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New Channel Has the Comedy World Smiling--Guardedly : Comedy: Some comics and their agents are optimistic about HBO channel and MTV's Ha! TV service. But others take a wait-and-see attitude.

November 15, 1989|IRV LETOFSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comic Mike Sullivan-Irwin was playing the Innovations Lounge of the Holiday Inn, Midland. Then the Alibi Club, Big Rapids. A Lions Club party, Oxford.

Touring Michigan. Life in the slow lane.

About the only places he can't play are Motel 6s, because they don't have lounges. "They do," he corrected, "for 75 cents extra."

He does the traditional stand-up--marriage, politics, social stuff, then a big finish with the fighting football coach with his Fighting Chameleons--"You gotta be proud to wear the pink and green."

Sullivan-Irwin, 29, was wending his way back to Brooklyn with his very pregnant wife (their first child) and his ascending hopes. He has auditions pending at both evolving all-comedy cable-TV channels--HBO's Comedy Channel, which debuts today, and MTV's Ha! TV service, set for launch next year.

He is among the most hopeful that these channels will serve as new venues of exposure. Others in the comedy biz are taking a wait-and-laugh attitude.

Sullivan-Irwin, among an estimated 2,000 comics circulating 350 clubs in the land, is president of the 800-member Professional Comedians Assn., the New York-based trade group that has health insurance, credit cards and car rental plans for this uncertain trade.

He thinks the channels will use a lot of retreaded stuff in the initial phase--"a lot of movie clips and TV shows, old stand-ups. . . ."

"But eventually, there's only so much of that you can see, 'cause comedy, once you see the joke once, you don't want to see it twice or three times in the same day," he said. "You can watch a Madonna video three times in the same day and not feel too bad about life . . . but you don't want to see a Steven Wright video three times in the same day.

"So there'll have to be new production--a lot of work for comedians."

The Rollins-Morra-Brezner agency, which represents hearty laughers like Woody Allen, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal among 14 clients, has been "approached" by the Comedy Channel, with no deals yet.

But Larry Brezner sees major potential: "I don't have any doubt we'll be doing business with them," he said. "If the Comedy Channel was a stock, I'd buy some."

He declared special confidence in Stu Smiley, who's in charge of original programming for the Comedy Channel--and a former colleague who managed David Letterman for the agency.

Brezner stipulates that the channels must get into new forms: "If Stu is to be taken at his word, I think what he's doing is trying to explore some areas other than stand-up. Everybody is pretty nauseous of stand-up by this time.

"Now this is crazy and it's a theory of my own, but I think that one of the great problems that is preventing wonderful new talents from coming along is that there are all these comics simply developing their acts so they can play nightclubs, where they know they can make a living.

"We've been around the country looking for talent--and I don't know if you've ever had the genuine pain of sitting through 300 stand-up comics--but you begin to realize that they're all aiming their acts at doing something for a small audience in a small club that has nothing to do with a special point of view, but has to do with making these 400 people in Kansas laugh."

Helen Kushnick, who manages Jay Leno, knows the channels don't offer her client anything of value at the moment--and she isn't sure what such exposure will mean to new talent.

"At the beginning, with a comedian, it's sort of a Catch-22," she said, "because this material is hard to write and if people keep hearing this material over and over again, it's like any other joke, it doesn't become as funny.

"I've watched the younger kids do 'The Tonight Show.' Jay says it: 'The first shot is great, the second one is good, the third one is OK and the fourth one is: What do ya do now?' "

Jeff Sullivan of Irvin Arthur and Associates--which represents Robert Townsend, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Leifer, Margaret Smith, Franklyn Ajaye and others--said the agency has been in touch with both channels: "There's a lot of things in the works, in development, would-bes, could-bes, maybes, but nothing has really happened yet."

Will these channels make an impact? "Oh, I think they will," he said. "You know, just like MTV made an impact--it completely changed the music business. I don't know if it will have that kind of impact in comedy. There aren't that many showcases for comedy now on regular TV.

"But this will just be another window for comedians to work in for exposure. I can't see anything coming out of this but good."

Bruce Smith, who runs Omnipop in Mineola, N.Y., with an L.A. office to open in January, submitted videos of comic clients. He books colleges for 30 comics and 15 bands.

He said the new channels extend the middle level of the comedy "trenches," which include current TV shows such as "Comedy Express," "Showtime Comedy Club Network" and "Comic Strip Live."

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