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ON BEYOND LOADED : Steve Shaffer Is Known for His Impression of a Drunk, but It's Just One Aspect of His Act

April 22, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Playing a drunk for laughs has a long, colorful tradition in the annals of comedy: Charlie Chaplin gained early notice doing a drunk routine in English vaudeville houses; Dudley Moore is familiar to moviegoers as the lovably inebriated millionaire Arthur; Foster Brooks built an entire career playing a soused character on TV and in clubs.

Stand-up comic Steve Shaffer--who's headlining through Sunday at Bruce Baum's Comedy Crib in Fullerton--carries on that tradition with a signature routine as a hiccuping, wheezing, repetitive, boorish masher at a bar ("You're really beautiful. What's your name? Buzz off? What's your last name?")

But his dead-on drunk routine is just one aspect of a multifaceted act, a mixed bag of observational humor and vocal and musical impressions leavened with sound effects, facial expressions and animated gestures.

In one routine, about the honesty of children, he recalls sitting poolside with his young nephew who spots "a large woman" at the other end of the pool and then proceeds "to tell me and the rest of North America that this is the fattest person he's ever seen in his life." Whereupon Shaffer takes on the Looney Tunes--like persona of his flabbergasted nephew, running around and shouting in a singsong voice: "Look how fat she is! Ahh!!!! . . . . She's a big fat fatty, a big fat f-fatty. She's a fatty boomalattie, a fatty boomalattie. . . "

Another bit is an impression of one-hit wonder Chubby Checker, who can't seem to say or sing anything without its sounding like "The Twist"--even the National Anthem.

"If you like comedy on every level, come see my show," Shaffer said during a phone interview last week. "If you like noises, voices, impressions, sound effects, observations and word play, I do it."

His love of "all kinds of comedy" has, he said, "kind of helped and hurt my career: It's hard to pin me down, to classify me as a specific kind of comic." The product of South Philadelphia is well-versed in the history of stand-up comedy. In fact, he has started teaching two-day stand-up comedy workshops for fledgling comedians. He was at the University of Houston last week working with a half-dozen students: He has them come in with three to five minutes of their own material: He helps them weed out the bad jokes, find a comedic voice and construct an act.

The workshops, which conclude with the students' putting on a show, include a heavy dose of stand-up history. Shaffer starts out talking about Chaplin, works his way through W.C. Fields and ends up with "all the Catskill guys" such as Jan Murray and Alan King.

His own influences range from Chaplin ("I like good physical comedy") to George Carlin, whom he considers "the best comic ever."

Shaffer started his own stand-up career in 1982 after several years with a comedy team that did improvisational and sketch work in New York. He has been generating laughs a lot longer than that, however.

"My first joke I ever told, I must have been about 4," he said. "People would always say, 'Where did you get those blue eyes?' and I would say, 'From the milk man.' I had no idea why that was funny, but it always got an enormous laugh so I knew I was doing something right."

Despite such early promise, Shaffer wasn't the stereotypical class clown at his Catholic school. He said he was too shy for that but that he always appreciated good comedy.

"One kid had the funniest routine; I call it his May Day routine." It seems every time the nun would leave the classroom, this kid would start shouting 'May Day! May Day!' He'd be banging on his desk-top as if he were crashing and he'd wind up falling out of his desk, with books and pencils flying.

"It would absolutely kill me," Shaffer said. "The people I grew up with were much funnier than I'll ever be. They just couldn't do it on stage."

Indeed, the "May Day Kid" wound up in jail, he said.

"Most of the kids I grew up with went to jail, especially the funny ones," Shaffer said. "I was very frightened of the nuns. There was more fear in me than willingness to be rebellious."

As he says in his act, "I once had a nun punch me in the face--for sneezing. Absolutely true: Closed fist, roundhouse (punch.) The woman clocked me because I didn't cover my mouth when I sneezed. And I'll never forget how quickly it happened. It was like 'Achoo'--BAM! Like ninja nuns, you know?-- Woooooooh ffft - t - t - t - t ---'Coming this fall: Ninja Nuns! Watch them use their nunchaku rosary! . . . ' "

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