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Valley’s Top Comic Undaunted in His Pursuit of a Good Laugh : VALLEY WEEKEND

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Keith Nelson, the Funniest Person in the Valley, is dying in Encino.

The venue is the L.A. Cabaret Comedy Club, where on Oct. 17 Nelson became the 11th person to win that peculiar laurel. But on a recent Sunday night, Nelson faces not the packed houses he drew during the club’s annual contest, but a mere 10 souls. Nelson, who looks remarkably like Abraham Lincoln, only marginally happier, shakes his head at the meager turnout and observes: “I had more people in my house for Thanksgiving.”

Nelson, who lives in Palmdale, has been a professional comic for 11 years. A true Angeleno, he doesn’t want to give his age, admitting only to being in his late 30s. But he will tell you how tall he is. “I’m 6 foot, 3 1/2,” he says. “Actually, I’m 6-4, but I say 6-3 1/2 when it’s involving show business. You don’t want to be too tall.”

Nelson, who is credentialed to teach physical education, is perhaps the nation’s only comic/high jumper. In July, he won the National Masters Outdoor Championship in track and field for his age group, with a leap of 6 feet, 6 inches. That’s down from the 7 feet, 2 inches that he jumped during the 1980 Olympic trials, but it’s not bad for an older guy who spends a lot of time hanging out in clubs, breathing secondhand smoke.

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As a stand-up comic, Nelson has played 45 of the 50 states and taken his act to Guam, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Guam was, as comedians say, a tough room because the governor had hanged himself from a flagpole the day before Nelson arrived. But the toughest audiences of all were the 25,000 American troops Nelson entertained in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

The U.S. armed forces issued three-day passes to our troops in the Gulf, Nelson explains, and they were allowed to spend them on cruise ships anchored off Bahrain. Because of the ban on alcohol in the Islamic Middle East, most of the G.I.s had been dreaming of a cold one for months by the time they came aboard, and most headed straight for the ship’s bar.

Nelson had to work hard to get laughs from audiences that had been drinking since 10 a.m. But the G.I.s learned to love him, Nelson says. “There were times, by the end of the concert, I could have told them to sink the ship, and they would have done it.”

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What Nelson likes most about comedy is being his own boss. “I have no patience for the day-to-day torture people with a little bit of power put other people through,” he says. “At least in this job, when people do that, you can bury them.” Did I mention that Nelson defines comedy as “verbal aggression”?

By taking the occasional substitute teaching job, Nelson is able to pursue his chosen profession almost full-time.

A decade ago comedy was booming, with clubs in every college town and comics threatening to outnumber lawyers. But the bottom fell out a few years ago--clubs closed and salaries plunged. The business is better than it was two years ago, Nelson says, but there’s a natural limit on growth, because of the relative paucity of people who are truly funny.

At the L.A. Cabaret, Nelson is giving it his best shot. “O.J.'s been out looking for the real killers, and he’s found them. The Menendez brothers. They were very upset that a sweater hadn’t been returned.”

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The room is hushed except for the sound of breathing, and Nelson grows philosophical: “You know what George Carlin said: ‘Never do a show for less than 13 people.’ ”

He tries one of his favorites. “If you’re dating an Asian American and you break up, does that make you disoriented?” You can hear something being moved in another part of the club.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. Nelson tells the audience he plans to keep telling jokes until they laugh, even if it takes all night. “You know those drinks with sexually oriented names like Screaming Orgasm and Sex on the Beach? I think the names should change after three or four drinks to something more realistic, like the Free Clinic, I Chewed My Arm Off or Omigod, It’s Turned Blue.”

This is the comedic equivalent of heavy lifting, but Nelson is undeterred.

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He is not just the Funniest Person in the Valley, he is undaunted, the Scarlett O’Hara of Comedy, battered but unbowed.

“I know I’m funny!” he snarls. “This night isn’t going to ruin my life!”

By the time the next comic comes on, he’s facing, not an audience, but a party of eight.


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