There is a serious tone to this gathering of clowns, who, in discussing their art, traverse into areas of science and history, laughter and tears.
Comedian Byron Allen sits showered by lights on the Laugh Factory stage. Life is not always so bright, he tells youngsters in the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp. And in moments of darkness, he says, they must learn to persist.
As a child, Allen's mother took him along to NBC, where she worked as a tour guide. Shortly after graduating from Fairfax High School, he appeared there on the "Tonight Show."
"In life, you're going to have plenty of obstacles, plenty of things that make it difficult, plenty of things that are going to make you want to give up," he says. "That's not an option. You must always persist."
The class listens intently. Pretty amazing, considering these are the kids we knew in school who stuck pencils up their noses and painted eyeballs on their glasses.
Jamey Williams, 16, is taking notes. A junior at Culver City High School, he has the standard rap sheet of a class clown. As a toddler, he filled the family's fish bowl with apple juice, em1886677349f bottled soap and blew bubbles out his mouth.
He defines himself in large part by the feeling he gets when others laugh at his antics. They place upon him a badge that carries with it expectations and a willingness to endure: They say he is funny.
Parts of his life are too painful to laugh about. He tries not to think about the day his family split apart, when his mother gathered him, his younger sister and brother and moved them into a shelter. He knows the fear of having a gun held to his head, the pain of losing friends to violence. Comedy, he says, is an escape. It is his way to persist.
"If I'm sad or having problems," he says, "I just try to laugh. If I laugh, all the bad stuff goes away."
The camp was initiated by Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who wanted to use comedy to enrich the lives of young people growing up on an uneven playing field. Like those in the camp, his dream, too, was to be a comedian. When he was 14, he left his family and native Israel to come to Hollywood. He says he faced two primary obstacles: He spoke no English and he wasn't very funny.
But he remembered the lessons of honor and hard work taught by his father, a cantor, and found success on the business side of comedy. He opens the doors to the club to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving. He hires the homeless, laughs and cries with the comedians who work his stage, because he never lost sight that beyond the laughter, there was suffering.
Masada charges nothing for the program, which is 3 years old, and reimburses families for gas, tape recorders and other expenses. The next camp begins next month.
Some of the brightest stars in comedy come each Saturday to the Laugh Factory to share insights, offer tips and address the complex fierceness and powerful force that smolders and flames within the heart of the jester.
Allen emphasizes the importance of reading and setting goals. "What are your goals?" he asks Jamey.
"Well, if the comedy thing doesn't work out. . . . "
Allen cuts him off in mid-sentence.
"Whoa, let's back up. 'If the comedy thing doesn't work out?' When I think about Martin [Lawrence] and [Richard] Pryor and [Eddie] Murphy, I don't think they ever gave themselves an option, ever," Allen says. "It was just, 'This is what I do, I love doing this.' "
The program encourages the youngsters, ages 7 to 16, to believe in their dreams and to commit to them, but that type of commitment can be difficult for young people today, when, as Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, explains, "Intense commitment to a 9-year-old is to make it to 10."
Fleischer's presentation to the youngsters is about science. Everything is science, he tells them, as he explains that the days of the week are named after the planets.
They begin to yawn as Fleischer explains molecules and atoms. Kenneth Crawford, 8, sits up front chewing on a smashed Coke can. Fleischer asks if there are any questions, and one of the youngsters raises a hand. "Can you act like Roger Rabbit?"
Fleischer goes into his routine, then there are more requests: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Batman, Donald Duck, Pluto. Fleischer is stumped by Pluto.
"Are you a star?" a youngster asks as he leaves the stage.
"We all are," he answers, "Some of us just haven't been discovered yet."
Jamey Williams stands against a backdrop of glazed doughnuts and sweet rolls at the Winchell's on Melrose. A guy with a patch over one eye sits quietly in the corner. A man parks a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans outside and steps in for a cup of coffee.
Moon Jones, a former college basketball coach now focusing on comedy, has brought Jamey to the pastry shop to get him used to being in front of people. Later, the two will go to 5th Street Dick's across from Leimert Park, where on Monday nights, young comedians gather to work the kinks out of their material.
Jones met Jamey a few years back at a school where Jones was teaching and Jamey was a student. This summer they bumped into each other at a comic book store, and Jones told Jamey about the comedy camp.
Jones sits with a cup of coffee and studies Jamey's delivery. "My mom likes to do a lot of volunteering," Jamey begins. "The problem is, it's me she always volunteers." So begins a bit about the tribulations of being a teen-ager.
