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Comedian Baum Props Up His Career

September 11, 1986|DUNCAN STRAUSS

Bruce (Babyman) Baum has two youngsters, but when the 34-year-old comic goes shopping for toys, he's usually buying for himself.

The veteran comedian has long incorporated toys and other props into his act, even though lots of folks, particularly within the comedy profession, look down on so-called "prop comics."

"I've got a friendly feud (about props) going with a few monologuists," acknowledged Baum, who performs Friday and Saturday at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach. "Jay Leno's one of 'em, and we have a running gag."

"He calls my comedy 'the bane of wit.' And I say, 'Yeah, but you're the kind of guy who would go to a play and say, What's this--scenery? ' "

All kidding aside, a serious difference of opinion exists within the funny business about using props; indeed, denigrating prop comics is a longstanding comedy tradition. Baum feels that this practice is understandable in some ways--and yet a bum rap.

"Through the history of comedy, it's been common to classify a prop comic as what they call a low comic, doing low humor," he explained recently over tuna sandwiches at a Woodland Hills eatery (after shopping at a nearby toy store).

"But that's not necessarily true. I think there are four, five guys who use props very well--Gallagher, Steve Martin, Rich Hall, Gary Mule Deer, Vic Dunlop.

"But I think what has happened, with the proliferation of comedy clubs across the country, is there are a lot of (comics) who've gone on stage and used props wrong, just like some monologuists can get up and use language wrong, whether it's dirty language or just improper language."

What constitutes incorrect use of a prop?

"Holding a prop up to do a cheap gag, with no thought behind it: 'Look at this--isn't this stupid?' Getting a laugh just with that. I think it's important to show there's some kind of thought behind it, or parody behind it. . . ."

Baum has generally put thought or parody--and maybe a sly sense of mischief--behind his use of props. And while he's gradually shifted his act to an almost even ratio of stand-up to props, he certainly belongs in that group with Gallagher et al.

If not before, his flair was evident back in 1978, when the mustachioed funnyman began performing solo. (For a couple of years prior, he and his cousin Ken Estin--who went on to write for such brainy sitcoms as "Taxi" and "Cheers"--had worked as a comedy team. "Then in '78," Baum said, "we split up professionally. But we're still friends--and still cousins!")

Shortly after he went solo and became a regular at the Comedy Store, his act impressed the talent scouts from "Make Me Laugh," the game show that pitted comics against contestants trying not to laugh. Baum became a frequent--and popular--guest on the show (now in reruns on cable's USA Network).

That led to a lot of television time for Baum, including more game-show spots ("Hollywood Squares," "Match Game"), appearances on various cable and pay-TV specials, and work as a writer-performer on "The Stockard Channing Show."

He also scored a pop music triumph of sorts with a parody of Kim Carnes' 1981 smash single, "Bette Davis Eyes." Baum's spoof, "Marty Feldman Eyes," a reference to the bug-eyed comic actor, created a small controversy, with Carnes--who hated it--and Baum trading barbs in national magazines.

"Well, she called my song 'sub-par trash' in People magazine," recalled Baum. "In Rolling Stone I countered, 'Her standards are a lot higher than mine--I consider it just trash.' "

"Marty Feldman Eyes" was part of a Baum album entitled "Born to Be Raised." But in recent years, the husky comic has made no records, and his television profile has been much lower.

But this hardly means diminished activity on Baum's part--just a shift to different media. While maintaining a steady schedule of performances in comedy clubs across the country, he's been creating a comic book series and a feature film based on Babyman, the man-sized infant/semi-superhero he portrays on stage after donning a diaper.

Although the first comic book and the movie are entitled "The Adventures of Babyman" and follow similar story lines, there is at least one major difference between the two projects. The booklet is finished and Baum expects it to be out by the end of the year. However, the film--which stars Baum and features Garry Shandling, George Carlin and several other comics--is a work-in-progress, of which only 30 minutes is completed.

Baum, who holds a master's degree in film from UCLA and is the movie's writer and co-director, hopes to complete the cinematic "Babyman" in time for a summer release. But he said he would have to gain studio or private backing to meet that goal.

From reading a prototype of the comic book and hearing Baum outline the film's plot, "The Adventures of Babyman" will be a quintessential--if oddball--good-versus-evil saga.

"Babyman's created during an accident in a genetics lab," Baum said. "Actually, Babyman and kind of an Anti-Babyman are formed at the same time.

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