August 13, 1984 12:00 PM

Carol Siskind has this thing about health-food nuts. “They give you stuff like cottage cheese. Cottage cheese? Who invented it? And how did they know when they were done?” She’s also not too keen on those gorgeous department-store beauties who sell makeup. “I asked one about eye shadow. Do you know what she recommended? Total darkness.” Siskind, happily, is spending much of her time these days in ever brighter spotlights. The 32-year-old Cornell psychology graduate is one of the few women to emerge from the New York comedy-club scene lately, and after some lean years and low pay (“Thank goodness for MasterCard”), she is now bustling toward the big time. The youngest of three children born to a Yonkers, N.Y. lawyer, she recently starred in Ernie & Arnie, an off-off-Broadway play, at the same time hitting the stages uptown with a stand-up act devoted largely to man-woman relationships. “I want to fall in love again,” she confesses. “I want to meet someone special, someone I can take for granted. Someone I can look at in the morning and say, ‘You’re not what I had in mind.’ ”

Only 18 months ago Brad Garrett was working in a San Fernando Valley restaurant by day while trying to line up work as a comedian by night. Then a nightclub owner recommended that he audition for a new weekly talent contest planned for TV. Garrett reluctantly agreed but learned he’d have only two minutes to perform on the show, scarcely long enough for a comedian “to get the mike to the right height.” Says Garrett, “When I first heard of Star Search I thought I’d win some patio furniture and get out of town. Then I got to like it.” Small wonder. Garrett, 24, appeared on the syndicated show hosted by Tonight’s Ed McMahon five times and became its first $100,000 grand-prize winner in the comedy category. He went on to a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall (with other Star Search winners) and has just completed a long tour as the warm-up act for singer Crystal Gayle. He is also slated to tape an HBO special later this year. “Everyone talks about the prize money,” he says. “For me the big thrill is establishing myself as a known commodity. If you make it in this town, that kind of money is nothing.”

In 1980 Dom Irrera auditioned to fill a vacancy in the Saturday Night Live cast. The job went to a skinny, street-smart 19-year-old named Eddie Murphy, and Irrera went back to work honing his stand-up comedy in New York’s clubs. Irrera had come to the city two years earlier from Philadelphia, where he had combined jobs as a fourth-grade parochial-school teacher and an actor. But comedy? “I knew that was my gift,” says Irrera, who eventually moved north and began waiting tables, parking cars and working on his act. He still marvels at New York hostility, something he says he’s observed even on planes: “The pilot says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated until we get to the main terminal.’ That’s the signal for New Yorkers to get up and put their coats on. They figure, what’s the plane gonna do, take off again?” Now 35, Irrera finally saw his own career take off last year after two appearances on Star Search, but he says some of his early pains will never be erased. Like that time in Philadelphia his father came to him with bad news: “Dom, I gotta level with you. I met another kid.”

“The audience’s connection was so immediate it was obvious from the beginning that I was onto something,” says Pee-wee Herman, 31, remembering the first time he introduced his gawky, squeaky-voiced stage character to the public. Herman (aka Paul Reubens) was a member of the Groundlings, the L.A.-based improv group that sent Laraine Newman to SNL and that now includes Carol Burnett’s daughter, Carrie Hamilton, in its cast. Clad in a too small suit and cast as a hyperactive ’50s-style kiddie-show host, Pee-wee has climbed from obscurity over the past three years to appearances on the Letterman show and MTV, his own HBO special and a recent sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. His act, loaded with often corny sight gags, toy props and Tootsie Rolls for his audience, has caught on, he believes, because “we can all remember what it was like to have fun as kids. It’s infectious.” But apparently not incurable. How long will Herman maintain his preadolescent persona? “I’m sure I’ll change before the audience is ready. Pee-wee will grow,” he vows, “the same as any other person.”

“I don’t have many vices except bad relationships,” says Richard Lewis. “My ex-girlfriends are listed in Who’s Who in Torment.” That’s appropriate, perhaps, since Lewis, 35, has built his whole career on torment. (“I tell my mother that our blood type is negative. Very negative.”) Sporting rumpled clothes and raging neuroses, Lewis looks as though he just got up from the couch of Woody Allen’s analyst. The son of a Jewish caterer, he was graduated from Ohio State with a degree in marketing, joined an advertising agency, then began kicking around the New York comedy circuit in 1971. At the Improv he met comedian David Brenner, whom he now credits with sparking his “obsession to do comedy.” Lewis’ stand-up career struggled, however, until David Letterman gave him national exposure in 1982. “It turned my career upside down,” he says. “Suddenly I had so many fans that people were coming out just to see me. When I headline at a club I have this fantasy of couples getting ready at their hotel and saying, ‘Hurry up, honey, or we’ll miss Richard.’ ” Lewis has appeared on Late Night about 20 times, taken a dozen turns on the Tonight show and has now emerged as a nightclub head-liner. Happily, success hasn’t changed his outlook. “I have this weird combination of sometimes feeling doomed,” he says, “while at other times I feel such a love of life I’m afraid I’ll be taken from it needlessly.”

