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No joke: Recession brings out the clowns

Meltdown Let's laugh
People wait in line outside the Laugh Factory for Open Mic Night in Los Angeles. There's just something about a recession that makes people want to do funny things. Matt Sayles / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

There's just something about a recession that makes people want to do funny things.

Like wannabe comics who are out of a job and hoping amateur hour at comedy clubs could be the ticket to a paycheck — and maybe stardom. Because, really, how hard could that be?

At New York City's Gotham Comedy Club, co-owner Chris Mazzilli says he saw more than 1,000 such hopefuls recently as they tried to win a spot on a program being broadcast on Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham."

"We've had financial people, attorneys, garbage men, right down the line," he said.

At the Laugh Factory on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, people line up around the block for open-mic night. Some even show up the night before to ensure they will land one of the 30 coveted slots that will pay them absolutely nothing. But if they do well they might win a paying gig later.

Near the front of the line on a recent Tuesday is Jefandi Cato, who was so broke after she lost her job as a cocktail waitress that she says she was forced to move into her car earlier this year.

Still, Cato, 27, counts her misfortune as a blessing, saying it gave her the courage to finally do what she always wanted.

On stage, she tells the audience things aren't as bad as they could be; she's still managing to get her hair done.

"But what's sad about that is that I have a white girl braiding my hair," says Cato, who is black. "That's how you KNOW the economy is going down the drain."

The line gets a good laugh, but when a follow-up joke about "bartering weed for weave" falls flat, a surprised Cato tells the audience, "It was funny last night at the Comedy Store."

She has just discovered what veteran comic Paul Rodriguez says every comedian quickly learns: You can never count on any joke being funny two nights in a row and no matter how good you are, you never really know when the audience might turn on you.

"It baffles me every day," says Rodriguez who has made a handsome living for 30 years telling jokes. "One day you can be as good as anyone who ever did comedy, and the next day the same stuff doesn't work. It's more frustrating than golf."

Which is one reason Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada says he's blunt with people trying to switch careers in this recession, especially the older aspiring comics in their 40s and 50s that he says he sees more and more often these days.

He tells them he's seen just about every successful comedian of the last 30 years come through the door, and it took even people like Jim Carrey and Dane Cook years to make it big. The harsh reality is that television shows don't book old people and even the funniest arthritis and hemorrhoid jokes don't play with a young crowd.

He repeats what Richard Pryor told him: no matter how funny you are, it takes 10 years on stage to develop the timing to become great.

"Some of them tell me, 'I would be 70 by then, I would be 60,'" Masada says. "I tell them, 'I don't want to crush your dream, buddy, but that's what it takes.'"

Still, a recession always seems to draw people toward careers in comedy, says Stephen Rosenfield, who has operated one of the country's pre-eminent joke-telling schools, the American Comedy Institute, since 1989. His three-week workshops, which start at $425 a pop, sold out this summer, and he's taking reservations for September.

"It's not so strange in a way," Rosenfield says, adding a recession provides "good cover" for someone interested in making the kind of career change that might be considered idiotic at other times.

"If you're bringing home a nice paycheck, and you've got a nice executive position and you announce to your wife or your parents that you're giving it up to become a standup comic, they'll think you're insane," he says. "But if you're in a recession and you're unemployed and jobs are hard to find, they'll say, 'Oh, that's interesting.'"

That's the case for Bo "Bald Eagle" Clark, a friendly bear of a man who had 20-plus years in the construction industry until it tanked and he went six months without even the hint of a job. Since then Clark, who says with a devilish wink that he's "about 40," has been a regular at every amateur night around town, trying to carve out a niche as a hick humorist.

"I'm half-Cherokee and half-Southern but I'm all-American and I don't like any of those blankety-blank foreigners. I want to introduce them to my God and two of his disciples — SMITH AND WESSON!" he bellows from the stage in a voice that resurrects the image of the late scream comic Sam Kinison. And, like Kinison, he doesn't use the words blankety-blank.

But is he making any money at this new career?

"Ah, no. Not yet," Clark, who is soft-spoken offstage, says, sounding a bit embarrassed. "But I hope to."

Realistically, Rosenfield says, it takes even the most talented person three to four years to get good enough to start earning money telling jokes. Even then it might not be more than $500 or $600 a week until a comic moves up to touring and playing corporate gigs, where the real cash is.

Many will give up before that, Rosenfield acknowledges. Presumably the recession will also end eventually and some will get back to doing what they did before.

But others, he predicts, will stick it out and even become famous. After all, he notes, Rodney Dangerfield was a 40-something aluminum-siding salesman before he got some respect onstage.

Or they could end up like the guy Masada says has been coming to open-mic nights for 28 years. He writes good jokes but has never mastered the art of telling them.

Fortunately, he still has a day job.