When Tom McGillen began doing stand-up comedy in the early '80s, a big part of his act was his spoof of the movie "Godzilla." He had been doing the takeoff at parties since he was 13 and it always killed.
The Detroit-born comic is still doing a much-refined version of his "Godzilla" sendup. But he learned a valuable show business lesson early on.
"I used to do that bit in the first five minutes of my act and I couldn't follow myself, " he recalled in a phone interview from Atlanta.
McGillen now uses the three-character tour de force to close his act--a highly theatrical performance that the rubbery-faced comic peoples with an eclectic assortment of characters and voices, from Don Knotts and the Beaver to blacks and the Irish.
McGillen, the fifth of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family, always had a knack for making people laugh. As he says, "I'm a white guy from Detroit--what else are you gonna do?"
But McGillen, who is at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach through Sunday, said he never knew which career path to follow. Whenever he'd think of becoming a comedian, he'd hear the voices of his parents in the back of his mind saying, "You've been brought up a good Irish-Catholic boy--you should get a good job and live in a nice house."
The onetime Chrysler assembly-line worker and former water-bed salesman is now a comedy club headliner with a string of television credits, but the sound of his parents' voices still occasionally rings in his ears.
"My biggest fear of show business is not, 'Will I make it, will I achieve fame?' It's, 'Will I come out of this fiasco with money?' " he said.
"Fame is great, but fame is fleeting. You've got to be realistic about it. The bottom line is you've got to be comfortable.
"Comedians starting out don't realize that you also have to a businessman. They think, 'I can just get up and make people laugh and everything will fall into place.' "
Even if you're a big success on the comedy club circuit, McGillen said, "once you've topped out in the clubs, that's it. Where do you go from there?"
He is, he admits, "road weary. For most of us, it's a real grind."
Looking ahead to his own future, McGillen has started taking acting lessons, and he auditions frequently for movie and TV roles.
"I see me as a comedy actor," he said. His former manager didn't see it that way, however: "He saw me as a game show host."
McGillen said he fired his manager--who also handles mimes, magicians and mentalists--last spring.
"He is the original Broadway Danny Rose," said McGillen, recalling that during their final argument, his manager complained: "I don't know why I have so many problems with you. I don't have these problems with my knife thrower."
"I've told every comedian that story and they're all on the floor," McGillen continued with a laugh. "That was just golden. I just cracked up in his face."