SAN DIEGO — "Don't quit your day job."
That's advice that Steve Martin, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Johnny Carson know too well. As struggling stand-up comics, they heard the warning when no one laughed at their jokes. As famous comedians, they passed the words on to their proteges--fledgling comics who might be good enough to do gigs on amateur night, but not funny enough to make a living at it.
Not yet, anyway.
In San Diego, a handful of young comedians are well-acquainted with the caveat. A local lab technician, a grocery clerk, a McDonald's manager and a waiter are on the brink of quitting their day jobs to try comedy full time. Like the comics in the hit movie "Punchline," the hopefuls slave all day, waiting for 15 minutes of fame at night.
On good nights, laughs roll over the stage like waves on nearby Mission Beach. Other nights, the ocean of faces before them barely ripples. In comedy, always a fickle mistress, only the consistently funny can make a living, and potential doesn't pay the bills.
Worked as a Weatherman
So they try to remember that Letterman worked as a weatherman in Indianapolis and Carson paid his dues hosting TV game shows.
Carson's studios in Burbank may as well be a million miles from the Culver City supermarket where would-be comedian Phil Barney stocks shelves.
"All day long you think, 'I'm gonna kill tonight!' Instead, you go on and bite the big bawanga," said Barney, who's been hanging around San Diego comedy clubs since he was 19. He recently moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of clubs there. He's on the verge of giving up his grocery gig to stock jokes for a living.
During a recent show at the Improvisation in Pacific Beach, Barney was heavily into the bawanga. Dressed in a black silk smoking jacket and jeans, dark hair greased back and sporting two days' worth of Don Johnson stubble, Barney looked a little worried.
As the show's emcee, he had to warm up a pretty chilly audience.
"When I was a kid, my mom sent me to school with Velveeta and ketchup sandwiches in my lunch box. Now, who am I going to trade that with?" he asked.
People in the audience barely giggled. Barney peered at them contemptuously. Suddenly, he leaped across the stage, fell on his back and thrashed his legs while telling a ludicrous joke about break dancing. Anything for a laugh, and they did laugh. Barney looked like every nerd they ever knew in high school.
Pressure When Paid
A funny nerd, though. Funny enough to play not only the Improv and the Comedy Store in La Jolla, but Encino's LA Cabaret and the Long Beach Comedy Club. The Improv gave him his first break two years ago, offering him a paid gig
when another comedian canceled. Most fledgling comics work for nothing.
"I was scared to death," Barney remembers. "When you get paid, you feel the pressure more." Even when the pay is only $50.
Some up-and-coming comics are happy to get as little as $10 a night. They dream of making it big on the Comedy Road Show, where they can earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year working night clubs across the nation.
"I keep looking at all these people making thousands and thousands of dollars doing comedy, and I figure, why would I want to be a teacher?" said Steve Florian, 23. The former education major traded his plans to teach high school for work as a waiter at Chuck's Steak House in La Jolla so he could practice comedy.
"You get a little edgy. You think, 'Why am I working here when all these other guys are getting on stage?' But you have to be patient."
To ease the creative tension, Florian transformed his workplace into a stage, practicing jokes on colleagues and customers at the restaurant.
One diner commented on Florian's blazing sunburn. The freckled redhead replied, "When I was a kid, everyone called me 'The Blister.' "
The retort gets a lot of laughs on stage.
The comedians' struggles to make money provide some of their best comic fodder.
Frank Manzano, 33, learned early that comedy doesn't pay, when he started telling jokes as a sixth-grader. "I didn't get paid for it then . . . and I still don't get paid for it," he says. "Then, the best thing about poverty is it's so inexpensive."
Wrong Kind of Blood
To subsidize his comedic habit, Manzano works full time as a lab technician at Chula Vista Community Hospital. He draws blood from patients during the graveyard shift, all the while thinking that he'd rather be drawing blood on stage.
"I like comedy. It's what I enjoy. It's what I live for--that five minutes up on stage," he said.
Manzano's act hinges on self-deprecation, usually involving his Mexican heritage. During a recent show, he told the audience that he and his father had their first man-to-man talk at the border.
"Son," said his father, pointing. "There is America. So stay low and hide in the bushes."
Manzano began performing stand-up comedy in 1981 at PM's Comedy Club in Bakersfield. He moved to San Diego a year ago and began working regularly at the Improv and the Comedy Store.