SAN DIEGO — Sitting behind the counter, the off-duty security guard slowly sipped his coffee and glared menacingly around the room, posturing like Clint Eastwood about to dare some punk to go ahead and make his day.
Moments later, a wild-eyed young man in a garish flame-patterned suit burst through the door and began machine-gunning jokes at the top of his lungs. All bark and no bite, Mr. Macho promptly dropped his coffee cup and fled outside.
Such was the scene inside the Pacific Beach Denny's shortly before dawn Sunday, when an adrenalin-charged Rick Rockwell concluded his whirlwind "Comedy at the Speed of Sound" tour with an impromptu performance for about two dozen startled diners.
During the barnstorming tour, in which Rockwell's chartered jet buzzed six cities in five states, all in one night, the local comic delivered 10-minute stand-up routines in Dallas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Hollywood, and San Diego.
The final stop on the "tour," originally scheduled for the Improv Comedy Cafe, was abruptly moved next door to the restaurant when Rockwell arrived at 4 a.m., two hours behind schedule and long past the club's normal closing time.
Rockwell, a professional funnyman for the last eight of his 30 years, said the tour--financed by his jet-owning pilot buddies John and Martha King--was his second attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
For his first try, in 1982, he told jokes continuously for 30 hours and three minutes, breaking the world record, but was subsequently disqualified by Guinness because he hadn't performed before a paying audience.
"So this time, I decided to get around all the rules and regulations by creating an entirely new category: the most performances, in the most states, in one night," Rockwell said.
"I contacted Guinness before the tour and they told me to send in all the documentation as soon as I was done, and they would let me know in a couple of weeks.
"If they certify me, fine; if they don't, then it's back to the drawing board. One way or another, I'm going to get into that book--although if I keep doing these stunts and they keep saying no, eventually I'll have enough to start my own book."
Rockwell might just as easily write a book about the tour itself, which was beset by countless delays and other mishaps. Such a book would read like an old Marx Brothers movie script.
First, at the Dallas Improv, Rockwell's suit jacket caught fire when he absent-mindedly draped it over a candle on a cocktail table, delaying the start of the show. Then, at Laffs Comedy Nightclub in Albuquerque, he played cat and mouse with his limousine and was delayed further.
Arriving an hour behind schedule at the Last Laugh in Phoenix, Rockwell bolted through the door, only to find the club empty--the first show was over and he had to wait 20 minutes until the start of the second.
At the Las Vegas Improv, in the Riviera Hotel and Casino, there was another comedian on stage. Rockwell was hastily ushered next door, where he interrupted a performance by a female impersonator with Dolly Parton hair and silver angel wings who blew him kisses from the sidelines.
People were streaming out the door when Rockwell arrived at the Hollywood Improv at 2:02 a.m., two hours behind schedule.
But against the club manager's wishes--and the city's cabaret ordinance, which mandates a 2 a.m. closing time--most of them followed Rockwell as he weaved his way to the stage, a comic Pied Piper leading a pack of laugh-hungry mice.
Along the way, Rockwell adapted his jokes to the geography.
In Dallas, where the economy is in shambles due to the oil glut: "What do you say to a Texas oilman when you see him in a restaurant? Oh, waiter . . . "
In Las Vegas: "The next time I play here I'm going to change my name to Free Buffet. I think a lot more people would show up if they saw that up on the marquee."
Rockwell, best-known to San Diegans for his portrayal of Skippy, the dim-witted beach bum on KFMB-TV's (Channel 8) "San Diego At Large," admitted that getting in the Guinness Book of World Records wasn't his only motivation for the tour.
"I also did this for the frequent-flyer bonus miles," he said. "The way I've calculated it, I've got just enough miles to qualify for the Kuwaiti Oil Tanker Getaway Weekend: three fun-filled days and two nights in the Gulf of Oh-man, with shuffleboard and mine-sweeping, and an Iranian cabin boy.
"What more could anyone ask for?"