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Stand-Up Takes a Tumble : The comedy club boom of the ‘80s has gone bust in the ‘90s, and some blame TV for offering top-quality humor at low cost.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

J.D.'s pro comedy debut in McAllen, Tex., paid $500 plus travel expenses. Six years later, the same one-nighter pays $175, and you get there yourself. So long-distance travel, at least by plane, doesn’t make sense anymore. Which is why not long ago, J.D. found herself alone and crying in the middle of the night, white-knuckling the steering wheel, headed for a Reno gig and crawling through the mountains in a blizzard.

“It wasn’t pretty,” says J.D., real name Jannette Frazier of Santa Paula. “I’m crying and I’m thinking, if there’s a Waffle House anywhere near here, I’m going to pull over, get a job and be a waffle waitress for the rest of my life.”

These are tough times for live comedy here in Ventura County and across the country. It’s no coincidence that J.D., who once supported herself solely through stand-up, has in recent months taken bowling alley gigs and a part-time job tending bar and thinks she’s lost a bit too much weight. She has watched clubs she once played dry up and seen friends who have appeared on the “Tonight Show” forced to take “crappy one-nighters” to pay the rent.

For those of you who haven’t left the house since the Reagan Administration, here’s the simple version of what’s transpired in the comedy world. In the early ‘80s, there was a comedy boom: Clubs sprouted across the country and in the county--at its peak, the county supported four comedy clubs that packed their rooms for almost every show--and comedians multiplied, filling those stages.

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But nothing lasts forever.

In the throes of a major downswing, many comedians and clubs are enmeshed in a Darwinian battle that is everything but yuks. “There’s 350 comics calling for spots at the Improv every week,” says J.D. “You’re just kind of fighting for your life out there.”

The Comedy Club at Hornblowers, established in 1983, is the oldest surviving club in the county. “There’s a weeding-out process going on,” says Harry Capehart, who runs the club. “Everyone is just trying to hang on until everybody else falls by the wayside and they’re the only ones left.”

A fast-talking impresario with a quick wit, Capehart is the consummate salesman. In 1981, already in the business of supplying comedy for other clubs (at one point Capehart booked comedians for 28 clubs, most of them in Southern California), he approached the management at Hornblowers Restaurant with a proposition: Provide me with the venue and give me the door profits and I’ll bring in comedians and crowds that will eat, drink and make you merry.

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Like most inveterate hustlers, Capehart wasn’t precisely sure his venture would work. But it did in a big way.

“Imagine the first business undertaking you decide to do, a hit beyond your wildest imaginings,” says Capehart, tilting back in his chair and issuing the sigh of a man who has seen truly golden years. “Lines out the door, turning away 100 people. People in the county were starved for comedy. It was huge--like wildfire.”

And the health of comedy in the county now? Capehart doesn’t skip a beat. “Dreadful,” he says.

And Capehart is doing far better than most. In fact, among comedy purveyors and comedians, Capehart is the acknowledged king of county comedy, with the only comedy club still standing after a dozen years.

Ventura Theatre has offered comedy for seven years, bringing in big names such as Jim Carrey, the late Sam Kinnison, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Sandra Bernhard and Dana Carvey. But general manager Tom Welton readily admits that, with the exception of these marquee names, comedy at the theater is seen as filler between music acts.

In fact, Ventura Theatre gives away a generous number of tickets for all but the marquee shows, simply hoping to draw customers. “We’re offering the community a laugh, and hopefully in exchange they’ll think it’s great and come back and use us for other shows,” Welton says. “But in terms of direct profit, comedy doesn’t help us much at all.”

Capehart admits he couldn’t survive on his Comedy Club profits; he earns most of his income as a press agent for some of the country’s top stand-up comics.

His Comedy Club has pared back substantially. During the boom years of the early ‘80s, the Comedy Club had one show on Thursday and two shows on Friday and Saturday. Today there is one show Friday and two on Saturday. And lines for the 135-seat venue are no longer out the door. As a comedian remarked at a recent show, “Thank you. All 14 of you.”

