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COMEDY : Is This America's Next Great Comedian? : What's it take for a stand-up comedian to be 'discovered'? Rick Reynolds should know--this is his second time around

October 14, 1990|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

"I think it's a mistake for comedians to think they need four laughs every 30 seconds. That's one of the reasons I admire Mort Sahl; he can wait, and build. MTV isn't a causal force in modern comedy, but it's a symptom of our need for instant gratification."

Reynolds was born in Wood Village, Ore., 30 miles outside of Portland. He was 6 months old when his father drowned. "He was a big guy, good-looking, with thick black hair. A guy's guy. He had a tattoo on his upper arm, an anchor. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about these things, like when Len beats up my mother. It wasn't until I got older that I saw these things were unusual. It bothers me to use them except that they show the evolution of a human being."

Reynolds describes himself as "a dibbler, a dilettante," in high school. By the time he left Portland State and for some time after, he'd tried his hand as a rock singer, a disc jockey, and a newspaper columnist, among other things. He'd studied acting and written a play called "The Buffoon." He was also interested in stand-up, and won a local saloon contest, which afforded him a trip to San Francisco in 1981. He eventually became, as he describes it, "an OK middle act," but apparently he was good enough to catch the eye of Jeff Sagansky (formerly a senior vice president with NBC, now head of programming at CBS), who called Joel Thurm--then NBC casting head. At a Los Angeles showcase he met NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, who expressed interest in him. Reynolds hired a manager, and then settled in to a career of trying out for pilots. "I can say without exaggeration that every single pilot I read for was either bad or never produced."

He decided to fire his management team, quit the television rat race and go back to stand-up. He did reasonably well. "I traveled a lot, became popular, but never really broke big. I was incredibly lackadaisical. I didn't get an agent--maybe out of fear they wouldn't want me anymore." But the nature of stand-up began to change by the late '80s as it became less a form of personal address and more of a standardized format characterized by incestuous commercial bloat and the near annihilation of a personal point of view.

"Backstage I'd meet these guys who were well-read, really hip, and they'd go out and do fart jokes. 'Why?' I'd ask. 'Because that's what people want,' they'd say."

Reynolds didn't want to believe it, and life in Los Angeles was beginning to wear on him. "I liked L.A. at first, the art deco, the cheap food. But there, when you meet a friend and say 'How ya doin'?' you get the line about where they're working or the parts they're up for. It's as though you have to prove yourself through your career. It's a false way to run your life."

By this time he had met and married his wife, who had graduated from San Francisco State. They decided to buy a house in Petaluma, some 45 minutes outside the city, where Reynolds withdrew for a couple of months to retool his career. "I feel pretentious calling what I do an art form. I know we're descended from hacks and strip-show emcees and that people aren't going into comedy now because they have something to say.

"It got to the point where comedy was a job. Not very satisfying. I wanted to be more serious onstage. I loved being on the edge, talking myself into a corner and then trying to find a way out--and sometimes failing. The idea for this work started evolving; working on it was like being cloistered in a cabin. There's no greater joy than in putting an idea together. I had some epiphanies. To put it in a flowery way, the show was born in itself. I no longer felt handcuffed, or that I was pandering."

If a great deal of the act is about wanting fame, Reynolds is growing leery about the impending prospect of having the thing he's coveted. "After Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead' became a best-seller, he said it took him out of the real world forever. What I really want is to be liked. Maybe that's because my mother didn't love me." (In his act, he describes her as a manic depressive and himself as a battered child who's nonetheless sympathetic towards her--he'd drive her home from electroshock therapy, and she wouldn't recognize him.) "Now I'm beginning to wonder that if I do get famous people will applaud me just because I'm this famous guy."

He gazed up in an abstract middle distance, as if contemplating the Meaning Of It All. He looked a very young 38-year-old.

It was Bob Fisher who first turned Rollins & Joffe on to Reynolds. Fisher went to work for rock entrepreneur Bill Graham after graduating from UC Berkeley and now owns his own San Francisco management firm as well as the legendary club the Holy City Zoo. He's a tall, beefy man with an open, genial face and a perpetual air of bemusement.

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