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August 30, 1992|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a frequent contributor to TV Times

The Comedy Store is crowded on Monday nights, not so much with paying customers as with people lining up to perform. On Monday nights the microphone is open, available for everyone who thinks they're funny, who thinks that they've got what it takes.

They come from everywhere, Eastern cities and small Midwestern towns. Some have never been on stage in their lives and when their turn comes, it will show. This is no place for amateurs. Not even on Monday nights.

Pauly Shore knows this better than anyone. He has seen the pretenders pass through by the thousands for these Monday-night tests and he has seen most of them fail, their ill-timed jokes frozen in their throats. And he has seen them backstage afterward, crushed by the weight of broken dreams.

The ones who succeed are the ones who know what they're doing, who have done their failing elsewhere, in Dallas and Minneapolis and Denver, in places where the stakes weren't so high. For the ones who made it--Roseanne Arnold, David Letterman, the late Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson, to name a few--surviving Monday night at The Comedy Store was a necessary trial by fire. For them, and for the countless others who never went further, The Comedy Store was more than a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. It was a mecca, a temple, a comedy shrine.

For Pauly, though, it was home, his playground, the place--more than anything--that made him what he is. He knows it wasn't a normal childhood, growing up in Hollywood as the son of Mitzi Shore, the owner of the most famous comedy club in L.A. He was the kid always roaming the backstage hallways, playing in the kitchen, the parking lot, the area behind the bar where the comics waited to go on.

Every comic in town watched Pauly Shore grow up and he watched all of them, too. He saw everything. The way they built their routines and worked on their timing and the rush that came from holding a crowd in the palm of their hands. He saw the egos, too, the doubts, the back-stabbing and the self-destructiveness that doomed so many careers.

"There should be lockers in the hallway here," Pauly is saying, even as another Monday night pilgrimage has begun downstairs, "because what this is, really, is a school."

He is leading us here--through a maze of stairwells and corridors, to a stuffy windowless upstairs room with wicker chairs and jungle-green wallpaper, a hidden place, away from the laughter of the club below--to talk about his first-ever stand-up special, a one-hour HBO presentation called "Pauly Does Dallas," filmed in Texas in July.

At 22, Shore is the youngest comedian ever to get his own special on the premium cable network. That accomplishment means more to him than his MTV success with "Totally Pauly" (which ended its two-year run this spring) or even the recent film deal he struck with Disney on the heels of "Encino Man's" $40 million box-office take.

"Having a one-hour comedy special was one of the biggest goals in my life," he says. "Because for a lot of the guys I grew up with, that was the sign that they'd made it. Sam had one. Dice had one. And I wanted to be just like them."

It is also a chance for Shore to move beyond the adolescent audience that turned his stoned-out gypsy-surfer "Weasel" character into an MTV phenomenon. "Most people who are 25 or older hate me," he says, matter-of-factly. "This will give me a chance to show them I have a mature side. A lot of people think I'm dumb, just this idiot guy, but that's just one side to me."

To some people, Pauly's new "mature" side won't seem like much of a change. Shore's material is still based on dude-speak riffs about his less-than-zero lifestyle, only this time with his often-failed sexual pursuits described in considerably more graphic language than MTV would allow. But there is another theme running through this material, a sense of what it's like to feel cut off from the "normal" world, to feel like you don't fit in.

"I was the guy in high school you threw rocks at and yelled, 'He's a fag. Let's get him,' " Shore says in his act, before commenting on the way women used to respond to him before he became a celebrity. "I mean, look at me, check me out. If I wasn't on MTV and I came up to you at a bar, looking this way and talking this way, you'd be going, 'Security, security. There's a freak of nature over here.' "

"I don't know," Pauly says, asked whether he'd have become a comedian if he hadn't grown up surrounded by them. "I do know I wouldn't be as successful, cause I wouldn't know as much about what it takes to make it.

"When I first started working on my act, it wasn't like I was out partying all the time. I was very focused and committed to it. And I still am. I don't think people realize that about me. Rodney Dangerfield said to me once, 'Man, you seem like you're so free, you know? You're like a spirit. You don't worry about anything, do you?' And at the time I said, 'No, I don't.' But it wasn't true. I do worry. And I work hard to get what I want."

On the way out, Pauly Shore cuts through the kitchen, and down a back hallway past the bar. There, as always, the comedians are clustered, waiting for their chance to go on. He smiles but does not stop. It is Monday night at The Comedy Store and he has seen it all before.

"Pauly Does Dallas" airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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