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COMEDY : Humor Is Finney's Magic Marker

June 04, 1992|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly covers comedy for O.C. Live!

As a magician who does rope and card tricks, Michael Finney is as good as they come. But Finney, who's headlining at the Improv in Brea through Sunday, is a comedy- magician, and his humor is as offbeat as his trademark haircut (an overgrown blond flattop, long in the back).

For example: "It's a proven fact that cats make you live longer and healthier, so I'm eating three a day."

Or: "I'm starting to get recognized once in a while walking through airports and stuff. This little kid came running up to me. He goes, 'Hey, wait a minute! Stop! Aren't you a wrestler?' . . . I told him I wasn't. But I body-slammed the little guy anyway."

Finney is as down to earth as one might expect a beefy ex-bartender to be. In fact, he began doing magic tricks to entertain his customers at a bar in Phoenix in 1979. A native of Woodland, Calif., who has lived in Phoenix for 15 years, he gets mileage out of living in a place where it's known to get a tad hot in the summertime. "I can tell you," he'll say, "going to hell doesn't frighten me at all.

"It's probably a dry heat," he continues. "See, no matter where you go, people want to tell you Phoenix isn't that hot--it's a dry heat. 'It's 122 degrees, but that's a dry heat, isn't it?' 'Yeah, so is your oven, (but) I don't see you and your family picnicking in there on the Fourth of July.'

"It's so hot in Phoenix people don't even sweat. They just burst into flame."

Finney quit mixing drinks for a living in 1982 and began working full time as a stage magician. He credits much of his success--he was a semifinalist on "Star Search" in 1988 and is a frequent guest on "Comic Strip Live"--to Lori, his wife of 14 years who works as his personal manager.

"We were married before this magic thing ever happened," he said on the phone from Phoenix last week. "I learned some magic tricks behind the bar and came home with a lot of enthusiasm and she sat there and watched me practice hour after hour. She supported me and gave me a lot of confidence to practice and do shows for people."

By 1984, Finney was incorporating comedy into his magic. His act took yet another turn later that same year after he worked with Jay Leno at the Houston Laff Stop for a week. They were walking down a hallway when Leno told Finney that he was a funny guy who could drop the magic tricks and just do straight stand-up.

Finney noted that he had never written a joke in his life.

"It's simple," Leno replied. "Here's a joke for you: 'As a kid growing up, my favorite trick was being able to make my peas disappear and reappear on my little brother's plate.'

"He just said that right off the top of his head," recalls the still-awed Finney, who immediately worked the joke into his act. "I came up with the next joke: 'I didn't like spinach much. My father would say, "Don't you want to grow up to be just like Popeye?" Well, even at 9 years old I knew Olive Oyl was a pretty ugly woman.' "

Finney now opens his act with about 25 minutes of straight stand-up and will ad lib during the magic tricks that follow. Traveling is a favorite topic:

"I think the seats on planes are too small, and I figured out a way to stop people from sitting next to me. All you have to do is reach forward in that front sleeve area and pull out that puke bag. Just pop it open and set in on your lap. I travel with a puke bag everywhere I go."

Who: Michael Finney.

When: Thursday, June 4 and Sunday, June 7 at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, June 5 at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 6 at 8 and 10:30 p.m. With Milt Abel and John Wally.

Where: The Improv, 945 E. Birch St., Brea.

Whereabouts: Take the Lambert Road exit off the Orange (57) Freeway and go west. Turn left onto State College Boulevard and right onto Birch Street. The Improv is in the Brea Marketplace, across from the Brea Mall.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to Call: (714) 529-7878.

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