SAN DIEGO — Leo Mattis believes it is never too late for a career change.
Three months shy of his 81st birthday, the retired educator and salesman showed up at the Improv nightclub in Pacific Beach one recent Monday night to celebrate his first six months as a professional stand-up comedian.
As he did when he launched his new career at the Improv in July, Mattis joined the dozen or so other aspiring comics standing in the back of the room and patiently awaited his turn behind the microphone to deliver a 10-minute monologue.
But this time when his name was called, he boldly strutted up on stage and faced the audience with the poise of a seasoned professional who had been telling his jokes, gags and one-liners to audiences all over the county.
"Well, let me put it this way: I'm very happy to be here," Mattis said to a rising tide of applause. 'Of course, at my age, I'm very happy to be anywhere."
Mattis paused long enough for the laughter to subside. "As a matter of fact, even at 80 I can do things that I could do when I was 18--which should give you a rough idea of how pathetic I was when I was 18." More laughter, but Mattis' expression remained serious as he related more stories about the hazards of old age.
Aside from his infrequent appearances at the Improv--he'll be there again March 16--Mattis regularly takes his routine before Del Mar Rotary Club luncheons, Optimist Club gatherings, senior citizens groups and private parties. He also attends the meetings of Laughmasters, a comedic offshoot of Toastmasters Clubs of San Diego, a public speaking group.
His advice to budding comics: Learn to laugh at yourself.
"If you laugh at yourself, you don't take yourself too seriously," Mattis said. "It's a way of withstanding the hardships of life--the disappointments of fighting illness, of fighting old age itself.
"You see, longevity is not only tied to a good diet, some exercise, and being careful not to fall down when you're old, but to your mental attitude.
"If you're able to see the humorous side of life, you avoid stress. And avoiding stress enables you to enjoy your golden years."
Physically, too, laughter really is the best medicine, Mattis added.
"When you laugh, you do some very healthy things for your body," he said. "Your lungs expand and your brain gets more oxygen; when you walk out of a place after hearing a good comedian, you feel better all over.
"I'm not doing this for the money. I'm doing this because laughter, as Norman Cousins once said, really is a healing factor. Humor and longevity go together, and that's why comedy is so important to me."
Even though he only recently turned professional, Mattis said, he has been interested in humor most of his life.
"When I was about 20 years old, I started collecting jokes and funny anecdotes on 3-by-5 index cards for future use," he said.
"Later, I would modify them to bring out the punch line, and then I would tell them at parties and during the adult education classes I taught for 11 years after graduating from college in 1931."
Mattis said his formula for writing jokes today is the same as it was half a century ago.
"Aristotle once wrote that humor is the pleasurable distortion of what is expected," Mattis said. "Then, when I was at Stanford, I took a course called 'Paradox of the Ludicrous,' which basically held that, out of something serious, comes something laughable and funny.
"I used both those philosophies to come up with a formula that lets me turn ordinary anecdotes into funny stories and jokes. That formula has really withstood the test of time--it works as well today as it did back in the 1930s."
Over the years, Mattis said, he has collected volumes of anecdotes, most of them based on his own experiences.
Those experiences include emigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1907, tap-dancing with Ginger Rogers in the middle 1920s, and playing golf in celebrity tournaments with the likes of Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis in the '40s and '50s.
"When I was living near Los Angeles, I belonged to the Riviera Golf Club," Mattis said. "Jerry Lewis had the locker next to mine, and one day he told me a very naughty story that all my friends considered very funny.
"The next year, I crawled under the rope as he was playing in a tournament with Dean Martin and asked him to tell me another funny story, or at least a quickie.
"He backed off about 20 or 30 feet and then, in a voice that you could hear clear down the fairway, he said, 'Will you stop hounding me? I gave you money yesterday.'
"There I stood, like an idiot. I crawled back under the rope and got the hell out of there. But today, I use that story as part of my longer routine at Rotary Club luncheons.
"Forty years later, it's still worth a laugh."