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COMEDY : Irvine Improv Throws Itself a Party

June 29, 1995|GLENN DOGGRELL

Improv owner Mark Anderson clearly remembers that the Irvine club's opening night eight years ago had room for improvement.

The fire was a close call.

The room was doing what they label a soft opening, a trial run to work out the bugs before Jerry Seinfeld headlined the official opening.

"The fiascoes are the funnest things," the personable Anderson said while munching a salad last week in Santa Ana. "First of all, we ran out of food and had to send people who had dinner reservations to another restaurant. And we had put some funny floor surfacing down, so all of our kitchen staff was slipping and falling, and the food was flying into the air."

All that, however, turned out to be but a minor annoyance.

"It all culminated in a fire that happened in an oven. Some bacon had caught fire, and smoke came billowing into the showroom. It filled the showroom. At that time, we were pinching our pennies, so we didn't want to have to give everybody their money back."

With the staff fanning the smoke out, headliner Kevin Rooney reassured the audience.

"Just imagine you're at your dad's house, and he's barbecuing and telling jokes . . . and it's a barbecue with a little smoke."

According to Anderson, that was an understatement.

"From the back of the room, you had trouble seeing Kevin. Occasionally throughout his routine you'd hear laughter and then a couple coughs."

But the club survived the night, and Monday it will mark its eighth anniversary with a concert that features Improv fixtures Jeff Dunham and Peanut, Anthony Griffin, Jeff Jena, Kathleen Madigan and Tom McTigue.

The club, one of five in which Anderson is the majority owner, owes its existence to the wild success of the Princeton graduate's first venture into comedy, the Improv in San Diego, opened in 1984.

"We knew we could probably justify another club between San Diego and Los Angeles, so Orange County was just a logical choice," Anderson explained. "We just sort of stumbled into this mall, which was basically vacant. We had reservations, but somehow, intuitively, we thought it might be a good location."

The former clinical psychiatrist ("I spent one year seeing four patients and starving to death") had that much figured right. The club has been the most consistent earner in the 10-club Improv chain, which was started in New York City in 1963 as a coffeehouse run by Budd Friedman and his ex-wife Silver.

"Of all the clubs I've opened across the country, [Irvine] has made more money than anyplace else," Anderson said. "And, artistically, it has been the most enjoyable for the comedians, with the smartest audiences."

Anderson credits the club's success to high-quality performers, being able to draw from a 15-minute radius of good demographics and being in a community that doesn't have "some sort of entertainment going on every 10 feet."

The Irvine club's success ultimately led to launching the Brea Improv in late 1990.

"We were having sold-out shows and turning people away and not being able to provide for our audiences. It was really to meet a demand," said Anderson, adding that he did "horrible" stand-up for a year during his internship in psychiatry.

As the Irvine club continues to thrive, Anderson is reluctant to fix what isn't broken, but he understands that fans sometimes weary of the traditional three-act structure of stand-up. In other clubs, economic factors have made change a necessity. Some of that change, which Anderson experiments with at other clubs, will seep into Irvine.

"One-person shows have been a new and exciting evolution, and now we're playing with teams and duos and sketch comedy."

But no matter what changes lie ahead, one thing remains constant: The front-line workers are happy.

"Several people on our staff have gotten married [to each other]," Anderson said. "We've got people who started with us and after eight years are still working here. Once this gets into your blood, it's hard to shake. It's been great."

* What: The Irvine Improv's eighth anniversary show.

* When: Monday at 8:30 p.m.

* Where: The Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The Improv is in the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across from the UC Irvine campus.

* Wherewithal: $10. No coupons, T-shirts or passes. Open to age 18 and over.

* Where to call: (714) 854-5455.

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