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O.C. COMEDY REVIEW : Humor Rising From the Ashes : Dennis Wolfberg draws the Irvine Improv audience away from its doomsday images of the earthquake with vivid comic pictures.

January 22, 1994|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Dennis Wolfberg has had a great run in his years on the club circuit because he's never rubbed our faces in his psychic lesions or wasted our time with unremarkable comment posing as discovery. He's obeyed an older show-biz maxim. As Shelley Berman said: You owe them something.

He's a good guy to have around when you need a laugh, as God knows we all do right now. He read the weather indoors as he warily edged his way onstage at the Irvine Improv on Thursday night, peering at the audience for any evidence of cannibal intent, and began, "What a thrill it is to entertain an entire community that's lost . . ." (incredulous pause) " 30 billion dollars !"

The weight of the painful and improbable is not lost on him, he was quick to inform us. After all, he'd just returned from a gig at New York University's Medical Center, where laughter is a chancy business when it can dislodge you from your life support system. "It's one thing to heckle someone, but to hemorrhage . . . ."

*

Right away he eased the audience away from its doomsday pictures of the last few days with more vivid comic pictures of his own. Wolfberg is a throwback to the '50s comedian Sam Levenson; like him, Jewish and a former schoolteacher. In Wolfberg's case, in a South Bronx school so tough that the school paper had an obit column and his assignments bore the theme "What I want to be if I grow up."

Levenson gave the impression that he took up comedy because the stories he ran into in day-to-day life were too rich to keep to himself or a small circle of friends. Wolfberg does the same thing, but his system is wired into fuse-blowing postmodern apocalypse. His eyes bug out, his tongue makes cuckoo bird appearances; his whole system seems riven by sharp attacks of gastrointestinal squalls that spike his sentences into random italics.

"I met a teacher in Detroit who wasn't just burnt out but charred beyond recognition !" And, of his pregnant wife, "(She) retained enough water to nautically qualify as an inlet !"

*

Most of his stuff wasn't new, but it was worth hearing again. No one is better at blending hyperbole and indirection into a rich gumbo of language; and most of his act seems at some basic level to have been lived before it was whipped up into comic phantasms. Wolfberg leaves the club scene in the fall to enter stand-up heaven--a sitcom. He'll be missed. Combat veterans will tell you that the movie is fine, but it's the live performance that really gets you.

* Tonight and Sunday at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-5455.

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