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But Seriously, Folks . . . : Big-name comics still pack 'em in, but others are seeing a lot of frowns.

August 15, 1991|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All right, there's this guy, right? He walks into this bar, and he sees this other guy standing at the bar with a duck on his shoulder. The duck orders a Scotch, and the bartender gives him the drink.

The guy thinks this is amazing, so he walks up to the other guy and says, "Wow, what a duck." And the other guy says to him, "That's no duck. That's my wife!"

No, wait a minute. That wasn't right. The duck wasn't the guy's wife. It was some endangered species. That's it. Or maybe the other guy was from Romania or something. Well, anyway, it was pretty funny. Really. You should have been there. We were all laughing really hard.

So maybe comedy isn't our strong point. Luckily there is no dearth of comics in Ventura County who can remember their punch lines. For a while, on almost any night of the week, a slew of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels were offering comedy nights.

"When I first started doing this, the only clubs around were in Los Angeles and New York," said Jimmy Brogan, a comic who has appeared on several television comedy shows and recently performed at the Ventura Concert Theatre. Now, Brogan said, there are a lot more performing options for comics.

"Maybe it's the recession, maybe it's the time we live in," he said. "But people really want to laugh."

And when they laugh, they laugh a lot--several comedy outlets have two or three comics per show, many of whom are big-name performers fresh from television appearances and Los Angeles comedy-club stages.

"Big-name is the key," said Mark, owner of Cheers in Simi Valley. Mark, who was hesitant about disclosing his full identity, said his last name was "just Mark."

"Whenever I bring in recognized comedians," Mark said, "I can put two shows together and completely sell out."

That's the good news. In the famous words of Steve Martin, comedy is not pretty. And backstage, the talk around town isn't always so funny.

Some spots that were going for the laughs earlier this year have decided to give comedy the hook. Club owners complain that audiences are fickle, alternately packing the clubs and staying away in droves. And comics, most of whom come here from L.A., have suggested that things out here are, well, a bit different. Ventura County audiences, many say, just aren't all that hip.

First, about our hipness.

At Club Soda in Ventura, where the dance floor is now filled each Thursday night with rows of small tables and chairs, a Los Angeles comedian is swishing across the stage and talking about his boyfriends.

He grabs his crotch a few times. Then he baptizes the audience by dipping his fingers in a glass of an unidentified liquid, sprinkling a few unfortunate people in the front row. Next come a few AIDS jokes.

The crowd loves it.

"You think that's funny?" the comic says to one woman who nods her head as she laughs. "Then you must be really sick."

"We've only been doing comedy for two months, but it's already been a huge success," Shay Burke, Club Soda's manager, said. "We're pushing really hard for top-quality comedians. That's what brings people in."

Burke said the club's typical comedy-night audience is "an older crowd. You know, between 30 and 35." What they don't seem to like, he said, is raunchy humor. "Most of the comedians say that Ventura is generally a more conservative crowd. They (audiences) want it cleaner."

Except that the club is also eager to book Andrew Dice Clay. "He has such a big name, it wouldn't matter," Burke said by way of explanation. "We could pack the place."

What everyone seems to agree on is that local audiences don't like political humor.

"I did some stuff that was poking fun at politics, and sometimes the crowd hissed," said Hugh Fink, a Los Angeles comic. "It didn't go over very well."

Fink, who has appeared at several clubs in the county and is appearing this month on an HBO special with Rodney Dangerfield, said he makes it a habit not to try out new material in Ventura County, "because it's not typical of the audiences I generally play to. It's more remote, so I don't get an accurate reading for what I want to do nationally."

He does make an exception of Simi Valley. "I was driving this long dark road to nowhere, and I thought it was going to be awful. But they ended up being very enthusiastic," he said. "They were amazingly hip there."

Compliment or not, it's that kind of statement that just gets the dander of a lot of locals up.

"A lot of people look down on Ventura County, but we're just as smart as everyone else," said Ed Wasco, assistant general manager of Mullarkey's in the Radisson Suite Hotel in Oxnard.

"We laugh at everything other people do. It's a bad rap."

Mark was feeling a bit depressed. He has watched business at his club Cheers--where pool tables remain in use while comics are on stage--dwindle of late.

Three years ago, he said, audiences were so hungry for belly-laughs that they were packed in four nights a week. Last month, Wednesdays were dropped. Now Cheers is down to Saturday nights only.

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