when I get real excited. Lots of times I visualize where I’m going next, and if I visualize it backward, I’ll say it backward. There’s nothing worse than when you’re walking down the San Diego boardwalk and someone behind you yells, ‘On your left!’ You freeze like a rabbit in headlights.”

After finally figuring out left from right, everything else was easy for the New Jersey native.

He was the class clown during his formative years in the 1960s, a time when finding and being yourself was big. Coen liked that idea. He could always make people laugh, but his future was crystallized one day in grade school during an impromptu routine. He was killing students and teacher alike. Unfortunately, this early venue was short-lived.

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“The teacher finally stopped me and took me outside and said, ‘I think you’re really funny, and I don’t want to send you to the principal, but I have to teach this class. So you’re going to have to stand in the closet.’

“I was standing in there feeling really good about myself,” Coen continued. “It was like doing ‘Carson.’ I was tickled pink.”

When he was a senior in high school, Coen left the safety of friends and classmates and went public for the first time at a little club in his home state.

“There were always guys singing ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ I asked the manager if I could do some comedy when (the singer) went on break. I went up with Bill Cosby’s album memorized, and I bombed. I think it was his ‘Noah and the Ark,’ and I managed to put that thing right in the toilet. But I was off and running.”

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That was 1976 and many clubs ago. Now, he’s in demand and traveling 30 to 32 weeks a year.

“By Jay Leno’s old standards, that’s not much,” Coen said, referring to Leno’s pre-"Tonight Show” gig, when the host was on the road more than 40 weeks a year. “But I have a wife and two kids I want to keep.”

Coen first dated his wife, Dawn, in high school. They met again 10 years later and, married eight years now, live in Canyon Country, near Magic Mountain. In addition to their son, the couple also has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Caitlin.

Coen mixes observational with topical humor, often turning to the news daily for fodder.

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When he’s on the road, Coen works clubs, corporate events and the occasional benefit, as he did in October in Irvine. He has done the “Tonight Show” six times, Showtime’s “Comedy All-Stars” and even a stint with Ted Koppel on “Nightline.”

The Koppel appearance came about last year when President Clinton promised to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. Coen was dissecting the privacy aspect of such a move at the Improv in Washington, “Nightline” crews caught his act, and he was invited on.

But Coen doesn’t want to stop there. He’s looking to expand his TV career.

“We’ve had a couple of studio (executives) come out,” said Coen, who is represented by the same people who manage Tim Allen. “They enjoy me and they’re interested, but no one has said what they want to do. You’ve got to show them the whole package. So we’re working on ideas for sitcoms.

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“I’d probably enjoy doing something like a romantic comedy thing, as opposed to a straight knock-knock-I’m-here sitcom. But doing a sitcom isn’t necessarily a goal. Hosting a talk show might be fun. And I’m not sitting here waiting for a studio call saying, ‘We can do the “Coen Chronicles” now.’ ”

* Who: Comedian Jack Coen.

* When: Today, Dec. 16, through Sunday, Dec. 19. At 8:30 tonight, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday and at 8 p.m. Sunday.

* Where: Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

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* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The Improv is in the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across from the UC Irvine campus.

* Wherewithal: $8 to $12.

* Where to call: (714) 854-5455.


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