Graduation day?

Times Staff Writer

Joey Edmonds tells a Jay Leno story to kick off the convention where hundreds of colleges line up their entertainment for the year, recalling how Leno once filled in for him on the campus circuit.

That was back in 1977, when Edmonds was part of a comedy team that worked the colleges. A sprained ankle kept him from making a $500 job at the New York state university in Fredonia, south of Buffalo, so his partner said, "Why don't you call that new kid?" The new kid -- Leno -- said "sure" and drove nine hours from his Boston home to perform at the school.

"A day later, I call him up, 'Jay, how'd the show go?' " Edmonds recounts.

"He says, 'OK, Joey, but there were only like 10 people there.'

"I said, 'That happens sometimes. Did they give you the check?' "

From the stage of the cavernous Opryland convention hall, Edmonds does a perfect imitation of Leno's aw-shucks voice replying, " 'Yeaaah, but I gave it back. I didn't feel like takin' it.' "

The story then fast-forwards a couple of decades to when Leno was hired to do a Doritos commercial, but not for any measly $500. The check then was for $1 million.

"And he says, 'Joey, this one I didn't give back!' "

As Edmonds delivers the punch line, two huge screens display photos of him recently handing Leno a plaque backstage at "The Tonight Show," honoring the comedian as the latest member of the Hall of Fame of the group that has staged this convention for the past four decades years, the National Assn. for Campus Activities (NACA). Past honorees include others who toiled on the college circuit and went on to bigger things, such as Jimmy Buffett, the Oak Ridge Boys and Simon & Garfunkel.

The story carries an enticing message to the 2,100 students and their advisors who have gathered for four days of talent showcases: The comedian or singer they hire to perform in their gym or cafeteria might be tomorrow's Jay Leno.

That's also a seductive notion for the men and women who have come here to audition, for the bands and hip-hoppers and hypnotists who are hoping these kids will like them, and book them: You may be performing in those gyms or cafeterias today, but tomorrow, tomorrow....

Tomorrow you may be another Leno.

Or perhaps you'll still be performing on some campus who-knows-where, which is how it's gone for the comedian sitting dead center in the 15th row, there among the students, "my people," as he calls them. That's Buzz Sutherland.

"I'm the biggest name in college entertainment," he likes to say, "and nobody's ever heard of me."

A KID AT HEART

Buzz Sutherland has never once been on network television, much less gotten the three minutes most comics aspire to, the prized stand-up slots at the end of Leno's show, or Letterman's. The one time he auditioned for a sitcom in L.A., they told him to lose 10 pounds. "Even the ugly people are gorgeous out here," they told him. When he tried to get on "Star Search," they didn't take him either.

It's another story on the college circuit, however, where Buzz has performed 1,873 times by his own count, whether to loosen up hundreds of freshman during their orientation week or entertain the lunchroom of a commuter school at noon.

But on this night he's going before the audience that counts most: the students who are his bosses, the ones who decide whether to hire him or not.

At 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, it's time for the first showcase of the 2003 NACA convention. For 2 1/2 hours, the activities committees from 500 schools -- backed by budgets of $100,000, $200,000 or more -- will witness 20-minute performances by a break-dancing funk troupe, an a cappella boys group from Orlando, a poet from the Bronx, a rock band that's opened for Dave Matthews, a trio of acrobats ... and Buzz, the master of ceremonies.

He comes out in jeans and the black-and-white striped jersey of a hockey referee, a white undershirt showing through at the collar. He often describes himself as "a tragically Caucasian individual," but he comes out strutting to blaring hip-hop music, and carrying a video camera he points at the audience, which is enough to get the kids in front standing and waving their arms, as if they're going to be on TV. That's the idea too, the key to "the game," as Buzz calls it -- to make it all about them, and the moment, and not about him.

"Whazzup!" he yells, right out of the beer commercial, and then he's into a bit about their endless drives to get here, all of them stuffed into those rows of white campus vans parked outside. He shares his own rules for road trips, the first being, "If I'm drivin' we listen to my music," and the second, "If I'm awake" -- he whistles -- "so are you," and they cheer as if he's one of them, a fellow 19-year-old fighting for control of the radio, and not a daddy-of-two about to turn 37 who lives in a $700,000 house in St. Louis, thanks to them.

