August 13, 1984 12:00 PM

“I just got back from vacation in Florida. How do I look?” comedian Steve Mittleman asks the audience at New York’s Improv. Mittleman, 28, has the pasty glow of someone who spends his time in darkened rooms—which he does, of course, performing here and at other New York comedy clubs. “Like my tan? I use sunscreen 80. White people call me honky.” The line gets a laugh, and Mittleman tries a few more vacation gags, then eases into a story about his latest date. “She’s 400 pounds, a dietician. Her name’s Patty—all-beef Patty. She wanted a bite to eat, so we went to 7-Eleven. Now it’s 6-Ten.” More chuckles, and Mittleman skips on, quickly turning his humor inward once again with jokes about his weak chin (“I grew a beard once; it looked like a fur tongue”), a robbery at his apartment (“I live alone; the police thought it was an inside job”), and his athletic prowess: “I’m a jock. I was captain of the JV miniature golf team. Until I was injured. Windmills.”

Mittleman will earn $10 for his 15-minute stand-up routine this Wednesday evening, barely enough for cross-town cab fare to Catch A Rising Star or the Comic Strip, where he will practice his jokes again before the night is done. Elsewhere across the U.S. other young comics are doing the same, at the Comedy Store or the Improv in L.A. and lesser venues in towns like Valdez, Ala. and Bakersfield, Calif. For most the goal is identical: discovery, a TV invitation from Merv, David or (dream of dreams) Johnny himself, and finally a chance to grab a share of the biggest boom in comedy since the heyday of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

Shockwaves from the boom have shaken every area of entertainment this year. In movie theaters, Ghost-busters has earned a staggering $150 million in box office receipts since it was released in June, turning former Saturday Night Live cohorts Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray into the summer’s biggest stars. If the newly released Best Defense, starring Eddie Murphy and Dudley Moore, seems to be skidding toward critical floptown, no matter. It will be followed shortly by new comedies from Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Michael Keaton and Joe Piscopo.

In stores, meanwhile, Ballantine’s series of Tasteless Jokes paperbacks has sold some 3.5 million books in the past 18 months. A similar Gross Jokes series from Zebra Books has amused nearly two million buyers, spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list and is now being eyed as fodder for a cable-TV series. And Erma Bombeck’s latest treatise, Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, reigned for 21 weeks as the country’s hottest selling hardcover.

Even record companies are cashing in on comedy with quick-selling albums by Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers and rock parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Legends from an earlier era have found a new generation of fans as well, and one Manhattan retailer reports that the LPs of Lenny Bruce, who died 18 years ago from a drug overdose, have been selling at a 200-per-week clip. Most of the cleaner cuts off album laugh tracks find their way onto WJOK, the country’s first all-comedy radio station, launched last year in the Washington, D.C. area. The owners of the station plan to broadcast nationally via satellite by 1985.

For stand-up comics hoping to get careers off the launching pad, the starting point is the comedy club, the birth rate of which rivals that of China. The estimated 200 rooms now devoted to comedy—there were only half that number just five years ago—have become the new vaudeville, the training ground where would-be laugh-makers learn their craft. Robert Klein, Richard Pryor, David Brenner, Woody Allen and others poured out of such comic crucibles in the ’60s and ’70s; later Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams, Jimmie (Good Times) Walker and Paul (a.k.a. Pablo) Rodriguez were plucked from obscurity there and propelled into sitcom stardom.

At the Comedy Store in L.A., the climb for newcomers begins on Monday’s amateur night when 50 or more fledgling funny people line up for a three-minute turn in front of an audience. The typical roster includes terrified first-timers moonlighting from day jobs, out-of-work actors, even the doormen and bartenders club owner Mitzi Shore keeps on her payroll while they fight to break into “the business.” And breaking in usually means waiting until the wee hours to tell a few jokes to a dwindling crowd of insensate drunks—all in the longshot hope of one day hitting in the big time. The best of Monday’s motley lot will return, try again and gradually work their way into the Store’s regular lineup.

For those who make it, the clubs quickly become more than proving grounds for jokes. At their best, the comedy clubs are serendipitous stages where old pros often show up unannounced to try out new material. Rodney Dangerfield regularly preps for his Tonight Show appearances by testing his latest no-respect gags, reading his jokes to guinea-pig patrons and thanking the crowd later for “use of the hall.” Pryor spent 10 weeks onstage at the Comedy Store—without pay—putting together the routine he later performed in his concert film, Live at the Sunset Strip.

