It didn't take much to make Fernando Aguilar laugh at opening day of the Laugh Factory's summer camp. Comic Dane Cook's opening aside about valet parking had the 11-year-old cracking up.
Asia wasn't such an easy mark. Jokes that made me laugh out loud drew just the barest of smiles from the solemn teenager.
I can't use Asia's last name because she is a foster child, one who's lived with a series of strangers in the two years since her mother died.
"I'm going through a lot of hell at the moment," she told me. "I feel like I'm 30, instead of 17."
But an hour later there she was, clowning onstage; drawing laughs from the club's camp crowd with her natural wit, biting jokes and loose-limbed imitations of streetwise friends.
She walked back to her seat with a grin on her face.
If life in a group home felt, as she said, "like a prison," then Comedy Camp just might be a key.
Comedy Camp has been around for 26 years, created and nurtured by Jamie Masada, who owns the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.
It began, he said, with a chance encounter with a hunch-backed teen on a South L.A. street. "His father had kicked him out and he was begging for money. I said, 'Come see me when you turn 18 and I'll give you a job.'
"I didn't mean it. I was just trying to make him feel good.… Four months later, he showed up, with a suitcase, outside my door." Masada paid him to clean up the club and called him "head of security."
"After a while," Masada said, "he was standing up straighter … and before you know it, he was dating the most beautiful women in the club!"
That's the punch line. Here's the moral: A struggling young person can make a lot of a little encouragement and a chance to shine.
Every summer since, Masada has spent his Saturday afternoons grooming youngsters for success. The sessions connect children with big-name comics — like Chris Rock, George Lopez and Adam Sandler — who volunteer to perform, mentor the kids and hone their comic skills.
It's got a vibe that's part classroom, part open mike and part therapy session; a place where comics can act like the big kids they are, and troubled kids can feel free to let loose.
The campers are chosen through interviews and auditions — impromptu riffs about their lives, their challenges, their dreams. Some are too shy at tryouts to step onto the stage; others vibrate with excitement at the prospect of a spotlight.
But Masada isn't looking for comic talent. He's drawn to kids he thinks laughter can heal: Social outcasts too shy to fit in, children frustrated by disabilities, survivors of family tragedies.
Fifteen years ago, that described Tiffany Haddish, a hard-edged teen from South L.A., so wary and angry that she wouldn't budge from her seat, alone in the camp's back row. Today, Haddish is an actress, dancer and comedian who travels around the world to perform.
At the camp's opening session last week, her comedy routine veered close to home. She described watching her mother hauled off in handcuffs to jail, while she and her siblings stuffed their belongings into garbage bags and prepared for the journey to foster care.
Because she moved around a lot, "it was hard to make friends," she said. "So I made up imaginary friends."
Those characters show up in her stand-up routines, drawn from once-painful memories of "family members in and out of jail, lots of 'baby daddies' and EBT [welfare] cards," she said.
"Comedy camp taught me to communicate. I learned to wring laughs from my tears."
The lesson is different for every kid. For some, just proving the naysayers wrong is enough of a victory.
Like Tosh Hall, a self-described "resource kid" — special education student — who attended comedy camp last summer and came back to entertain this year's crew with his horror-movie parodies.
After he finished his routine, he sat down at the back of the club with me.
"Teachers used to tell me that I wouldn't be anything, that I would never learn to read," he said.
Now he writes his own jokes, competes in speech and debate, and performs Shakespeare at film festivals.
It's been a big year for the 18-year-old. "I learned confidence here," he said. "I'm not letting nerves take control of me.… Comedy camp made me see a different side of myself. I got the courage to try new things."
The campers aren't the only ones who benefit.
Watching her son, Fernando, hold court with Dane Cook was beyond Candy Aguilar's wildest dreams. "Personally, I think my son is funny," Aguilar said. "He cracks us up at home; we're laughing so hard at the dinner table, we can't hardly eat."
But she didn't sign Fernando up for the stand-up stuff. "We're here because it's fun, and it's free. It's something he can look forward to every week."
And it's something that a working mom can say "yes" to, when she can't afford her son's Boy Scout trips or leave work to make his basketball games.
"That all these people really care, that means a lot to me," she said, watching Cook — who plays sold-out arenas — listen patiently to her son's endless jokes and stories.
I'm surprised by the tears that spill down her cheeks. But I understand her gratitude. Everyone in the club seems to see this as a mission of love.
"It's the most important thing I do," comedian Tom Dreesen said. "And none of these kids know who I am." He used to tour with Frank Sinatra; now he shows up every summer to counsel campers.
He gave the kids tips on comic timing and character voices. And he let them know something else just as important, even if it might seem to them out of place in a comedic repertoire:
Dreesen grew up poor, one of eight kids, with two alcoholic parents.
"You can talk about anything here and we won't judge you," he told them. "Sometimes you have to laugh to survive."