After members of the first act -- "Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular!" -- are done twirling on their heads and doing back flips across the stage, Buzz comes back out and asks the crowd, "You wanna see me dance?" They do, but this too is about them, for he jumps down off the stage to pull two students onto it, one black and one white, the black fellow getting bonding fist bumps from him and the pudgy white one a nickname, "Puddin'." Buzz promises to teach them "the four easy steps to 'Solid Gold' dancing" and soon there's more pounding music and Puddin' is making like he's riding a horse and bobbing his head, and the black kid is showing off by doing a 360-degree turn on one leg, so Buzz dances over and turns on one leg too, butt-to-butt with the brother. The evening's young, but 100 rows back in the vast hall the students are standing and applauding their brave comrades and the man they have named their "comedy artist of the year" five years running.

And Buzz hasn't even stuck the flashlights up his nose yet, nor done the bit that's his trademark.

"Do the duck!" voices call out. "Do the duck!"

FOWL LANGUAGE

The class clown of Everywhere U. was born Jeff Sutherland in Dalton, Ga., and grew up in Alabama, where his father was a traveling pharmaceutical salesman, and his mother a psychologist, with a PhD no less. He himself began working toward a double major in history and English at the University of Missouri, but he'd never hint of such brainy roots before the student crowds, where it's safer to play the slacker and "dumber than a can of hair."

What changed his life, he says, was an experience in the fall of 1985, when he saw students flocking toward an auditorium during a football weekend. A comedian was performing, a Jerry Seinfeld, and he wangled his way to the back of the room and heard this cocky little guy utter one line on stage. "Football," Seinfeld said, "is a stupid game."

You couldn't even call it a joke, but the crowd roared -- and Sutherland insists he left right then to pack and go to St. Louis, where he showed up at a club, the Funny Bone, and announced, "I want to be a comedian." They gave him a different job -- as a waiter -- and a tryout.

He told the audience he'd do an impression of a man in a restroom, waiting for a urinal. Then he played the soaring music from "Chariots of Fire" and stood there fidgeting for two minutes, at which point he unleashed a prop hidden in the pocket of his khaki pants, a small balloon filled with water. He had a sharp tack on his thumb, you see, and when the music reached its peak....

He jokes now that for a couple of years that was his "entire act," wetting his pants. He needed a bit more material, so he recalled how, at age 3, he had learned to talk like Donald Duck. By now he could quack the entire "Star-Spangled Banner," but opted for Donald in the throes of erotic ecstasy, quacking, "Oooooo, it feels so good." Then he noticed how one club owner always asked, " Who's your daddy?" -- and that became his duck's motto.

Sutherland understood that many comedians built their acts around astute observations on the human condition, or on being brutally honest about how screwed up they were, using the stage for therapy or aggressive rants. But there was also a comic tradition of simply being silly, a rubber-faced clown, like Jonathan Winters or Red Skelton. "I am silly," he said.

By 25, he was something of a celebrity, at least around St. Louis. He hosted afternoon children's TV programming and co-hosted a morning radio show, where he did his racy duck bit. That's how it wound up on the Internet in the early days of the Web -- someone posted it, and legions of people began downloading the duck having sex, having no idea whose voice it was. A Los Angeles DJ, Rick Dees, had once made a killing with a duck record -- "Disco Duck" -- but Buzz didn't make a penny off that bootleg sharing of his quackery.

He did not start making real money until a fellow comic told him, "Buddy, I'm about to do you the biggest favor," and sent one of his tapes to a man who knew how you broke into the market where he'd seen Seinfeld: the colleges.

ONE-STOP SHOPPING

Who knew that a single organization could be the gateway to scores of bookings?

