The woman at the table is apprehensive. Understandably. This man is large. More than 200 pounds. He is wearing a black leather trench coat and leaning over her table, his eyeballs rolling back, searching disinterestedly for the top of his head. The room has fallen quiet. Then Christopher Collins lets the squirming woman have it.
"You have to laugh whether I'm funny or not," drones Collins, grinning wickedly, eyeballs continuing to wander. "You know why? Because I'm not a comedian. I'm a psychotic who's learned to market his problem."
The crowd erupts in laughter.
Collins is a comedian, but he's shrewd enough to know that a wealth of psychoses is a terrible thing to waste. Standing on the stage at Club Soda in Ventura, Collins peers briefly into the smoke and half-light, then spins off on a frenetic aimless tangent. For the next 20 minutes he will lambaste politicians, accountants and himself. He will discuss topics of relevance, from Japanese trade practices to hemorrhoids. He will reduce the crowd to rubble. He will pocket what most people make in a week, take his trench coat and go home to his wife, two young children and a suburban tract home in east Ventura.
Collins has been doing stand-up comedy for almost 20 years now, but familiarity hasn't blinded him to the facts.
"A weird gig," said Collins of his profession. "Weird stuff."
Wonder what it's like to make a living getting people to laugh? Well, first you have to cut your teeth and take your lumps in dozens of obscure clubs where the other acts are men blowing up balloons with their noses and tone-deaf ladies singing "Feelings" and the spotty crowd looks like they wandered in off a Salvation Army rack.
Stability? Collins, who began doing stand-up in small clubs in Boston, has blown through more one-horse burgs than Paul Revere, although he once played the same Boston club for almost eight months to pay off a poker debt to the owner.
Feedback? Try nights when nobody laughs, the crowd sitting there impassive as Naugahyde while the minutes drip past.
Once you're established, and Collins is established--in 1990 he won the prestigious San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition and has appeared at most of the major comedy clubs in the country--the troubles don't end. Collins was once called into his son Ben's school by an overwrought guidance counselor.
"The guy was real concerned," Collins said. "He says, 'You know, Ben has a great many fantasies. He keeps telling me you're this guy in a cartoon, that you're the Cobra Commander on "G.I. Joe." Well? Doesn't that concern you?' I looked at him and said, 'But I am.' He looked at me like, 'Oh God, this guy's crazy too. He's telling his child he's a cartoon.' "
Collins is a cartoon. For 10 years he's been the voice of the evil Cobra Commander on the animated TV show "G.I. Joe." Adept at impersonations, he has also been the voice behind cartoon folks on "The Simpsons," "Spiderman" and "Johnny Quest."
He can do a Ronald Reagan more frighteningly real than the national debt. He's appeared in half a dozen movies and twice as many TV shows; his guest spot as an evil Klingon commander on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" still gives his 6-year-old daughter, Abigail, the hives. At one time or another Collins has been a dancer, stage actor and singer. However, few forums, said Collins, present the challenge of stand-up comedy.
"I do stand-up because it's the hardest thing I could find," Collins said. "Short of ballet or opera, I'd say it requires more work than anything--if you're going to do it right."
It is ironic then that hundreds of dilettantes--"managers at wholesale rubber duck factories," Collins calls them--take the stage, certain they can elicit yuks. The results are usually ugly. Your wit may bowl your friends over, said Collins, but standing in front of a room of quiet strangers is a different matter. Even for a professional with a host of credits, those first seconds are queasy.
"If you're an engineer and you've been a good engineer for a while, people don't say, 'Well, prove to us you're an engineer,' " Collins said. "Comedy means starting from zero every time. The audience sits sedately and hopes to be amazed. There they are. Show me. Every time I go up on stage I find out if I'm funny again."
If the pressure doesn't kill you, the pace will. Collins was away from home the entire month of January--shows in Seattle, Cleveland and New York. This evening's show at Club Soda follows on the heels of a weeklong stand in Walnut Creek and a midweek gig in Fresno.
For the Fresno show, Collins hopped in his car at 3:30 p.m. and arrived back home in Ventura at 1:30 a.m. That performance, for a group of Shriners about 20 years into Social Security, required some tap-dancing on Collins' part. Collins, who is 41, came of age in the '60s. His views reflect that.
"I'm a little bit to the left of the Shriners," he said, grinning. "I think the Shriners would consider me a little bit like Mao Tse-tung."