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Cultural divides and laugh lines

Special to The Times

When a joke comparing “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to a Duran Duran reunion video fails to get a laugh, stand-up comedian Bert Kreischer looks out into the crowd and says, “Oh, it’s a white joke. I forgot where I was -- it was so dark in here I missed half of you.” A split-second later the audience full of African Americans erupted into gales of laughter.

Kreischer -- a white guy -- knows exactly where he is. He’s at the Hollywood Improv on Melrose where, for the last seven years on Monday nights, the shows have been “Mo Betta Mundays,” the audience and the comics have been 80% to 95% African American and the rapid fire jokes have exploited every stereotype, hurled every epithet, mined every taboo and violated every standard of good taste to the delight of sellout crowds.

“The day a brother makes it in the movies is the day he gets to pull two guns out of his waistband in slow motion.” -- DeRay Davis, Mo Betta Mundays host

Similar nights play out all over town. On Saturday you might find “MadTV” cast member Bobby Lee telling an Asian audience at the Laugh Factory, “People don’t think I’m Asian, they think I’m just a Mexican with Down syndrome.” Or it’s Frank Lucero at the Ha Ha Cafe in North Hollywood explaining his heritage to a Latino audience: “I was American until I needed financial aid for college -- then I became Mexican.”

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Ethnic theme nights -- and currently only Latino, African American and Asian American comics have regularly scheduled showcases at L.A.'s major clubs -- give audiences and comics a chance to mine a shared culture (or, in Kreischer’s case, to tackle it head-on in the most confrontational way possible).

It’s a kind of comedy safety zone in which racial and ethnic stereotypes are served up and explored with a knowing wink and nod, with almost a sense of ownership. The Asian, black and Latino comics, many of whom are the odd man (or woman) out on the regular club circuit, seem more at ease, and the laughter of the crowd seems to come from a place of self-recognition -- a laughing with and not a laughing at.

Comedy aside, these nights have also become quite a social scene. For Mo Betta Mundays, the Hollywood Improv sheds its dorky comedy club image (as much as it can with monstrously huge photos of Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey looming over the tables) and becomes a full-on nightclub. A DJ spins hip-hop tunes at a stage-side turntable, a beefy bouncer pats down patrons at the door and washroom attendants burn incense and offer hair gel.

The crowds of thirtysomethings arrive in single-sex groups -- women in jeans and knotted-handkerchief tops, men in low-slung jeans, sports jerseys and every manner of baseball and trucker cap. The VIP line behind the velvet rope stretches half a block.

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“You know you’re ghetto if you’ve ever had to be introduced to one of your own kids.” -- James Hannah at Mo Betta Mundays

On a recent Monday, the first comic to take the Improv stage is Cat Daddy. Tall and thin, he sports a black-and-red alligator-skin suit and a black newsboy cap. He’s just spent an inordinate amount of time “getting ready” in the men’s room, which now smells like the backstage at a Phish show. He wears a large gold dollar sign on a chain around his neck. You can almost hear the crowd share the same group thought -- “Why is that guy dressed like a ‘70s pimp?” Cat Daddy uses that moment to perfect comic effect. “It’s hard to pimp in L.A. -- the buses here run funny.” The crowd laughs and another night of no-holds-barred, racially tinged humor is under way.

The Monday-night vibe at the Laugh Factory’s Latino Night is a little different but no less sociable. The crowd is mostly Latino twentysomethings in couples or threesomes, and it feels more like date night. Men with shaved heads and baggy pants sip drinks and protectively hold their girlfriends’ hands. The cocktail waitresses hustle double-time to keep the sold-out crowd properly lubricated.

Host Kris Martinez starts the evening off by surveying the crowd. “Any white people here? I know you see a lot of brown out there but there’s nothing to fear -- it’s when you go to get your car after the show that you need to worry.” When he spies a table of Latina women, he stops to praise them. “Latina women, you amaze me -- you can beat your children with anything at your fingertips -- even churros.”

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Lucky patrons might catch a series of hilarious mariachi impressions by the mustachioed, guitar-wielding Lucero, whose metamorphoses from bug-eyed drunk to bored to bad-boy flamenco-style mariachi leave an audience in a tear-inducing laughter jag. When Lucero puts down his guitar and starts to riff about the upcoming tamale season (his pot-smoking friends always roll the tamales wayyyy too tight), he’s practically drowned out by the hoots and howls of recognition. This crowd knows tamale season and they let him know they know it.