Some performers still call it "like a secret world," but the National Assn. for Campus Activities has a history it can trace back to 1960, when a North Carolina college wanted to get Julie London, the sultry singer, for a concert. She was expensive, though, so the school asked nearby campuses if they'd like to join forces: They'd share her expenses and negotiate a lower price by offering her a series of concerts close to each other. By 1967 they were holding a "block booking" conference, and the next year became a national nonprofit organization, based today in Columbia, S.C.

So many acts wanted to appear at what first was called the National Entertainment Conference that a committee was set up to screen them. Over the years, acts ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Rosie O'Donnell had to survive its scrutiny, and it once turned down a new British band, the Police.

This year, 500 acts submitted three-minute tapes in hopes of winning one of the 70 slots in the showcases scheduled throughout the NACA convention. Those accepted have to pay for the opportunity to impress so many colleges: up to $700 for their 20 minutes on stage, and $750 for a booth in the "marketplace," where the deal-making begins.

That's where Joey Edmonds goes to work after the Wednesday evening showcase, presiding over no fewer than five booths perfectly positioned by the doors where the students pour in.

Edmonds, who told the Leno story at the opening event, was one of the first comedy acts to see the potential of appearances here, once parlaying an emceeing slot into 40 bookings for one September alone. But in 1983, at age 43, for college audiences. So he quit the circuit to represent others on it -- and teach them "the game."

He was the one who got Buzz's tape in 1991.

Now 62, the Burbank-based Edmonds is amazed when comedians think college gigs mean they can "let it rip." His advice is, "Make believe your mother is in the front row."

"He's had five or six people funnier than I am," Buzz says, "but they didn't get the game."

In his case it meant: Tone down the duck bit, make it PG. And know the audience. Don't say "Remember Ronald Reagan?" and do a Gipper joke. They do not remember Ronald Reagan. They do not care much about what any president thinks, in fact, or what their father thinks. They care what the 18-year-old on their right thinks. And about boy-girl stuff. Except don't do the joke that begins, "My girlfriend is huge.... " You don't want to offend the "big girls on the campus activity board." You need to hug them, and make them laugh.

Buzz once emceed a talent contest in Kansas where two young women dressed in sequined gowns shined flashlights in their noses. In the best tradition of comedians, he stole the idea. He began calling students on stage for a duet of nostril lighting to "Dueling Banjos" from "Deliverance."

The rule of the game is "lose the ego." It's not what you think is poignant or clever. It's what works with the masses of kids who walk down the cultural middle of the road, order vanilla ice cream and made "Friends" the top-rated TV show.

They descend on the marketplace at 11:30 p.m., minutes after the showcase ends. One NACA veteran calls the activities committees "these most wonderful nerds who end up running the school.... These 20-year-old kids with 100 grand to blow."

One booth offers them a young woman on stilts with purple hair, while another displays an albino snake and 31-year-old monkey, part of an "exotic animal" show that will come to your school for $2,500, plus expenses.

The famous agencies are here -- you can ask Creative Artists about bringing Alanis Morissette to your big spring concert. But down the aisle is a booth for "The Mystical Arts of Tibet" or one promising to show "30 ways of kissing on stage." There's one for "The Dating Doctor," Dave Coleman, who was an activities staffer -- at Xavier in Cincinnati -- then found he could earn his college salary in 1 1/2 weeks by lecturing about relationships.

Magicians and hypnotists are all over the place -- they've been popular in recent years, beneficiaries of how a generation raised on video games and MTV's "Real World" loves being part of the action. One hypnotist has them imagine they're in a desert getting warmer and warmer until some boy, inevitably, starts taking off his pants.

One hypnotist, Tom DeLuca, has become an orientation week institution at Winthrop University of Rock Hill, S.C., drawing a crowd of 1,500 in September, despite pouring rain. Winthrop has one of the most active delegations at the convention because it offers live entertainment in its student center every Friday and Saturday night when classes are in session, and thus needs up to 70 acts a year. For $10, students can get passes to 10 shows and hear a Middle Eastern soul band one night and a Czech bluegrass group the next.

