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An Army of Support

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.

March 22, 1994|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call themselves an army, which makes good sense. Every single one of them has bombed before.

But not tonight, never on the second Tuesday of each month. For three hours, in the narrow back room of L'Express restaurant in Sherman Oaks, these men--many of whom hardly knew each other until one of their own died of lung cancer two years ago--swap stories, tell jokes and drop names.

Are all the jokes funny? Probably not. Does it matter? Definitely not.

"We come here to recapture our youth," says stand-up veteran Allan Kent.

Yarmy's Army could pass as an unofficial Comedy Hall of Fame: Don Knotts, Don Adams, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Shelley Berman, Gary Owens, Pat McCormick, Howie Morris. Others, if less recognizable, have still done well on television and stage. It's a requirement. You make it here because you've made it out there, where it's cold and callous to comics and actors.

But here, it's safe.

"You get rejected every day," says Ronnie Schell, a founding member. "This is like therapy."

Which is how it all began--as therapy for Dick Yarmy, Adams' younger brother, who became ill with cancer in 1991 and chose to go out laughing. Yarmy, an actor, wanted to crack up with the funniest people he knew, his friends.

So a handful got together at Luna Rossa restaurant in Sherman Oaks one Tuesday, then the next and it became ritual. Soon, a couple dozen met each week. The group became so rowdy that other patrons complained to management. The army moved to L'Express to take over its own room.

"Dick looked so much forward to those evenings," Adams recalls. "It probably did more for him than anything in his whole life."

Nothing was immune from their barbs, not even Yarmy's deteriorating health, and he happily went along with it. Once he brought his X-rays for a gag.

He came every week, looking like death, leaving with life.

His struggle ended in May, 1992. The gang got together at Theatre West in Hollywood for his memorial service, which, of course, turned into a comedy wake. It was supposed to be the army's final performance.

"(But) we realized we could not let go," Korman recalls. "We had to keep meeting. It was no longer just for Dick."

*

Now, almost two years later, comedians keep enlisting. Nobody keeps official count, but several dozen claim membership, some of whom barely knew the group's namesake.

A ceremonial empty chair is always kept for Yarmy at the now-monthly gatherings. At the March meeting, about 35 men showed up. (There is no restriction against women, but there certainly isn't an aggressive campaign to recruit them, either.)

Shortly after 6 p.m., the casually dressed troops begin their stand-up routines without introductions. A moment's hesitation, and your chance for the floor may be gone; shouters control the evening.

"It's like the Indianapolis Speedway," says veteran actor Ron Carey, attending for the first time.

Adds Schell: "You got to get in and get out. That's what it's about."

That and trying new material. McCormick, who made frequent appearances on and wrote for the "Tonight Show" in the Johnny Carson days, arrives with a series of one-liners he's working on for a club date in Minnesota. Earlier, he had asked friends to supply the setups. The army roars.

Unfortunately, most of the jokes here are blue and can't be published. That's also part of the point--it's like that in the army. This is not a politically correct room; there are no censors.

"You can do the silliest thing and there's no judgment," says comedian-director Howard Storm, a founding member.

No judgment, perhaps, but plenty of competition. That is, after all, the nature of the business. Some prepare stories and original one-liners in advance; others take a safer route, relying on jokes they heard get big laughs somewhere else. (Usually, though, they make sure to credit the joke's most recent source.)

It can be very intimidating.

"I've been coming for two years," says actor Jim Beaver, Adams' son-in-law, "and I haven't told a joke. I sit in the car and think of stuff, but by the time I'm ready, they've already been told."

Others--such as Korman, Knotts and Dick Van Patten--rarely jump into the skirmishes. "I respect these guys so much," Van Patten says, "and I don't feel like I'm on their level."

*

Adams isn't so reserved. Throughout the evening, Schell hounds a reluctant Adams to "tell the Johnny Carson story." Finally, after mounting army pressure, Adams relents.

While in the coach section of a flight to Europe during the early 1970s, Adams says he received a note from Carson, who was in first class: "Dear Don, I heard things were bad, but I didn't know they were this bad."

A flight attendant told a humiliated Adams that an immediate upgrade would be expensive, but he replied, "I don't care if it's $1 million." Once in his new first-class seat, Adams wrote a note back to Carson, explaining that he always sat in coach during takeoffs because most fatalities struck first-class passengers.

"True story," Adams insists.

Sometimes, however, Agent 86 is the victim. After his rise to fame in the 1960s as Maxwell Smart, little has been heard from him. "Now," jokes veteran comic actor Tom Poston, "was it you or your brother who died?"

The army, including Adams, loves it.

But these soldiers are far from finished. While some have reached their 60s and 70s and don't work that often, others are still searching for their next tour of duty and occasionally find out about new career possibilities from their colleagues.

Still, that's not their prime motivation. They need companionship as much as money.

"We were supposedly friends before," Storm says, "but there wasn't any depth. Now this group takes care of each other. It's a love affair."

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