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Opening Acts for Jay Leno : UC Irvine Comics Ready to Stand Up, Be Counted

February 02, 1988|DUNCAN STRAUSS

When UC Irvine programs director Lance MacLean booked comedian Jay Leno to perform at the campus's Bren Events Center tonight, he wasn't sure whom to line up to open the show.

When Jim Birge, founder-adviser of the UCI Comedy Club, heard about the Leno booking, he was sure whom he wanted to see in that opening slot: some members of the club, a group of students and recent grads who meet regularly to write and perform stand-up comedy.

The twain met: Club members Tom Martin, Steven Franks and Phil Fleischmann will be opening for Leno tonight. But it took some persuading, not to mention some auditioning.

"When Lance got Leno," Birge recalled, "I went to him and said, 'Are you going to let our kids open?' And he said, 'Well, we'll probably get a professional or something.' And I said, 'Lance, this can make us unique. This is what the whole point of the club is--to give them one heck of a terrific opportunity."

MacLean remembers it a little differently. "By virtue of the fact that I'm kind of an adviser to the Comedy Club, I thought it would be a natural thing, an exciting thing, to put some students on the bill," he said. "But I had to get approval through Leno's management, which I did."

In any case--and though he hedged his bet by hiring professional comedian Tom McGillen to perform between the UCI comics and Leno--MacLean is now clearly excited that the inclusion of students on tonight's bill "kind of customizes the show."

When several club members expressed interest in the gig, Birge and the club decided to look for an outside, objective observer to help choose three. They recruited Shane Black, a screenwriter ("Lethal Weapon") who'd been a student comic in the UCLA Comedy Club, which Birge formed in 1979 and guided before coming to UCI and starting its club two years ago. (Birge, who works as a community college outreach officer for UCI, receives no pay for his Comedy Club efforts.)

Thursday, in a small, packed room, while Black and MacLean took notes, 13 men and two women performed four-minute sets that represented quite a range of stand-up styles and material. Some of the auditioners clearly were inexperienced; some others looked to be having an off night. But a good number demonstrated firm, smooth delivery of well-written material--which made MacLean and Black's job more difficult as they repaired to MacLean's office. It didn't take them long to narrow the field from 15 to seven. But moving from that seven to the final three was a much slower, more trying task.

Tom Martin, who'll be the first of three to take the stage tonight, looks like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and that same sort of fresh-scrubbed, boy-next-door attitude was evident in the 23-year-old's approach to his audition. "I wanted it to be really clean," he said, "because I figured they were looking for clean stuff for the typical Irvine audience."

Clean is right. In a bit about the new low in housekeeping he and his roommates have reached, he said they'd received a letter from the Irvine Co. asking "us to wipe our feet before we go outside ."

Martin, who has performed about 20 times (his first paid set was Sunday at the Ice House in Pasadena), said he's not rattled by the thought of stepping before 5,000 people. He entertained between acts at a song festival last year that drew an audience of 2,000. "That was kind of a rush," he said. "I really enjoyed it."

But "the size of the crowd has little to do with it for me," he added. "It's more the type of crowd. I think I'd be more comfortable in front of 5,000 Irvine people than 50 people from some other place."

Martin, who majored in economics and political science, graduated last June competed on the school's cross-country and track teams. He acknowledges professional aspirations as a comedian. Right now, though, he's working as a substitute teacher while he pursues his primary goal: qualifying for the Olympic trials in steeplechase. "The reason I don't have a real job, you might say, is because I'm a runner--not because I'm a comedian," he said with a laugh.

Pulling all-nighters is a time-honored tradition for college students, but when Steven Franks stayed up all night Wednesday, it had nothing to do with academic pursuits: He was writing the stand-up act with which he auditioned Thursday.

"As of Tuesday, I had no idea that (the auditions) were even going on, and I hadn't done comedy in two years," said Franks, who'll follow Martin tonight.

Franks--who'd been voted "most likely to become a stand-up comedian" in high school--heard about the auditions when he went to a Comedy Club workshop Tuesday as part of a video production class. He asked if he could try out, and Birge told him he could if he participated in the workshop. (There have been some grumblings from other members about Franks receiving a spot. But Birge said Franks fulfilled the club's membership requirement--participation in at least one workshop--and therefore "technically" was entitled to try out.)

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