Jones reminds Jamey about staying in character. "Mothers have body language," he says, "loud body language." For 50 minutes, they work on the routine, line by line. Customers don't seem interested in a guy doing stand-up in a Winchell's. This is Hollywood.
The session at the doughnut shop is in preparation for the camp's upcoming graduation program. Week by week, the students have become more relaxed on stage, improving both in material and delivery. As the end nears, however, about half of them have dropped out.
It concerns Claudia Holmes, an administrator at LaSalle Elementary School, where many of the young comics attend school. Holmes encouraged students to participate, especially those who had histories of acting up in the classroom. She wanted them to learn that there was a time and place for being funny, and she has seen a transformation in many.
"Being on stage has given them self-confidence many of them didn't have before," she says. "There's something special about comedy, of being able to laugh at yourself and developing a talent that makes you feel good about yourself."
Jamey's grades in school have improved. His mother, Brenda Washington, has made it clear that he can attend the camp only if he keeps his grades up and acts responsibly.
Washington, a real estate agent, has worked hard to raise three children, and she has earned their respect, which she says is her greatest joy. The four of them live in an apartment in the Pico-Fairfax area.
"It's scary for me as a single parent to raise a young, black man," she says. "Jamey gets in trouble but never for doing something mean. I don't know if he will ever be a famous actor or comedian. A lot of the things he does around the house just seem silly to me, but this program is teaching him more about the art of comedy and the dedication it takes."
Soon after the program started, Jamey tried sneaking into the Laugh Factory. Rather than turn him away for being underage and without adult supervision, Masada took him upstairs and sat with him. Jamey fell in love with everything about the place: the stage, the lights, the laughter. It felt like he belonged, which is an elusive feeling for many young people searching for their place in life.
He has listened carefully to comedians like Dave Chappelle, who talked about scope, and Jeff Garcia, who showed the students a bullet scar in his leg and a stab wound on his arm and described how he ran and walked two hours from his home in La Puente to a comedy club on open-mike night hoping to get five precious minutes on stage. His message: Don't give up.
He heard Paul Rodriguez compare his life to theirs. "You see your life now as being surrounded by crime, gangs, drug addicts, losers, pimps, hookers, all these things. . . . You can grow up and be someone, and you got to believe it today."
Rodriguez said he remembered finding his father sitting with a gun in his home in Compton one night. "I don't know if I suspected anything but I knew he wasn't cleaning that gun. I remember I went in there and I gave the best performance of my life, and I cheered him up and I made him laugh and I acted a fool. Years later he confessed to me that he was thinking of ending his life that night. . . . In the deepest, darkest moments of your life, laughter can save you."
His closing remark was to take comedy seriously. "The world has far too many attorneys," he said, "and not enough clowns."
From Rodney Dangerfield came a willingness to pass the torch to the next generation of comedians. "I hope," he said, "you get more respect than I did."
On graduation night, the young comedians arrive early and gather upstairs before going on stage. Forming a circle they reach in and stack their hands into a unified mound. "We're all going to do great tonight," Jamey tells them. "I love all of you."
They fling themselves on top of each other, screaming like a football team celebrating a touchdown. Nearby, one youngster has become nervous, crossing her arms across her chest and vowing with silence to pull out of the performance.
One by one, however, they all take the stage. Their humor centers on young lives, parents, being skinny, tall or fat, Power Rangers, bad breath, eye gunk.
Jamey realizes it is an opportunity that comedians in the past would kill for, to stand before industry people like Jimmie Brogan from the "Tonight Show"; Diane Barnett representing Howard West and George Shapiro, Jerry Seinfeld's managers; Jason Heyman of United Talent; Joy Dolce of Quincy Jones' Mad TV; actor-comedians Keenen Wayans and Mark Curry.
But what makes him most nervous is performing for the first time in front of his family and friends.
He is smooth as he begins his four minutes. The volunteer bit works. Everything clicks. He goes on about learning to drive, the dangers of being a substitute teacher, his younger brother's talent for thievery. Laughter comes at all the right times. He feels in control. After his performance, he scrambles back upstairs and collapses in relief on the floor.
After the show, agents express interest. Some say they will be contacting some of the youngsters. If Jamey's phone doesn't ring, he says, he'll work even harder at comedy.
The most important thing is that the loudest applause came from his friends and family. He had made his mother laugh. More importantly, he made her smile.