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Those in the comedy business chalk up current hard times to several factors. A nose-dive in the economy turned free spenders into spendthrifts, and today, despite trumpetings of Clinton Administration economists, people still aren’t spending much money on entertainment, live comedy included, says the Ventura Theatre’s Welton.

And ironically, live comedy is also suffering because comedy is booming on TV. People can watch everything from such popular sitcoms as “Seinfeld” and “Home Improvement” to stand-up comedy on HBO’s “One Night Stand,” Showtime’s “Comedy Club Network” and Arts and Entertainment’s “An Evening at the Improv.”

“People can stay at home, they can get a six-pack for $3 and if they don’t like the comedian, they can flip the channel and find five more comedy shows,” J.D. says.

TV comedy has hurt live comedy in another way. “Before people would come out to see comedy just because we were offering it,” says Capehart. “They didn’t care who was performing. Now they want live comedy, but they’re only going to come out for somebody they want.”

Unfortunately, what they want is what they’ve seen on TV, and big-time TV comedians are pricey; better luck buying beluga caviar by the freightload. A moderately popular TV comedian, says Capehart, can command $10,000 a night. And a big star? “Six figures a night,” says Capehart.

To bring in even a moderately priced star and turn a profit, Capehart says he’d have to charge $150 a ticket or more, a substantial boost from the $8 he usually charges.

Ironically, plenty of big stars have appeared at the Comedy Club--Roseanne, Dennis Miller and Bob Saget, to name a few--but back before they hit it big. Then, Capehart paid some of them as little as $100 a night. “And I tell you what,” says Capehart, shaking his head and smiling, “they were all just as funny then.”

In 1995, successful comedy is about thin profits and good timing. “The clubs that are surviving now are bringing in recognized acts, and a lot of times that means not making as much as you used to or losing money but holding onto the market,” says Capehart. “You’ve also got to get guys on their way up or their way down so you can afford them.”

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If you’re an unrecognized act, it’s a tough road. “In the old days I used to give a lot of people shots because I knew what it was like trying to get on stage,” says comedy promoter Bob Zany of North Hollywood. And now? “Once in a while, if I think someone’s got some potential, then I’ll give them a shot. But I have so many comics who call me for work that have national TV credits, that I can pick and choose from the best. I wouldn’t recommend starting out in comedy now.”

A professional comedian who has appeared on TV and radio and headlined clubs across the country, Zany has also produced comedy shows at more than a dozen different county venues, in hotels, restaurants, bars and even teen centers. All are now defunct, with the exception of Mullarkey’s at the Radisson Hotel in Oxnard: After closing down for several months, it will reopen in early June. Zany says he’s closed all his county outlets but one so that he can concentrate on his own comedy career.

While these are hungry times for comedians and comedy clubs, local audiences are sitting pretty. The county’s proximity to L.A. allows well-connected comedy purveyors such as Capehart, Welton and Zany to tap into a vast talent pool, getting established comedians such Rich Hall, Jimmy Walker, Emo Philips and Tommy Davidson for what Capehart says is an affordable price--although he won’t say what that price is.

“If the comics see it in print, they’ll all want it,” Capehart says.

Comedians view the county in a favorable light. “Comedians know what cities have great audiences, and Ventura County has great audiences,” says Bruce Baum, a professional comedian for 17 years. “Plus driving up from L.A. means [the comedians are] going to be sleeping in their own bed that night.”

Baum actually lives in Thousand Oaks--"Don’t like hanging out in the city,” he explains--and he’s been around long enough to see comedy swing full circle. When he started out as a stand-up comedian in 1978, comedy had yet to hit it big; local comedians had only a few live venues in L.A. to showcase and hone their craft.

Times were tough, just as they are now, and Baum, for one, doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Comedy isn’t dying, says Baum, but poorly managed clubs with second-rate comedians are.

While the bloodletting on the inside is prodigious, comedy folks believe that those on the outside will reap the benefits.

“Comedy is rebuilding itself,” Zany says. “It probably won’t ever be like it was in the ‘80s, but I think these days audiences have a better shot at seeing better shows. The only people left are the survivors, comedians who were meant to do this, performing in the clubs that are meant to be there.”


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