The clubs are also places where comics can forge a personality that audiences will remember even when the gags are forgotten. Andy Kaufman’s foreign man, Bill Murray’s party boy, Robin Williams’ antic innocent—all are characters that eventually translated from the small stage into television and movie roles. Inspired by their success, a new generation of comics has now emerged as mindful of their personae as their punch lines.

Shore, a peppery 51, likens the clubs to showbiz finishing schools. Among her graduates, after all, is David Letterman, a 1975 arrival who first knocked at her door, says Shore, “wearing a lumberjack shirt.” Letterman, now the host of NBC’s Late Night show, recalls his wardrobe differently (“I’m from Indianapolis; the lumberjack community there is tiny”) but willingly credits Shore with starting his stand-up career. He had quit a broadcasting job in Indiana and “had been in California about two weeks. So I drove the log truck over to Sunset Boulevard and just went on one Monday night like everybody else. It was horrible. The one thing I can remember was how unbelievably intense that spotlight is. You feel like it’s penetrating you, like your clothing and your skin are being bleached away and people can see right through you.”

Letterman began working steadily at the club and later became the Store’s regular emcee. The job paid $10 a night, welcome money for a comic struggling to buy “beer or gas or, in my case, lumberjack clothing.” Then in 1978 came the breakthrough, an invitation to test his humor on the Tonight show. “It’s the most important step for a comedian,” he asserts. “It’s like saying, ‘Yeah, this guy can hit the fastball; he can hit the curveball. Let’s put him in the starting lineup.’ ”

The trip out of the minors isn’t always quick. Dangerfield had first tried comedy in 1937 under the name Jack Roy, then abandoned the stage for 15 years in favor of steady work as a paint salesman. (“To give you an idea of how well I was doing when I quit,” he said later, “I was the only one who knew I quit.”) In 1965, when he was 44, he began wrestling with a comeback under his new name and with a new identity—the archetypal loser. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 gave him his first boost; a walk-on with Johnny Carson two years later hefted him over the top. “Carson is the Ziegfeld of today,” Rodney proclaimed. “If he says someone is okay, people believe him.”

Joan Rivers, a graduate of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe in 1964, auditioned for the Tonight show seven times over a four-year period before Carson & Co. took a chance on her raucous insult humor. The gamble paid off royally; Rivers, 51, has now done the show some 200 times and was named Johnny’s permanent substitute for 17 weeks over the past two years. The exposure has turned her into one of the country’s top nightclub draws and the most popular comedienne in a field where few women intrude. Despite Rivers’ high profile, network TV is not the playground it once was. A decade ago eight of the Top 10 shows were situation comedies. By last year all had tumbled away, replaced with bumper-car action shows, private-eye adventures and prime-time soaps. “I don’t think the form has died. I think that it’s just being beaten to death slowly by shows that aren’t funny,” says Letterman. “As soon as you get a funny sitcom that does great business, everybody will say, ‘Ah, a rebirth.’ ”

The networks haven’t given up, of course, and in a telling display of corporate decision-making, NBC recently sent 42 talent spotters to the Comedy Store to cast a new character for Cheers. Still, the best laughs seem to be coming from cable TV, where there are fewer restrictions on language and content. Stand-up comedy specials have brought some of the country’s best young comics into America’s living rooms, and satirical shows like SCTV(first shown on NBC) have given national exposure to protean funnyman John Candy and others. Before the year is out, six new sitcoms will have hit the wires as well. Among them: Brothers, a comedy based on gay and straight siblings, and Steam-bath, a series derived from the off-Broadway black comedy.

Given its limited audience, cable TV is still only a springboard. The best way to turn laughs into lucre is the old-fashioned way—in the movies. Pryor, after all, has a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures, and 23-year-old Murphy has managed to translate his Saturday Night Live popularity into a five-film, $15 million package with Paramount Pictures. Young stand-up comics have sniffed the wind. Spotted onstage by director Martin Scorsese, comedienne Sandra Bernhard drew a plum role as Robert De Niro’s accomplice in The King of Comedy, and if plans for a film version of Fatty Arbuckle’s life gel, St. Paul comedian Louie Anderson will star.

