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Jack Coen: 'Something's Hot, I Tend to Comment On It.'

December 31, 1992|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly covers comedy for OC Live!

His resume includes the usual appearances on "Comic Strip Live," "An Evening at the Improv" and "The Tonight Show." But Jack Coen boasts one TV credit most comedians probably will never have: Ted Koppel's "Nightline."

Last month, when President-elect Clinton promised to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, the "Nightline" cameras caught Coen making light of the subject at the Improv in Washington, D.C.:

"I personally think, yeah, you should allow gays in the military, but I think the privacy issue should be addressed. I think it's unfair to have a straight guy shower with a guy who might be attracted to him. If I was on the girls' volleyball team, they wouldn't let me shower with the team." He mimicked soaping up in a shower: "Hey, don't worry about me, girls. I'm just here to play volleyball."

Coen--who is headlining at the Improv in Irvine through Sunday--conceded during a phone interview his home in Canyon Country last week that he took some flak for those observations.

"There were a lot of gay men (who) told me what bothered them about it," he said. "And those were the jokes that I tried to just stop doing, because I don't want to do anything that makes people angry."

It's not that he's afraid of having the homosexual community angry at him, he continued. "I'm not going to turn away from a topic because I don't want them to get mad. But in the same sense, I'm not out there to promote homophobia and have people bash homosexuals.

"I don't consider myself a passionate political comic, but when something's hot like that, I tend to comment on it. I'm there to find what's ironic and funny about it. And the joke about showering is, I think, at the root of homophobia, and that's what I like to get to and exploit."

In any case, the 11-year-veteran of the comedy circuit, and former New Jersey forklift driver, thinks "it's kind of ironic. . . . I barely got out of high school, always in trouble being a wise guy, and now me and Ted are affecting policy."

As he spoke, the sound of a crying baby could be heard in the background. "She's 21," he quipped. "Can you believe the way she acts?"

His 7-year-old son also serves as comic fodder. "My son is in first grade," Coen says on stage. "I keep waiting for him to come home from school and ask me what I do for a living. He'll say, 'Billy's father is a lawyer, Joey's father is a fireman. What do you do?'

" 'Well, I mock them. . .'

"When my family becomes a dominant part of my life," he said, "I tend to talk about them more. My father recently passed away and I talk about that. . . . I just find the things that I think are really unfair about that. Like the amount of money (a funeral) costs and who benefits. Usually, where I can direct my anger is where I go."

As he says in his act: "When someone dies around this time of year, people always go, 'Oh, that's a shame; so close to the holidays.' As if it'd be better in June. Your friends are going, 'Oh, well, at least you saved money on the presents.' "

About the only subject he avoids is abortion, because "that's the one thing I haven't really been able to draw 'the funny' from. But I'll touch on religion, racism, gun control, AIDS."

Writing material is a continuing process. "With a lot of it, I tend to read the paper and let it sink in and jot down the thing I'd like to talk about--where I think 'the funny' is-- but I won't completely flesh it out on paper. I just bring it out on stage and see what happens. A lot of times, under pressure and the intensity of the performance, I'll go in the direction that gets a laugh."

He said that working on instinct that way doesn't create undue stress--at least not when he's working in a club. "I'm comfortable and will do 45 minutes to an hour, so to go with one, two or three topics and not know (what he's going to say) is not that scary, because I'll be doing a ton of stuff I know will work."

Besides, he said, he'd feel he was "gyping" himself by not taking chances on stage. "Artistically--I hate to use that word in a comedy article--but as a comic who's working and trying to improve all the time, if I can't risk two or three moments in a 45-minute set, then I'm not going to grow or be anything."

Can't catch Coen in Irvine this week? He'll be making a return visit to "The Tonight Show" in February. And--who knows?--he may even show up on "Nightline" again.

"They call me now whenever there's problems."

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