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1987 ARTS IN REVIEW : COMEDY : If Laughter Is the Best Medicine, a Lot of People in the County Are Healthy, Indeed

December 30, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

Orange County got a lot funnier this year--on purpose.

Of course, the most notable addition to the local laughscape was the Improvisation in Irvine, which opened in July. Generally speaking, to headline an Improv, a comedian needs to have logged some appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and/or "Late Night With David Letterman."

So the Improv imported a steady stream of first-rate, well-known comics--like Jerry Seinfeld--behind the Orange Curtain.

The Improv is Orange County's newest--but not first --full-time comedy club. That honor belongs to the Laff Stop, now in its 12th year of presenting top and soon-to-be-top stand-up performers.

In 1987, the funny folk who graced the Laff Stop stage ranged from veteran punmeister Kip Addotta to highly cerebral monologuist Fred Greenlee (who has been on "The Tonight Show" and other TV shows), to local comic Butch Fisco, a former bartender at the club who is now starting to work as a middle act.

If the Laff Stop and Improv book comedy full time and a number of nightspots inaugurated (and almost invariably suspended) weekly comedy nights, the Court of St. James opted for an approach somewhere in between.

When the Westminster restaurant and night club launched its comedy programming in the summer, it offered a Tuesday-through-Thurday schedule. It has since scaled back to Thursday through Saturday, but on a good night you can see some sharp stand-up for a smaller cover charge than you typically pay at the other two places.

While primarily a rock club, the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano continued to support comedy this year by regularly using comics as opening acts, starting a weekly--though short-lived--comedy series, and occasionally booking comedians to headline the club. (Emo Philips was the first.)

But the county's flourishing comedy scene goes beyond the club level, involving names you don't have to be an aficionado to recognize. At UC Irvine's Bren Events Center, for instance, there were appearances by both Mark Russell and Bob Hope. And Red Skelton played the Orange County Performing Arts Center (where--missing 1987 by hours--Jay Leno headlined a New Year's Eve show).

There were other developments in comedy that didn't actually happen in Orange County but still merit mention. Most notably: Former local boy Al Lubel--who developed his material and delivery while a Balboa Island resident but now lives in Hollywood--continues to make good. He recently won the "Star Search" comedy competition, boosting his career considerably--and pocketing a cool $100,000.

One guesses that one day there will be other success stories to report about folks who honed their craft locally, whether they be members of the UCI Comedy Club (in which students learn to write and perform stand-up) or members of Fractured Mirror (a fine, enormously talented comedy troupe), or someone now trying to muster up the courage to tackle an open-mike night.

Sure, there were some shaky moments (the less said about the Improv's nightmarish grand-opening party, the better); and weird moments (the Bob Nickman/Rose Marie heckling incident at the Laff Stop, though Nickman did an impressive job of keeping his act together).

But for a place whose comedy scene might initially spark laughs for the wrong reasons, Orange County has clearly done pretty well for itself this year.

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