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COMEDY REVIEW : Show and Tales Move Jena to Head of the Class

July 28, 1994|GLENN DOGGRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BREA — Let's give Jeff Jena an A on his latest class project, "Sex, Love and the Pledge of Allegiance."The updated one-man show is polished, holds together for 90 minutes and includes several hilarious bits. (Be sure to hear how he got grounded forever--"So technically, I shouldn't even be here tonight"--and his take on God's sense of humor. Jena, by the way, admits he's risking grave consequences if he's wrong on this one.)

When the Midwest-raised comic first turned in his project, he titled it "In a Class by Himself." Pleasing, but nothing too risky.

The new moniker, appropriately, is more revealing, sexier and closer to the bone. The fans who saw an earlier draft didn't see the same piece. When Jena brought it to the Irvine Improv earlier this year, the show would have earned him a C+, B- maybe.

Now, at the Brea Improv through Sunday, Jena offers a much more substantial version. Starting with the basics, he has fleshed the piece out with more bells and whistles than the previous incarnation, which limped along at times trying to fill 1 1/2 hours. Like most kids saddled with school reports, he had less material than the teacher had pages. Too many soft spots sabotaged that effort.

With this show, Jena hits the mark and joins a cadre of others going it solo successfully. The one-person format is being welcomed as club owners and comedians look for something different to boffer patrons in a period of comedic saturation on TV.

Most shows combine elements of theater and stand-up to set a tone and offer a point of view. The trade-off, though, is sacrificing stand-up's rapid-fire laughter for the depth of a theater piece. Performers hope the audiences have the patience to go along with it. If not, back to the drawing board.

And that's exactly what Jena did. Though audience reaction to the original wasn't bad, Jena continued to fine-tune his work, stripping some theater trappings and adding more stand-up material as he uses the classroom format to take a look at getting through life.

The L.A. resident has the perfect background for such a show. Before getting into comedy, Jena spent seven years as a junior-high schoolteacher.

"The transition is easy," he told the audience Tuesday night. "You just have to be quick on your feet and a little smarter than everyone else in the room."

The results are thoughtful observations that don't preach, but simply spread out and put an interesting spin on what's important to learn. Or not to learn.

"Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved," he said. "Just take a shot, man."

Sitting behind a desk or pacing the stage--with black drapes as a backdrop, two maps (for the geography portion of the show), a U.S. flag and a grease board--Jena covered the material in the syllabus, including how classes were divided into "advanced," "average" and "moron" when he was in school. But because they couldn't use the third label, they came up with "moon shots," "orbiters" and "ground crews."

*

Jena uses the grease board to hold the show together, writing such categories as "When Will I Use This in My Real Life?," "What Is Love?" and "Who Cares How Bad My Grammar Are?"

Under the first heading, Jena relates this question from a pupil: "Will I use math in my real life?"

"No," he answers. "You will never use the quadratic function, but we study it because it's difficult, boring and it sometimes seems completely pointless--exactly like real life."

All the categories feed his main point. Too many people, Jena contends, derail themselves by getting caught up in the little things. You have to look at the big picture, laugh at yourself, take charge.

Don't be like George Bailey, he warns, because not everybody is going to have a guardian angel step in.

* Jeff Jena continues through Sunday at the Brea Improv, 945 E. Birch St., $7-$10. (714) 529-7878.

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