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Suddenly, Yi is sitting pretty

Special to The Times

AS an up-and-coming comic in Los Angeles, Charlyne Yi has fulfilled almost every dues-paying requirement on the road to fame. There was the sleazy manager who turned out to be a scam artist. There were the months she spent living (yes, living) in a car that went into convulsions any time the speedometer went past 60. There was the job at Wal-Mart’s one-hour photo lab to support herself after she dropped out of college at UC Riverside. There was the time she performed to an empty house (if you don’t count the guy in the sound booth).

Grim, yes, but Yi’s fortune turned pretty quickly considering the Fontana native is only 21 and about to make her feature film debut in one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the summer, “Knocked Up,” directed by comedy career-maker Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin”).

Yi is quick to point out that her role is small (she plays the stoner girlfriend of an uber-slacker played by Martin Starr). Furthermore, she almost didn’t get the part because she showed up to the audition having prepared for a couple of other roles -- “mall girl” and receptionist. When informed that she was actually auditioning for the “stupid stoner” -- as she describes the part -- she freaked out. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’ve never been high, ever, in my life!’ ”

Somehow she managed to pull it off. “People just laughed, because apparently me laughing sounds like I’m stoned,” Yi says over an ice cream sundae at Canter’s Deli in West Hollywood.

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Of course, this newfound success didn’t spring out of nowhere. Before breaking into Hollywood, Yi was a hot name on L.A.'s alternative comedy circuit, appearing at places such as the Garage Comedy show at the El Cid in Silver Lake, or at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where she continues to have a monthly gig, “The Brand New Charlyne Yi and Me (You) Show”.

Certainly, there is no one quite like Yi. Her stand-up persona is distinctly odd, like a nerdy, slightly spaced-out, utterly disarming teenager. Usually in socks, no shoes, she peers out wide-eyed from black-framed glasses, frequently erupting into nervous giggles. But she turns that innocence on its head, singing a song about whiskey in a deep voice as she strums an electric guitar. Or hosting her own “Dating Game” with members of the audience.

“Charlyne’s kind of a comedy savant,” says Seth Morris, the artistic director of L.A.'s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. “She’s often compared to Andy Kaufman because of her audience interaction. She had one show where she had the entire audience up on the stage. She turns things around.

“It’s a very sort of pure, childlike expression,” Morris continues, adding that Yi is compared to Pee Wee Herman as well. “A big aspect of alternative comedy is kind of dark and bitter, and Charlyne is great because she’s vibrant and joyous.”

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As it was with Kaufman, it can be hard to figure out where Yi the performer ends and Yi the person starts. For example, just how much of her naivete is an act? She says she watches little TV, doesn’t read, and when someone once compared her to Woody Allen, she claims she had to look him up on imdb.com.

Even her process is on the ethereal side. Her inspiration, she says, comes “in dreams.... A lot of it comes out without words. They’re very visual ideas. Like, ‘Oh, that looks funny.’ I try to add words last. Most of my ideas are drawings, because they come faster to me.”

Whatever the process, it’s working. In addition to “Knocked Up,” Yi is in Will Ferrell’s next film, “Semi-Pro,” in which she plays a maniacal, wheelchair-bound basketball fan who’s obsessed with the underdog team that Ferrell’s character coaches. And she’s written and produced a pilot, “The Doo Doo Show” (exec produced by Steve Coogan) that NBC is considering. All that’s allowed her to buy a functioning car (“a regular Toyota that has air-conditioning”), land a real manager and agent, and move into her own apartment in Koreatown.

“Everything’s kind of worked out,” she says simply. She nods her head very sagely, then digs into her sundae.

weekend@latimes.com

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‘The Brand New Charlyne Yi and Me (You) Show’

Where: Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood

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When: 8 p.m. June 13

Price: $5

Info: (323) 908-8702, www.ucbtheatre.com/la


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