Though the convention draws elite private schools such as Dartmouth, and sports powers such as USC, Winthrop is more typical of those here. The school's programs director, Boyd Jones, assumes that most of its 5,000 students have never seen a professional entertainer in person before they arrive on campus, so you don't have to be Jay Leno to excite them. The eager volunteers on his committee will carry sandwich boards around campus, or chalk the sidewalks, to promote the events that are their brush with show biz.

That's one reason Jones advises acts eyeing the college market: Be nice to these kids. Students from various campuses share horror stories of acts who gripe about the food, or hole up in their bus, or insult their school for being in the middle of cornfields. Jones tells campus performers that learning the names of the activities kids, and going to dinner with them, may be "as important as what you do on the stage," if you want to be invited back.

Buzz has been invited back to Winthrop 11 times. He also has the biggest crowd in the market.

Nearly 100 students push up against Buzz's booth in the Joey Edmonds Agency area, many reaching toward him. He's still in the tuxedo he wore for his final bit of the night, his "duck thing," after which he tossed out "Who's Your Daddy?" T-shirts from the stage, and others with the slogan in Spanish, "Quien Es Tu Papa?"

At the booth, he has 800 more shirts to sign and give out, and the kids want 'em. There also are forms they can use to book him: It's $2,400 for isolated shows; $1,800 per show if there are three within five days; or just $1,500 if there's a block of five shows in an area.

"We've had Buzz four times," says Sarah Harper of the University of West Florida. "College students are sort of your pretend adults, and he probably fits into the pretend adult category."

"Jo-Jo, I need a couple more boxes of Spanish!" Buzz calls to Edmonds.

In the next booth, Edmonds' 28-year-old son, Grant, is telling three female students from Carthage College in Illinois about his new act, a game show in which students come on stage for singing and dancing contests and a dating bit.

"He gives away cash!" Buzz yells, trying to help the newcomer. "I cannot stress enough. CASH!"

Another booth down, a dozen students line up to get autographed pictures from actor Dennis Haskins, who is known to all of them as Mr. Belding, the principal in the long-running show "Saved by the Bell." He is trying to convert his TV celebrity into $6,000 appearance fees.

When a delegation from the University of Akron comes up, he tells them, "I used to go to the Soap Box Derby."

"What actually do you do?" asks graduate student Christopher Tankersley.

"I come in and talk about 'Saved by the Bell.' I have a trivia contest. I do a look-alike contest. A Zack, Screech and Kelly look-alike contest."

A coed from Vanderbilt pipes in, "We had a Saved by the Bell contest and I won the Kelly competition. But we had some idiot drunk fraternity guy do it and he was just determined that everyone show cleavage."

At 12:30 a.m., a loudspeaker announces that the marketplace is closing for the night. Haskins signs a few last photos while Buzz tosses out a few more "Who's Your Daddy?" T-shirts. "There are plenty more," he says. "Come back tomorrow."

Then they leave together, Buzz saying, "I feel very blessed."

"It's an amazing thing to have all these kids," replies TV's Mr. Belding. "Nice people."

"They built me a nice house too," says Buzz.

SEEKING A SHOT

The comedian-actor Tommy Chong once visited his home, Buzz says, and said he had what "everybody in L.A. wants." When Buzz asked what he meant, Chong said, "a huge house with all the amenities and then nobody knows who you are." Buzz can go to a restaurant and no one bugs him.

But others, even his friends, ask him questions like, "Why aren't you on 'Will & Grace'?"

Buzz says one comic told him, "I don't want to be your age and go, 'Well, I never gave it a try.'

"I said, 'You don't want to be my age and be completely broke, to be 40 years old and a guy who's made $300 a week working comedy clubs with a very mediocre act.' "

Buzz says, "People are always wishing more for me, assuming that I'm not content. But I'm very content. I am so content."

Yet he is still trying to get on "Star Search," "as hard as I can,

Buzz said he'd like the shot for the most old-fashioned reasons, "so my mom and dad and my wife can turn on not cable, not A&E;, not Comedy Central -- they can turn on CBS, and go, 'There he is, he really does this for a living.' "

But if it takes a more personal and edgy act to make that a reality, he might not risk it. He could find gripping material in how he got the name Buzz, for instance -- from his early days on the road, when he would hand a barkeeper $50 and say, "I bet you can't make me throw up." He could tell what it's like to be forever "the duckboy." He's thought that might make a good movie: He's in a car wreck that breaks his larynx, so all he can do is quack like that. It's either a comedy or horror story, depending how you look at it.