“Latinos are the hardest working people on the planet -- Universal Studios isn’t running without you people."-- Eric Blake at the Ha Ha Cafe’s Latino Comedy Jam

Although Monday nights are traditionally slow in the comedy club business, the Improv and the Laugh Factory often find themselves with sold-out shows and lines of patrons out the door thanks to the popularity of their ethnic comedy showcases (the Laugh Factory’s own African American-themed night -- Chocolate Sundays -- draws a capacity crowd too). They’re just two of the dozens of comedy clubs from Ontario to West L.A. that have benefited from adding culture-coded comedy to their weekly schedules.

In the beginning

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But it hasn’t always been that way. In the beginning, the L.A. stand-up scene was bland and without color -- all button-down banter from middle-aged white guys. Sure, there was the occasional comic of color, but for the most part the stand-up scene belonged to white guys. The comedy color lines started being drawn back in the early ‘80s, not as a moneymaker but as a way to give up-and-coming comedians exposure. Laugh Factory founder Jamie Masada remembers when the precursor to today’s showcases crawled from the primordial comic ooze.

“Back in 1982,” Masada said, “a comedian named Paul Mooney and I were doing a black comedy night [at the Laugh Factory]. We called it the ‘Black Pack’ as a play on the ‘Rat Pack.’ We started it because there weren’t that many African American comics around. Paul Mooney, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, who would bring a bunch of other comics with him.” That night eventually became “Chocolate Sunday” and has been running (with the exception of a single, six-month hiatus) at the Laugh Factory ever since.

Veteran comedian, actor and producer Paul Rodriguez remembers a similar scene unfolding at the nearby Comedy Store. “It wasn’t publicized as ‘African American Night,’ but everyone knew to go to the Comedy Store on Wednesdays.... I think there was a Jewish night where guys like Robert Klein and the Woody Allenish type would perform, but that was about it. It hadn’t yet broken it down into the United Nations of Comedy.”

One night, in 1984, Rodriguez, Masada and comic Jesse Aragon were talking about the difficulty Latino comics had getting stage time around town. The solution, Masada decided, was to set aside his slow Monday night slot for Latino comics.

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Rodriguez still remembers that first show almost two decades ago. “The first night, we the comedians were the audience. I think there were three people from Missouri who couldn’t get in at the Comedy Store -- they were walking up and down the Sunset Strip and we talked them into coming in.

“There were so few Latino comics -- maybe four of us -- that, as a spoof, I did two sets, one as ‘Paul’ and one as ‘Pablo.’ ” Rodriguez said that including the waitress, the busboys and the bartenders there were perhaps 15 people. “But the word got out.”

As word got out, what had started as an act of beneficence on the part of club owners -- providing a place for minority talent to get exposure -- became a hit with audiences. Other clubs noticed and offered their own versions. Today you can’t swing a microphone stand without hitting some showcase of culturally contingent comedy almost every night of the week.

Over the years, local clubs have used the same template to showcase other groups. The Comedy Store occasionally offers an “Arabian Knights” showcase of Middle Eastern comics and “It’s Fun to Be a Jew” for Jewish comedians. (Not, presumably, on the same night.) Past showcases there include “Dublin’s Dumplins” for the Irish and “Night of 1,000 Guidos” for Italians. The Improv Olympic West recently hosted an “Arab/Israeli Comedy Hour” that paired an Israeli Jew with a Lebanese American. None of these nights hold down a regular spot on the calendar.

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The next generation

Within the last year, the Hollywood Improv and the Laugh Factory seem to have singled out one group worthy of a permanent time slot -- Asian Americans. “We have a lack of Asian comics,” Masada said. “So you just need to commit yourself and build it up.” His Saturday midnight “Asian Invasion” has been running since September 2002.

In February, the Improv’s “ChopSchtick Comedy” began running a midnight Saturday show as well (though on a monthly, not weekly, basis). According to Amy Anderson, the comic who produces “ChopSchtick,” the audience there has grown from 20 to 35 patrons at the early shows to a sold-out October show.

Although a Saturday midnight show (as in 12:01 a.m. Sunday morning) might be a tough show to stay awake for, the comics work overtime to make it worth your while. A recent ChopSchtick show opened with the Hung Yang Clan (three Asian American men sporting sunglasses and carrying hand microphones) charging the stage in a mock rap song called “K-Town Hotties,” a humorous ode to the girls of Koreatown. Halfway through the tune, a diminutive woman calling herself “Lil’ Kimchi” joins them to the delight of the audience, which halfheartedly sings along. After much mock Korean-gangsta posing, they ceded the stage to Randall Park, who would introduce the first of the night’s eight other acts.

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That night’s lineup included Dr. Ken Jeong (a licensed, practicing physician who jokes that he offers the same treatment for every patient complaint -- “chemo”) and Anderson herself, a South Korean-born, Minnesota-raised stand-up who talks about how her short hair gets her mistaken for a lesbian and how little it takes for her to get drunk (“Isn’t there a two-Chink minimum?” she muses).

