LA JOLLA — Roosevelt Henderson hopes one day to tear apart the Comedy Store crowd with his jokes. But for now he spends four or five evenings each week tearing apart tickets and directing patrons to their seats.
Steve Florian pulls no punches when he checks IDs at the door of San Diego's senior comedy nightclub. But he's constantly thinking up punch lines and ways to pull legs so that when the time comes for him to make his debut as a professional stand-up comedian, he'll be ready.
Henderson and Florian are just two of several dozen aspiring comics who over the last 10 years have attempted to break into the funny business by working as doormen at the Comedy Store in La Jolla.
They're not quite ready to go on stage, except on amateur night. And until they are, they're content to work the door, which they say provides them with the best education they can get.
"I've wanted to be a comedian and make people laugh all my life, so to me, this is the perfect job," said Henderson, 27.
"You learn a lot just by listening. And a lot of times, the headliners will come up to you after the show and share some advice, help you with your material or your delivery, and maybe even give you a joke or two."
"Night after night, you're surrounded by professionals, so you have plenty of opportunity to see what can be done and what can't be done, what goes over and what doesn't," added Florian, 22, who began working as a doorman in September, 1986.
"Plus, the comedians themselves are the perfect people to ask about what you need to get going, how to get started. And with that kind of help, you get better all the time."
Henderson and Florian's optimism is understandable. Among the nationally known comedians who paid their dues working the door at either the two Comedy Stores in Hollywood or the one in La Jolla are Sam Kinison, "Late Night With David Letterman" regular Johnny Witherspoon and "Tonight" show veterans Argus Hamilton and Ollie Joe Prater.
The most recent graduates of the La Jolla Comedy Store are former doormen Jay Riseman and (Wild) Willy Parsons. In the last year, Riseman has performed at many top comedy nightclubs in the country; a few months ago, Parsons became a regular at the Comedy Store flagship in Hollywood.
"It's a stipulation of Mitzi (Shore, who founded the Comedy Store network in 1972) that when we need doormen, we try to hire people who are interested in making their careers in comedy," said Kelly Grant, manager of the La Jolla Comedy Store.
"Not only do they have the chance to make some money, but they also have the chance to watch and learn from professional comedians every single night they're at work.
"And the knowledge they glean from that, they couldn't learn anywhere else in years."
Neither Henderson nor Florian will argue with that.
"I've only been a doorman three months, but already I've learned a lot," Henderson said. "For example, when Ollie Joe Prater was in town, he gave me some pointers on timing my delivery so that I would get the most out of every joke.
"He told me that after each punch line, I should wait until the audience had finished laughing before beginning my next joke. I took his advice, and the next time I performed on amateur night, I got a much better response."
"Argus Hamilton once told me that when you go up on stage, you need to believe three things: everything you say is funny, everything you say is law, and no matter what happens, you're having a good time," Florian added.
"If you believe that, he told me, then 9 times out of 10, so will the audience. I took his advice, and it's really helped build my confidence when I go up on stage each Sunday on amateur night."
Hamilton swears he owes much of his success to the three years he worked as a doorman at the Comedy Store in Westwood, from 1976 until he turned professional in 1979.
"Aside from listening to comedians and talking with them, one of the biggest benefits of being a doorman is meeting the very people you one day hope to entertain," Hamilton said.
"By tearing tickets, checking IDs, and showing people to their seats, you break down barriers that otherwise might stand in your way. You build a rapport, and that rapport can only help you when you finally get up there on stage."
Still, working as a Comedy Store doorman doesn't always lead to a career in comedy, Hamilton added.
"When the first San Diego Comedy Store opened in Pacific Beach in 1976, the original doorman was a guy named Bill Bender," he said.
"A year later, the club moved to La Jolla, but Bill stayed right where he was and opened his own bar. And he's still there, and doing quite well, from what I hear, today."