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A Look Ahead: In comedy, expect less pure-stand up : Sketch Comedy Should Stand a Chance in O.C.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fans wedded to traditional stand-up, don’t panic. Fans looking for something different, same advice.

1995 promises plenty of both, and, as a rule, you’ll find your stand-up in Irvine and your variety in Brea.

As club-goers continue to loosen their embrace of stand-up comedians, the former fair-haired darlings of the circuit, promoters continue to look for ways to keep their rooms full without papering the clubs with free passes.

To that end, Mark Anderson (who owns five Improvs, including the two Orange County ones) and Robert Hartman (an Improv regional manager who books the local affiliates) will increase their efforts to infuse the scene with something extra. Most notably, sketch comedy, extended one-person shows and variety acts will flesh out the year, either as headliners or middle acts for a stand-up performer.

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“Sketch comedy is on the verge of coming back in a new and different way,” Anderson said Thursday from the Brea club. “We’re trying to figure out how to bring participatory comedy into the ‘90s. We’re looking for comedy with a heart, for shows that are no less hilarious but also deal with something important.”

Added Hartman: “Sketches are a very nice way of breaking up the evening. They’re generally four or five funny people--topical and current. Sketch comedy hasn’t been this popular in a long time, and good variety acts are hard to come by now.” It’s not like the old days, he added, when promoters could say, “I’ll give you Monday and $25. No food.”

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Anderson takes the decline in stand-up in stride, regarding it as part of a 10-year cycle in a business constantly reinventing itself. He points to the popularity of such ensembles as Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco during the ‘70s, before they bowed to stand-up.

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But to make theatrically based, one-person shows and sketch routines work, performers and producers need patience and dedication.

“No one is used to the rehearsals and discipline it takes to put on such a show,” Anderson said. “Stand-up won’t fade completely, but only the best performers will continue. That’s what we’re focusing on: trimming the fleet. Traditional stand-up has pretty much been strip-mined by TV over the past 10 years.

“Now, audiences want more entertainment than one person can deliver,” he added. “We have to redefine ourselves, and where that’s going to take place is Southern California. We’re poised for another (trend), and it’s our responsibility to find it and develop it--then roll it across the country, watch it fade, then develop something else.”

Incorporating new trends, however, hasn’t always been an audience-pleasing process, even as recently as 18 months ago.

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Said Hartman: “Whenever we varied from stand-up, there was a backlash from the crowd. Other acts never seemed to work; people would boo and walk out. Audiences have gotten so much better. They’re more attentive, allowing us to take chances. When we do new stuff, they go nuts. It’s almost like they’re wanting it. When we do a straight stand-up show, it’s almost boring.”

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Non-traditional acts currently or tentatively scheduled at the Brea Improv include Jeff Jena in “Sex, God and the Pledge of Allegiance” (through Sunday), Tom Wilson in “Cowboy Tommy’s All-American Round Up” (Jan. 11-Feb. 5), comedian-ventriloquists Dan Horn and Jeff Dunham, the Mommies (Jan. 16-17), Bruce Baum and Vic Dunlop re-creating the old “Make Me Laugh” show (probably Jan. 30-31) and Jeff Wayne in “Big Daddy’s Barbecue” (March 8-April 17).

At the grass-roots level, next year is shaping up as 1994 redux, just with more of it and better quality.

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Bill Word and Jerry Mabbott, co-owners of The Works, are taking a two-pronged approach: They are helping young comics polish their material, then finding them the all-critical stage time.

“We want to double our showrooms in the next year,” Word said Thursday. “Right now we have 14 rooms; six are weekly. We are looking for all sizes to do more live shows. We’re also looking for a more permanent place to open a club. We might buy one and have a full-time comedy club, with local talent and national headliners.

“We’re committed to Orange County comedy,” Word said. “That’s where our roots are. That’s where we’re building.”

In October, 1993, when Word and Mabbott started offering comedy classes under the The Works umbrella, they had eight students in Mabbott’s living room. Now they have a stable of around 100 pupils, 50 of them capable of taking the stage.

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Most performances take place in coffeehouses, hotel lounges, bars and the occasional theater. The user-friendly java joints probably get the biggest workout and provide the best opportunity for growth.

“There’s a commitment there, at least with the people we’re working with,” Word said. “With the competition of so many coffeehouses, they’re looking for ways to bring people in the door.”

Other areas of expansion include showcasing more locals on cable television and creating a nonprofit Orange County Comedy Assn., which, Word said, would try to arrange health insurance, nurture its fledgling members, promote comedy in the area and stage benefits.

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“And at this point,” Word added, “our first show would probably be for the county.”


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