“I hate stereotypes. It just doesn’t look good to you people if I’m walking my dog and want to eat it -- I just can’t do it.” -- Dr. Ken Jeong at ChopSchtick Comedy

If the Asian comedy nights lack anything at all, it’s a fully developed atmosphere -- a distinct vibe like the nightclub air of Mo Betta Mundays or the freshly scrubbed date-night feel of Latino Monday, but that can’t stop it from providing the best 1 a.m. laughs in the city and an important opportunity for Asian American comedians.

“I think nights like ChopSchtick Saturday are key to showing that Asian Americans can be hip too -- that they can do stand-up comedy,” said Dat Phan, the Vietnamese-born winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and occasional ChopSchticker. “We’ve had black nights and Latino nights for years, and of course Caucasians dominate the genre of stand-up, so I think it’s time for Asians to show that we can do more than be in beauty salons and drycleaners and all that stereotypical stuff -- to show that we don’t mind poking fun at ourselves or being part of all that.”

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Anderson thinks that Asian American nights can be as successful as the longer running and better-entrenched Latino and African American nights.

“But I don’t think it’s going to happen over night,” she said. “The second, third and fourth generation Asian Americans have never had comedians to look up to or follow or idolize, whereas generations of blacks, whites and Latinos have. And I think it’s a little tricky because of the way Asian culture is: Fewer Asians overall are going to be comedians.”

Despite the win-win-win of greater exposure for comics, greater foot traffic for club owners and greater guffaws for the audience, is there a downside to playing the comedy race card and setting aside stage time for comics of color?

“I don’t see a downside to it,” said Anderson. “As far as negativity, I get the sense that other comedians sometimes think you’re taking unfair advantage. My feeling is you get the hand you’re dealt, and you need to use that the best you can.

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“I know some guys out in New York who did a show called ‘Guys Called Steve’ -- I couldn’t have done that show, you know? Everybody’s got their thing.” (Anderson nonetheless includes precisely one non-Asian in each ChopSchtick show -- billed as the “honorary Asian.”)

Rodriguez agrees. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t all relish in our ethnicity. Why not? We all find a niche, a catchphrase or a hook, and we don’t need to be apologetic about it.”

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Five to watch

DR. KEN JEONG

A practicing doctor and working comedian, “Dr. Ken” has been on Comedy Central’s “Comic Groove,” on BET’s “Comic View” and in festivals such as the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and the Big Easy Laff-Off in New Orleans. While he does touch on the stock Asian stereotypes -- high SAT scores, bad drivers and the urge to eat your pet, he does it with a delightful sense of sarcasm. His usual subject matter is the world of medicine from a Gen X Asian perspective. “The View” crowned him “The Funniest Doctor in America.”

Upcoming appearances: A regular at area Improvs. Check his Web site: www.drken.net. He’s featured in an episode of “MadTV” slated to air in the next two to three months.

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FREDDY SOTO

A 14-year veteran of the stand-up scene, the El Paso, Texas, native was named one of Hispanic magazine’s “Top 10 Latino Comics” in 2002. Watch him on stage for five minutes and it’s easy to see why. He’s toured nationally as one of “The Three Amigos” (with Carlos Mencia and Pablo Francisco), has appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” and Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend.” He’s at his best recounting his early years in El Paso, his Mexican American father’s mangling of the English language and his own march toward fatherhood. Hollywood seems to be paying attention -- in 2000, he filmed a TV pilot for UPN based on his life and comedy. More recently, he inked a deal to star in an upcoming CBS series.

Upcoming performances: None available at press time.

RETHA JONES

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Where some comedians have uneven shows that mix a few sidesplitting laughs with the occasional clunker, Jones powers through with a dead-on set from start to finish. The Amazon-tall, reed thin former model describes herself as having no curves where curves should be on an African American woman (she uses the term “slightly irregular,” which also happens to be the name of her recent one-woman show). And her view of relationships with the opposite sex is refreshing. She’s appeared on TV in BET’s “Comic View” and “Def Comedy Jam,” among others, and in such movies as “The Nutty Professor” and “For da Love of Money.”

Upcoming performances: Jones, now on location in Florida shooting a movie, is a Comedy Store regular. Check www.comedystore.com or www.msretha.com for upcoming shows.

