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FUNNY . . . BUT PERISHABLE : Because His Act Is So Topical, Comic Jeffrey Jena Must Constantly Generate New Material

February 25, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

A stand-up comic who devotes half his act to current events, Jeffrey Jena says he "did a ton" on the presidential election last year.

"I was really sorry to see Dan Quayle go--until inauguration night when I saw Al Gore trying to dance to Los Lobos. This guy's the King of Bad White Guy Dancers. . . . Keep in mind this is the loser of the two. This is the one who said he actually smoked marijuana."

Jena, who will headline at the Improv in Brea from Friday through Sunday, was calling from the road, from a phone in Ft. Worth, Tex.--Ross Perot country.

"I like the new Ross Perot commercials on TV," he said. " 'Send Ross 15 bucks. Send a billionaire to camp. . . .'

"The average man or woman sitting at home can barely afford their mortgage payment, they're eating macaroni and cheese--I'm sure they're watching the news (saying), 'Honey, I think it'll be a good economic decision to send Ross 15 bucks.' "

Then again, Jena noted, nobody makes enough money. "I don't care how much money you make, you always need 40 more bucks a week. It's the E equals S plus 40 theory, which means Expenses equals Salary plus 40 dollars."

Because so much of his act is topical, Jena is constantly writing new material.

"You have to keep up with the things that are going on. Sometimes, it's hard to find the humor in them, especially like with the economic thing going on now.

"Or sometimes I see something that is inherently funny, but I don't see any joke in it yet: The fact that the President is only going to tax the wealthy. Now, I'm reading in the paper that 70% of the increase would be on those earning over $100,000 a year, so that turns out to be the wealthy. If you've got four kids and one of them's in college, you're wealthy--you must have extra dough to burn. . . . I think there's something really funny in that, but I just don't know how to say it yet so it gets a big laugh.

"I'll get a thought like that and write five or six of what I call tags or punch lines, and I'll go on stage and try them out and see what works best."

He thinks his job is easier than Jay Leno's: As host of "The Tonight Show," Leno gets only one shot at a joke whereas Jena gets four or five nights to work something out. And then he can use it in his act for at least a couple of weeks.

To prime the comedy pump, he reads a couple of major newspapers a day and, if he's on the road, the local paper. He also watches a couple of hours of CNN news, C-SPAN and other news talk shows. And then there's USA Today:

If the world ever comes to an end in a nuclear war, Jena said, USA Today will print a two-paragraph front page story "and a little pie graf in the corner of 'Great Bombs in History' like, say, Dresden, Hiroshima, Lenny Bruce in London. . . ."

Along with current events, Jena devotes a good amount of his act to biographical material. The "fortyish" comedian grew up in Middletown, Ohio, ("but don't tell anybody") and taught junior high math and science for seven years, five of them overseas in Australia, Italy and Japan.

In 1979, when he was teaching in Houston, he decided to try his hand at stand-up.

"I didn't get out of teaching because I didn't like it," he said. "I enjoyed it. It's just that it wasn't what I wanted to do forever."

In a way, he now has come full circle, having written a 90-minute one-man show based on his teaching experiences. He performed it for two weeks at the Dallas Improv earlier in the year and "thought I had it in pretty good shape." Then he did it on a recent Monday at the Brea Improv, where he discovered 'it needs work." At this point, he said, "it's a work in progress."

In Brea this weekend, he'll do his regular stand-up act Friday and Saturday and the one-man show on Sunday. He said he likes the way the one-man show, which he calls "In a Class by Himself," lets him explore a single topic in more depth.

Here's a sample from it:

"When you're a man in education, you generally get the poorer students. I used to pass out bumper stickers that said, 'My kid copied off your honor student.' "

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