But whenever he ponders tinkering with the act, Edmonds reminds him of another rule of the game: When it's working, keep going. His manager asks why he's in the business.

"I'm in it for the money," Buzz says.

He's saved enough, he says, to take care of his son and daughter, who are 4 and 7, through college. He also has a strategy to keep the money coming when he can't reach campus crowds any longer -- when he really does remind them of their daddy. What then? Corporate shows. He's begun auditioning at showcases much like the ones here, but put on for companies looking for talent to entertain their employees and clients. They need someone who will get the troops laughing, but not offend anyone. "I'm 20 years younger than anybody who is doing those showcases!" Buzz exults. "For the next 30 years, I can do the corporate market."

Not that he's ready to graduate from the colleges. At the end of the convention here, NACA officials prepare a "Which Artists Are Hot" list based on contracts requested and "strong interest" forms filled out by the colleges. Buzz is once again near the top of the list, receiving 82 such requests, third highest among the 70 showcased performers. He got four times the number of requests as the funk dancers he introduced the first night.

But a Canadian comedian, Elvira Kurt, got 93 forms, more than anyone, including him. Kurt does routines about sticking her fingers into electrical sockets as a kid and her difficult relationship with her parents. Her act is hardly vanilla -- she tells the audience near the end that she's a lesbian. She calls gay pride parades "millions of people with one thing in common -- a mother who's miserable."

"She's a brilliant writer," Buzz says. "I'm pleased for her."

Then he notes that some best clients, like Notre Dame, don't submit forms at the convention. He says, "I'll get 120 shows minimum out of that thing."

ALL IN A WEEK'S WORK

He did seven this past week.

Tuesday, he flew to New York to make a 10 p.m. date at Sacred Heart College in Fairfield, Conn. Only a handful of students were in its Mahogony Room lounge when he wheeled his suitcase by 20 minutes to showtime.

As he changed into his hockey jersey in the activities office, a coed with braided hair walked in and asked him, "Can you cancel my meal card?" A student volunteer said, "It should be a good crowd, maybe 50." But when they returned to the lounge, it was bustling to capacity -- 400 kids had materialized in minutes. By 11 p.m., Buzz was asking the students of Sacred Heart, "Do you want to see Puddin' dance?"

Wednesday, he flew to Florida and Seminole Community College, and that night did the University of Tennessee. Thursday meant North Carolina, with shows at Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina. He had Maryville College in Tennessee on Friday, and Wittenberg U. in Ohio on Saturday. A lot of playing the carefree clown.

The hard part was the travel. He didn't mind driving, but he hates the flying. So much, he suspects that's how he will die. One night, when he's tired and no longer "on" -- when he's no longer Buzz -- Jeff Sutherland explains his theory that this is his destiny, the way it will "happen," as they say, for him: After the crash, they'll find his tapes and see all he's done. The world will see how he made those kids laugh.

"Is this the way I become famous?" he asks. "That's the fear. That's the reason I wasn't on 'Star Search' or 'The Tonight Show.' I die in a plane crash at 50. That's what I'll have to do to get famous."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The honor roll

Figures who once performed at showcases for the National Assn. for Campus Activities and were later named to the group's Hall of Fame:

1981 Kenny Rogers

1982 Harry Chapin

Oak Ridge Boys

1983 Linda Ronstadt

1984 Jimmy Buffett

1985 Simon & Garfunkel

Chicago

1986 B.B. King

1987 Roy Clark

1988 Neil Diamond

1989 Hank Williams Jr.

1994 Maynard Ferguson

1997 Mary Chapin Carpenter

1999 Vince Gill

Michael Hedges

2000 Jay Mohr, Anthony Clark

2001 Jon Stewart

2002 Jay Leno

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