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COMEDY : Stand-Up Detective Has More Twists Than a Pretzel

July 01, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Sledge is back--that's Tommy Sledge, the "Stand-Up Detective."

You know Sledge. Or maybe you don't.

He's a shamus, a flatfoot, a peeper, a gumshoe, a professional tailster: a private eye who wears a '40s vintage fedora, trench coat, baggy pants and a tie so loud his landlord is threatening him with eviction.

This "regular jug-eared Joe from Palookaville" is holed up at the Brea Improv this week doing his usual caper: looking for laughs.

Lighting up a cigarette (a gasper, a lung rocket, a nicotine torch), he surveys the crowd and waxes metaphorically in a tough-guy prose style that's as purple as the varicose veins on the cashier down at the five and dime.

"I woke up with those same old hangover thoughts, like if I could start my life over again tomorrow I'd need a lot more money," he tells the audience. "I had the kind of hangover where I felt more burned out than David Koresh. . . . I felt more worn out than J. Edgar Hoover's party dress. . . . My mind was working slower than the Taster's Choice romance."

You get the idea.

The last time Sledge performed in Orange County was in February when he scammed big-time mazoola (you know: scratch, moolah, geetus, cabbage, stacks of dead presidents) to do his stand-up detective caper at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in Anaheim--where, one witness testifies, "he brought the house down."

"That was a fun gig; I got to meet a couple of my heroes," Sledge said by phone last week from his home in Arleta, near Pacoima.

One literary hero Sledge met at the convention was the prolific mystery writer Robert Randisi, who invited Sledge to appear at a mystery convention in Kansas City. Sledge already had a comedy caper lined up in Alaska and had to decline. But a few weeks later, a package arrived in his mail: copies of Randisi's two latest books. Autographed.

"Which was a big thrill," Sledge said, "so I guess the mystery crowd and I are getting a little closer."

Maybe a little too close.

Sledge himself moonlights as an author. You may be familiar with his 1987 first novel, which he sells at his shows: "Eat Lead, Clown!" Summarized Sledge: "It's a bullet-popped word brawl about the murders in a San Francisco vaudeville house in 1946."

His new book, due out this fall, is titled "Kiss It or Die!"

"It takes place in San Francisco in 1947," Sledge said, adding: "We're marching very slowly toward the present."

Sledge's fascination with the '40s detective milieu is no mystery.

"It's mainly the language, the lurid prose and the actual purple words," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun with that. I always have."

Sledge's interest in fictional detectives dates back to when he was a little shaver, the Los Angeles-born son of an Army sergeant father who kept the family moving around the country.

"One of the first things I ever read as a kid just for fun was Black Mask magazine," recalled Sledge, 47. "I was in a barber shop when I was about 7 or 8 and I found an old Black Mask magazine at the bottom of a pile of magazines.

"I just remember it was my kind of stuff. I didn't come across another Black Mask for years, then I started collecting them."

That was when he was in his mid-20s and still going by his real name, Mike Farrow. By then, he was working in an improvisational group in San Francisco and one of his characters was, you guessed it, Tommy Sledge.

"I had sort of a vague memory of little bits and pieces I had read in Black Mask or in full-length novels of various detective characters," he said. "But when I came across the magazine again and starting collecting, I really got into it."

Reading the "old prose and slang of the '40s and '50s really did help" him flesh out the character, he said. "That's what I enjoy most, whipping out the lingo, the code, the jitter, the jive, the jargon. . . . That's all the Js I can think of."

Sledge turned to stand-up comedy in 1980.

"Like everybody, I sort of was experimental the first year or so," he said, adding that after he began doing the "Stand-Up Detective" routine it was "just suddenly a lot more fun to just be this other guy."

Here are a few vintage Tommy Sledge observations on:

* Home: "My apartment is so small you've got to step outside to raise an objection."

* Childhood: "I grew up in tough neighborhoods. As kids, we didn't wear hand-me-downs, we wore hand-'em-overs."

* Dames: "She was a splash of naughty neon against the dark underthrobbing of a leering nightscape of passion, greed, desire and doom."

One of the best parts of Sledge's act is when he descends, with cigarette in hand, into the audience where he offers his pulp-oriented "voice-over" observations of the crowd: "Two guys at a table. No dates. When I got a closer look, I could see why."

Sledge always ends his show with a "five-minute novelette," an improvised mystery caper based on audience suggestions. The audience starts with the title.

"Fairly often you get a wise guy who says 'The Case of the Dead Comedian' or 'They Stiffed Me on My Drink Caper,' " said Sledge, who sits at a table or desk on stage tapping out the evolving story on an old-time black portable typewriter--with a shot of hootch nearby.

"Sometimes," he said, "it really gets out of control and goes 10 minutes because the audience is having so much fun with it."

So is the Stand-up Detective: "I'm happier than Siamese twins in the diamond lane."

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