FRANK LUCERO

As comic whipping boys, mariachis rank right up there with mimes, yet Lucero is the only person I’ve seen who can poke fun at the guitar slingers and make you feel sympathy for them at the same time. He slurs and stumbles as a drunk mariachi, he flirts with the audience and mouths dialogue as a bored mariachi and then cops a truckload of attitude as a fancy-pants flamenco guitarist, doing most of the transformation with facial features alone. Although he’s only been performing stand-up on a regular basis for the last five years, he’s appeared on Mun2’s “Loco Comedy Jam” and “The Roof,” on “LATV Live” on KJLA-TV and in the third volume in the “Latino Comedy Fiesta” DVD series. Lucero’s mantra: “Life is family, food and funny,” and that’s a pretty good description of his act.

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Upcoming performances: Lucero is a regular on the Los Angeles-area Latino-night circuit. He’ll be at the Ha Ha Cafe’s “Latino Comedy Jam” on Nov. 15.

ALONZO BODDEN

Bodden’s imposing physical presence and impeccable comic timing and delivery make the soft-spoken former jet mechanic come across as comedian Steven Wright trapped in the body of a buffed up Samuel L. Jackson. Although Bodden is likely to riff on anything from sports to politics, it’s his take on relationships that is a sheer delight. He’s appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend,” released a comedy album, “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” (titled after one of his signature lines), and appeared in the movie “Bringing Down the House.”

Upcoming performances: Bodden is a regular fixture on L.A.'s showcase nights. He also performs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. at Dublin’s (8240 W. Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, [323] 656-0100). For upcoming gigs check alonzobodden.com.

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‘The United Nations of Comedy’

With names that range from the straightforward (“Latino Monday” and “The Best of Black Comedy”) to ones that sound equally at home on a takeout menu (“Chocolate Sundaes,” “Hot Tamales Live” and “ChopSchtick Comedy”), the L.A. area dishes up generous helpings of ethnically tinged humor all week long. As you sample the smorgasbord below you probably won’t forget to hydrate -- in addition to a cover charge, most clubs have a two-drink minimum. Bon appetit!

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SOUL FOOD

Showcases and theme nights featuring predominantly African American comics have been around the longest and offer the greatest number of choices.

Mo Betta Mundays

Mondays, 8 p.m. The Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., L.A.

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Info: (323) 651-2583 or www.improv.com.

Phat Tuesday

Dec. 2, 9 p.m. (Tuesdays in 2004).

The Comedy Store, 8433 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

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Info: (323) 656-6225 or www.comedystore.com.

Soul Phunny

Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Ha Ha Cafe, 5010 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Info: (818) 508-4995 or www.hahacafe.com.

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The Best of Black Comedy

Hosted by Chalant. Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. Mixed Nuts Comedy Club, 4000 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 735-6622 or www.mixednutscomedy.com.

Chocolate Sundaes

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Hosted by Chris Spencer. Sundays, 8 p.m. The Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 656-1336, Ext. 1 or www.laughfactory.com.

LATIN FLAVORS

The number of venues and comics has increased dramatically since Jamie Masada, Paul Rodriquez and Jesse Aragon launched the Southland’s first Latino night nearly 19 years ago.

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Comedy Night

Hosted by Ernie G and featuring comedians from “Que Locos!” Mondays, 8:30 p.m. The Rumba Room, Universal City Walk, Universal City. Info: (818) 622-1227 or www.rumbaroom.com.

Latino Monday

Hosted by Kris Martinez. Mondays, 8 p.m. The Laugh Factory.

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Latino Comedy Showcase

Hosted by Rudy Moreno. Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. The Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.

Info: (626) 577-1894 or www.icehousecomedy.com.

Late Night Latino Comedy Jam

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Headlined by Jeff Garcia and including Rick Martinez, Richard Villa and others. Friday, Nov. 14 and 21, 10:30 p.m. The Hollywood Improv.

Latino Comedy Jam

Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. Ha Ha Cafe.

TASTE OF THE ORIENT

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Although the regular showcases for Asian American comics are relatively new, they still dish up some of the funniest stand-up around.

Asian Invasion

Hosted by PK. Saturdays, midnight.

The Laugh Factory.

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ChopSchtick Comedy

First Saturday of every month.

The Hollywood Improv.

A LA CARTE

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The following shows aren’t always on the menu, but when they are, they’re worth grabbing a bite of. Schedules are subject to change so be sure to call ahead.

Arabian Nights

Features Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader and Sam Tripoli. Nov. 12, 8:30 p.m. The Ontario Improv, 4555 Mills Circle, Ontario Mills, Ontario.

Info: (909) 484-5411 or www.improv.com.

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Hot Tamales Live

A stand-up showcase and variety show features mostly Latino, mostly female comedians. Organized, produced and hosted by Kiki Melendez. A regular last-Thursday-of-the-month run beginning January. The Comedy Store.

Adam Tschorn can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.


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