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COMEDY : Cartoonist Is Drawn Out as a Smart Guy in a Stupid World

July 29, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Steve Kelley says the first time he performed in a comedy club, someone in the audience yelled out, "Don't quit your day job!"

Kelley, whose credits include five appearances on "The Tonight Show" over the past two years, has come a long way since making his stand-up debut at an open-mike night at a San Diego comedy club in 1986.

But he still hasn't given up his day job.

As an award-winning editorial cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, his cartoons are syndicated in more than 1,200 newspapers and are frequently reprinted in Newsweek magazine. They've even cropped up on "Face the Nation" and the "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour."

And Kelley--who's appearing at the Irvine Improv through Sunday--says he's perfectly content to continue moonlighting as a stand-up comic while working days at the Union-Tribune, where he turns out five cartoons a week.

"I'd never quit my job here to be a stand-up; there's not enough stability in it," he said by phone from his office at the newspaper last week.

Or, as he adds: "comedy's great, but there's no dental plan."

Kelley--who's sharing the bill in Irvine with Todd Glass and Tony Morewood--is an observational comic who sees his role on stage as that of "a smart guy in a stupid world."

"That's the way I characterize most observational monologuists," he said. "They're a person of reasonable intelligence in a world that is constantly insulting that intelligence."

In his act, Kelley talks about everything from dog food and infomercials to having to cook for himself (he's 34 and single) to the Geo Metro--"the only car in the world you can double the value of by filling the tank up with gas."

One of his favorite bits is this:

"I saw a commercial for Money magazine, and they tell you if you subscribe, they bill you four monthly payments of $9 each. Then they say: 'Act now! We'll send you our investor's guide.' . . . Well, if you can't afford to make one payment of 36 bucks, what the hell are you going to do with that investor's guide? It's kind of hard to get into a mutual fund when you're buying your magazines on the installment plan."

When it comes to comedy, the easygoing and likable Kelley takes what he calls a "soft-sell" approach.

"I just think subtle is much funnier than bald-faced or blatant," he explained. "I like to give the audience credit for being able to get a joke without hitting them square in the face with it."

Because of his full-time newspaper job, Kelley only does weeklong comedy gigs, both locally and on the road, every couple of months. But when he's home, he does five-minute spots two or three nights a week at local clubs "just to stay sharp and work on new material."

That's in addition to two or three corporate gigs a month, where he flies into a city, works one night and flies back home. He said the newspaper doesn't mind his leading a double life. "They're pretty lenient with me as long as the quality of my work stays high."

Lately, one of Kelley's chief editorial cartoon targets has been the San Diego Padres, whose ownership has been dismantling the team to save on payroll.

Although he's noticed that his cartoon humor has become much more structured and joke-oriented since he got into stand-up, Kelley said, his cartoon gags don't often wind up on stage as jokes.

"Typically, the jokes that come out of my cartoon captions have a very short shelf life because they're closely tied to a current event," he said.

One that did make the transition into his act, though, is from a cartoon showing a man watching President Clinton on television as the President explains that he ordered the bombing of Iraq because that's what he said he'd do during the campaign. To which the television viewer says: "No wonder the Iraqis were surprised."

"I did that on stage for a couple of weeks, and it did very well," Kelley said, adding that he "embellished it somewhat. The audience would laugh and I'd say, 'How would you like to be the victim of the only campaign promise Clinton ever kept?' "

Kelley, a Richmond, Va. native, majored in English at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he tore a ligament in an ankle while pole-vaulting. Laid up in the infirmary for a week, he began drawing editorial cartoons that wound up in the campus newspaper.

"Fortunately, I had enough things published to get a job when I got out."

Kelley started working at the Union-Tribune a month after graduating in 1981. He began moonlighting as a stand-up comic after one of his newspaper colleagues told him a comic at the San Diego Improv was using some of Kelley's cartoon gags as jokes in his act.

Kelley's reaction at the time? "This I need to see."

Kelley said the comic was "very nice and I introduced myself afterward and we became very good friends." Kelley even offered to write some jokes for the comic. "When he read them, he said, 'These are good enough (that) if you had any inclination to perform these you could.' "

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