SAN DIEGO — Jay Riseman insists the only reason he got into stand-up comedy three years ago was because he couldn't keep a day job.
Since his late teens, Riseman, now 31, has been a gravedigger, a process server, a security guard, a collection agent and a private investigator. He's fried hamburgers at McDonald's, worked the assembly line at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, dealt with complaints against United Parcel Service drivers and manned the cash register at a drugstore.
He's had 19 different jobs and he's been fired from every one.
"It took me awhile to realize I just don't fit in with the structured type of job environment," Riseman said. "But the 10 years I spent doing all those things, if nothing else, have left me with a wealth of material to build my comedy act around."
Indeed, in the year since Riseman's move to San Diego from his native Philadelphia, he's earned a reputation as a true "workingman's comic" who takes a decidedly sardonic view of growing up, working and living in the big city.
After all, that's what he did. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, and unlike many local comics, Riseman said, he was "most definitely not the class clown."
He was, however, a sharp-tongued, sarcastic observer of classroom life--a fact, Riseman said, "that resulted mostly in me getting beat up all the time."
In college, he studied communications and television, and had to write, produce and star in his own television production.
"That's when I first began considering a career in stand-up comedy," Riseman said. "I guess I must have done well, because for the rest of the year, all my fellow classmates kept trying to convince me to star in their productions as well.
"After graduation, however, I kept putting it (a career in comedy) off. But then, after a string of go-nowhere jobs, I finally decided I may as well give it a shot.
"I went to an open mike night in a Philly nightclub, and I absolutely bombed. But after that I began to really polish my act, and before long I was not only getting a great crowd response every time I appeared, but I also started getting professional work."
After his move to San Diego a year ago, Riseman said, he had to rebuild his career from the ground up. It was slow at first, he recalled: "I was a new face out here; no one knew who I was, and nobody really cared how popular I had been on the East Coast."
But his perseverance paid off.
The flip, quick-witted, man-in-the-street persona he assumes onstage has made him one of only about a half-dozen local comics who are not only playing regularly at the Improv in Pacific Beach and the Comedy Store in La Jolla, but also touring similar clubs all over the country.
On a recent night at the Improv, the impish-looking Riseman opened his show by telling the audience that his decision to pursue a career in stand-up comedy came after two years of law school at Harvard University.
"I dropped out of Harvard to become a comedian," Riseman deadpanned. "Yeah, my mom's real proud of me. But you know, the worst thing about that is that I have an older sister who is very bright, very attractive, and very successful in everything she does, and my mother always likes to compare me with her.
"Just the other day, she was telling me how perfect my sister is. 'Your sister got a perfect 1600 on her SAT score, she kept a perfect 4.0 average all through college, and she just received a full scholarship to Cornell Graduate School,' mom was saying. 'What have you ever done in your life?' So I said, 'Well, in 1981, I drank three gallons of beer in 12 seconds.'
"And I thought that was pretty impressive--until my mom told me my sister did it in less than 10 seconds. You just can't win sometimes."
Later, Riseman shared his typically opinionated views on issues like television commercials: "You ever see the one for Preparation H, in which this well-dressed middle-class man walks onto the screen and, in a real friendly voice, says, 'Hi, my name is Bill Thompson, and I am a hemorrhoid sufferer?' Already, this man is telling me a tad more than I care to know about him . . . "
Riseman's quick wit has also helped him deal rather efficiently with hecklers. But, he said, "I don't really have any set lines. I prefer to just go with the flow, and at the proper time say whatever seems appropriate.
"The one thing I don't like to do is get nasty, even though I have been guilty of that in the past. It's much more effective--and much more funny--to either come up with some witty one-liner, or else get the guy into a conversation and build that into a bit."