A Funny Thing Happens, Hopefully : Novice Comics Seek Laughs and Stardom--All In Three Minutes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The line forms early at the Laugh Factory on Tuesday nights--two, four, sometimes 10 or 12 hours before show time. The lure is not a typical night of professional stand-up at the club or even a special appearance by some comedy superstar. Tuesday is Open Mike Night, and the jittery, high-spirited crowd that collects outside is there in hopes of scoring a bit of precious time on stage.

For novice comics hoping to launch a career in comedy, Los Angeles is the place to be seen. But finding a stage to get started on isn't easy. Local club vets such as Roseanne, Tim Allen and Jim Carrey may have secured some fabulous rewards after years of hard work, but at the beginning, the comic's life is grueling. The determined, comedic aspirants who work the open mike circuit put up with countless frustrations and negligible income in hopes of getting just a few laughs at a time.

At the Laugh Factory, the weekly open mikes offer three-minute spots to the first 20 hopefuls who sign up, and it's not unusual for participants to spend a whole day in front of the club in order to make the list.

Rick D'Elia, a 25-year-old recent transplant from Boston, is getting used to these waits in line for the second time in his budding career. "I started open mikes back East four years ago, and I've been working in clubs since then," he says. "I got up to making $300 or $400 a night. But coming to L.A., you have to start all over. It's the hardest ego adjustment I've ever had to make."

D.J. Wilson, 32, of South-Central L.A., says the open mike work is worth the wait. He supports himself with maintenance jobs, but is finding deeper satisfaction in comedy. "I was trying to find a way to get out and do better for myself, and comedy looked like a pretty good answer. Now I work so that I can do comedy. My job takes up my day, but those three minutes on stage--that's my world."

Laugh Factory proprietor Jamie Masada has been holding open mike nights since he opened 17 years ago. He says that 90% of the comics who work his club regularly started as open mikers, and it's a very rare Tuesday that he's not there, scouting out new talent. Along with the three-minute spot, he offers each new performer a personal evaluation of his or her work at the end of the night.

"I think I'm obligated to do this," he says. "It's important to build up these performers, because some of them are going to turn into the comedy stars of tomorrow. I really enjoy finding new talent and giving them a chance to grow up in the club, and I think the day I stop enjoying that, I'll get out of the business."

Down the Sunset Strip at the Comedy Store, owner Mitzi Shore offers rambunctious "Pot Luck" nights every Sunday. Anyone who signs up gets a three-minute spot, and at least 50 novice yuksters give it their best shot each week.

As at other open mikes, "Pot Luck" performers are wildly uneven--a mix of first-timers and struggling newcomers who range from the very promising to the incredibly unfunny to the clearly troubled. But Shore remembers watching Pot Luckers named David Lettermen and Garry Shandling develop their acts, and she's there every Sunday looking for more flashes of comic gold.

"I feel that's my main job at the Store," she says. "It may not be my favorite night, but it's a very important night, both for the club and for the performers. It's the only way for a new person to get started."

At Igby's in West L.A., owner Jan Smith holds an open mike one Monday a month for the first 20 performers to sign up. Comedian Cash Landy hosts an "Open Mike and Therapy Session" Thursday nights at the L.A. Cabaret in Encino. A variety of coffeehouses and bookstores around town also offer open mike nights.

In contrast, new comics are given stage time at the Improv, but performers must be personally referred to owners Mark Lonow and Budd Friedman. The Ice House in Pasadena uses an audition process rather than an open mike to scout fresh talent.

On a recent Tuesday at the Laugh Factory, an eclectic mix of open mikers is energetically working the stage, earning themselves some laughs, a few groans and the occasional dreaded silence from the crowd. Wilson uses his time steadily and confidently, scoring with a story of a gift from his trash man father--a sweater with someone else's monogram on it. "I kept telling my friends the 'MR' stood for 'Mister.' "

D'Elia's strong, rapid-fire delivery also goes over well. "I heard Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are opening a nationwide chain of bookstores," he says. "Planet Duh."

The energy in the room skyrockets when the stage is taken by a special guest who drops in--Rodney Dangerfield. The open mikers are clearly in awe of the old pro's poise and consistent punches, and by the time he works up to a "no respect," the room is howling.

"I'm very supportive of these nights," Dangerfield says later. "I like to do what I can to help out these open mikers."

First-time open miker Sean Callahan looks as if he could use a little help. The 51-year-old businessman from San Jose is in the unenviable spot of following Dangerfield. He struggles as best he can through his time, but leaves the stage with a new passion.

"My commute might get a little expensive, but I'll be back," Callahan says. "I really enjoyed it. Three minutes doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot of work--a real challenge. I know I'm not the next Tim Allen, but I'm going to keep doing this."

Nobody hits it big straight out of open mikes. Three-minute spots generally lead to five-minute spots, which lead to 10-minute spots and then--maybe--a chance to showcase for an owner. A successful showcase means a performer can start working during the week as a paid regular.

Still, some who make it to the showcase level aren't about to give up the chance for the extra time in the spotlight that open mike nights offer.

"I'm starting to get showcases," D'Elia says, "so I don't really need to do the open mikes, but I'm going to [anyway]--stage time is stage time in Los Angeles and I'll take all I can get. It's tough with all that waiting in line and not getting paid. But then again, those three minutes on stage are absolutely the best three minutes of the day."

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