It's Saturday night and Bruce Baum's Jell-O telephone is melting. Just before show time, this is real trouble.
The prop is for a sketch being taped live at The Laugh Factory, a comedy club in Hollywood.
At last Wayne Cotter, the show's new host, introduces Alexander Graham Bruce. Clad in a marigold sweat shirt, rumpled blue jeans and white lab coat, Baum wheels a table onstage as the receiver slides off the wobbly phone for the last time.
In tonight's spoof of Sports Illustrated magazine's sneaker-phone promotion, Baum demonstrates the Jell-O phone that comes with a subscription to Gourmet magazine. Next, he opens a pink cordless brain phone offered by Psychological Perspectives. "This is your brain," he explains, while pulling out the telescoped antenna. He dials. Getting no response, he adds, "This is your brain on hold."
Baum's wacky sight gags and invented characters--including "Dr. Environment," "Nostrildamus," who can predict the future by smelling it, and "Baby Man," Baum in nothing but a giant diaper and a Bambi-caught-in-the-headlights expression--are getting him a lot of work these days.
But Baum is not just another silly face. Besides numerous television and night club appearances and a comedy album to his credit, Baum will be appearing in Bob Goldthwait's upcoming film, "Shakes the Clown." And since April, his video shorts--such as the "breathtaking tribute to Noses of the Old West"--can be seen on "Comic Strip Live," Fox Television's comedy show on Saturday nights at 11 p.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m.
On stage Baum changes personalities more times than Sybil, egging on his audience with his high-energy shtick and rapid-fire delivery:
"What's all this big business about the new crotchless panty hose? The rest of the world calls 'em socks. . . . Did you know white people invented rap music? They call it square dancing. . . . The first thing the cop said when he pulled me over was, 'Hey, explain all those beer cans on the floor.' 'Beer cans? Those are floor chimes.' "
The audience groans, but they love it.
"For any response like that," admonishes Baum, "we're going into poetry." He dons hipster glasses, snaps his fingers beatnik-style and recites a haiku. "Frozen pond. Stupid frog. Splat."
The audience loves it. How did it come to this? Better you should hear it from his own lips:
You claim that sports got you into comedy. Explain.
At the time I had no intention of being a comedian. I planned to go to law school. After playing football for two years at UCLA, I transferred to UC Davis in order to play more. But the first day I got there, I started doing comedy and folk music in these little coffeehouses. I never did go out for the team.
When did you know that you could make a living as a comedian?
In 1978. When you can quit that day job--you feel like Comedy Mensch . My boss said, "Bruce, you're gonna have to make up your mind--life insurance, which pays very well--or comedy." I took off my tie, set it on the desk, and said, "Thanks for the memories."
Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere--reading, zoos, museums. The more you take in, especially from outside the comedy community, the more you have to digest--and ferment--into something distorted that can become comedy.
Do you get input from your wife, Lynn?
I couldn't do it without her. If I try a new line on her and she says, "Aw, jeez, you can't do that," I know it's good enough to put in the act.
What do you do for fun?
I'm not a big party guy. And I don't like hanging out in Hollywood. That's why I live in Thousand Oaks and have a lot of friends outside the industry who keep your head on straight. I'm pretty active in Conejo Youth Sports. Our daughter plays on a basketball team sponsored by "Comic Strip Live," and Lynn is the assistant coach.
What's happening with Baby Man?
He was created to spoof the resurgence of super-heroes. Then I laid it off for a while. But we've finished a feature film, "The Adventures of Baby Man." So he will reappear in the public consciousness once again this spring. Most of it was shot in Thousand Oaks.
Are you the star?
Lots of people are in it, including Garry Shandling, Bob Saget and Dave Coulier. I hate to use the word star , but (he adds impishly), you can.
The movie is your "baby," but what about the companion comic book?
Since I don't draw very well, I directed the artwork. Otherwise it would have been a stick figure comic book.
Ken Ceizler, one of your producers at Fox, said people respond to you because you're "huggable and lovable." Did you know they call you the Human Cartoon?
My appearance may be a logo of the '60s, but it's the way I look. I'm not comfortable covering my bald spot or wearing a tuxedo. It's one of the reasons I became a comedian--I wanted a job where I didn't have to change clothes to go to work.
UP CLOSE BRUCE BAUM
Job: Comedian and filmmaker. Baum appears in weekly sketches and creates film and video segments for Fox Television Network's "Comic Strip Live."
Education: Graduated from Van Nuys High School. B.A. in political science from UC Davis, M.F.A. from UCLA's film school.
Family: Baum and his wife, Lynn, moved to Thousand Oaks eight years ago with their daughter, Jenna, 11, and son, Dylan, 8.
Perspective: "I believe that it was Socrates or Machiavelli who said, "Comedy is like a frog. It's beautiful until you start to dissect it."