For many the path to Hollywood passes through Chicago and the Second City comedy troupe run by producer Bernie Sahlins. Founded 25 years ago, Second City has featured some 300 comedic actors on Its stage, including Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, and more recently John Belushi, Radner, Aykroyd, Murray and Candy. The troupe’s specialty, a mix of quick skits and biting commentary, translated smoothly to television in the 1970s and turned Saturday Night Live into the most influential comedy show since Laugh-In a decade earlier. Now three of Second City’s alumni have graduated to even better things.

Ghostbusters was written by Second City alumni Harold Ramis and Aykroyd, who team up on the screen with fellow trouper Murray. It is the latter who, as Dr. Peter Venkman, steals the show. “Bill is totally improvisational,” notes Ramis. “He’s practically got a spiritual commitment to making every moment real.” Ramis recalls one scene where he, Aykroyd and Murray find a tidy pile of books in a library aisle while they are warily engaged in a ghost hunt. “Dan and I examine the stack, and Dan says, ‘Symmetrical book stacking.’ Bill’s response: ‘No human being would stack books that way.’ ” The off-the-cuff line gets a laugh from viewers and is typical of Murray’s style. Recalls his Second City mentor, Bernie Sahlins: “He always had that lovely sense of timing, of underplay, of throwing away the line. That is a high art, and he had it right from the beginning.”

Murray’s part in Ghostbusters had originally been written for Belushi, the gonzo funnnyman whose excessive talents were matched only by his excessive life-style. Belushi died at 33 of a drug overdose in 1982, joining a list of casualties among comedians that includes Lenny Bruce and Freddie Prinze, as well as now-recovered drug victims like Pryor and George Kirby. In comedy, life can be as lonely at the rarefied top as it is at the over-crowded bottom. “There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of jealousy, a lot of bitterness,” says Letterman, recalling the bootstrap days. Although others in show business are also prey to drugs and drink, the irony seems decidedly sharper when the life of a laugh-maker goes bad.

Some, like Freddie Prinze of TV’s Chico and the Man, simply encounter too much, too soon. Following a long bout with drugs, Prinze died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 1977 when he was 22. Remembers Joan Rivers: “I saw him when he was 20 years old, and there were four women washing his hair at NBC in the sink. I went over to him and said, ‘Go back to college.’ He didn’t know what I was talking about. I liked Freddie Prinze, but you can’t give a 20-year-old boy from the ghetto four women to wash his hair and say, ‘You’re a genius.’ Something’s gonna happen.”

In Eddie Murphy’s life, things do seem to be happening. Murphy began as a $25-a-night stand-up comic at 16, joined the Saturday Night Live cast three years later and by his second season was earning $4,500 a week. Sliding easily into movies, he sparkled in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, and in 1983 was voted the second most popular box office attraction (after Clint Eastwood) in a poll of theater owners. Last month Murphy and three pals strolled into Carlos & Charlie’s, a disco in Hollywood. An exchange of words with some of the restaurant patrons suddenly degenerated into “an old-fashioned barroom brawl,” according to one spectator, with tables overturned, lamps broken and Murphy knocked to the ground with a split lip. Despite efforts by the club’s bouncers to quiet things down, the fracas spilled into the parking lot before police arrived to restore order. Accounts of the incident varied the next day, but Murphy is being sued for $1 million by an injured bystander. Some Hollywood veterans are wondering just what effect the burdens of sudden fame are having on the young performer.

There are now some 500 stand-up comedians in the U.S. struggling to shoulder just that kind of “burden.” This year more than 100 joined forces in the Professional Comedians Association, a loosely glued organization designed to negotiate health plans, dental programs and standardized contracts for the nation’s jokesters. The association is, perhaps, a measure of just how far the comedy culture has come.

Another measure was the scene last month in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. On a sunny summer afternoon 30,000 people gathered with picnic baskets and blankets, coolers and kids. They might have been there to hear an old-fashioned concert in the park or even some speech-making in advance of the Democratic Convention. But they weren’t. The attraction was a seven-hour marathon of 70 stand-up comics, topped off with an appearance by Robin Williams. San Francisco’s fourth annual “Comedy Celebration Day” was jolly, joyous—and just what comedy should be. At the end, said one observer, “People’s jaws looked tired from laughing.”

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