Alison Arngrim had already made her mark as nasty Nellie Oleson on network TV’s Little House on the Prairie when she turned up at L.A.’s Comedy Store in 1977 to try her hand at humor. She was 15 then and, because of local liquor laws, allowed inside the club only for her performance. Arngrim recalls that the post-midnight debut on amateur night was “as bad as it ever got. I walked out all dressed up for my big debut, and someone yelled out, ‘Strip!’ ” Arngrim persevered with her five-minute routine and has since gone on to appear at clubs around the U.S. Much of her act deals with her life as television’s “prairie bitch” and with the problems of growing up on the tube “because I played on Little House longer than I went to school.” And how does comedy compare? Well, “I’ve tried hang gliding,” says Alison, “and after stand-up comedy, it wasn’t that frightening.”

Howie Mandel, 28, credits his interest in comedy to childhood pal Ben Noobers, his equivalent of Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert. “He was in my sixth-grade class and, boy, did he make me laugh,” Mandel marvels. “I wanted to be the next Ben Noobers.” In 1979 while visiting California, Mandel went to the Comedy Store and decided to try his luck. After subsequent appearances on TV’s Make Me Laugh, he abandoned his Toronto carpet distributorship and moved to L.A. Best known these days as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on St. Elsewhere, he continues his stand-up career with a largely improvisational act and a collection of props that includes a pink fabric elephant head, an inflated surgical glove and his trademark hand-shaped shoulder bag. Mandel has opened for Diana Ross and Earth, Wind and Fire but admits that he still finds performing “nerve-racking. I actually feel sick, but it’s something you have to do. It’s like people who pay a buck to go on a ride and get thrown 100 feet in the air. When they get off, they say, ‘That was great!’ Well, that’s the same thrill I get.” Still the ride isn’t right for everyone, Howie cautions. On amateur night “everybody isn’t there because they think they’re funny. They’re there because their friends think they’re funny. Then they get up onstage, and everybody is going, ‘Bring on Ben Noobers.’ ”

He has the look of someone bearing bad news, as though his face would break if he dared crack a smile. Yet Steven Wright’s deadpan delivery and mondo-weirdo humor have had audiences laughing plenty. He talks about the time he went camping and mistakenly borrowed a circus tent. People nearby complained; they couldn’t see the lake. Or he offers philosophy. “It’s a small world,” says Wright, 28, “but I wouldn’t want to paint it.” After graduating from Emerson College in Boston in 1978, Wright kicked around local clubs until 1982, when a member of the Tonight show caught his act. On his first Tonight show gig he “jammed three years of my best stuff into five minutes, three years of emergency jokes back-to-back.” It worked, and Johnny unexpectedly summoned him to sit on the couch and to return one week later. Wright’s technique includes long, pregnant pauses, a style he developed when lack of presence caused him to forget his lines. It’s a weakness he’s turned to his advantage. Besides, “you can’t have everything,” he notes. “Where would you put it?”

“People hear about this black female with a wild-ass name, and they want to know what she’s all about. There really isn’t anyone else who’s doing what I do,” says Whoopi Goldberg, 34. A member of Berkeley’s experimental theater collective, the Blake Street Hawkeyes, Whoopi (who won’t disclose her real name) has crafted a stand-up act that relies less on one-liners than the sort of character creation that Lily Tomlin has mastered. Goldberg’s repertoire of 17 personae, including a blitzed-out junkie and a brainless Valley Girl, gives voice to a spiel that’s equal parts theater, satire and world assessment. “I want to make people laugh and think,” says Whoopi, who’s rumored to be a candidate for the lead in the upcoming movie The Color Purple. This summer in San Francisco, however, Whoopi temporarily swapped her alter egos for a frumpy housedress and the starring role in a stage production about the late comedienne “Moms” Mabley.

“The way people poke fun at Jack Benny,” says Steve Mittleman, “is the way people can poke fun at me—”in a gentle way.” The late genius of comic timing is Mittleman’s favorite funnyman, and Benny’s influence shows in Mittleman’s slow-paced cadences and his self-deprecating wit. Yet for the Montreal native who was raised in New York the business of comedy hasn’t always been so gentle. A college dropout, Mittleman spent nine months crashing with friends while waiting for his career to ignite. A first-place finish in Showtime’s The Big Laff Off helped, and Mittleman has since done 15 TV commercials, opened for Joel Grey and Robert Goulet and taken his act to 50 cities. Therapy helped him over the rough spots, he says, and any insecurities that remain are now mostly laughable. Like his recent visit to a New York swingers’ club. “I walk in and take off my clothes,” he says. “The hostess tells me they couldn’t let me in. She said ‘There’s a minimum.’ ”

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