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Class Clowns : Remember the kids who pulled the fire alarm on test day? A few of the perpetrators have been sentenced to comedy camp.

November 09, 1995|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a serious tone to this gathering of clowns, who, in discussing their art, traverse into areas of science and history, laughter and tears.

Comedian Byron Allen sits showered by lights on the Laugh Factory stage. Life is not always so bright, he tells youngsters in the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp. And in moments of darkness, he says, they must learn to persist.

As a child, Allen's mother took him along to NBC, where she worked as a tour guide. Shortly after graduating from Fairfax High School, he appeared there on the "Tonight Show."

"In life, you're going to have plenty of obstacles, plenty of things that make it difficult, plenty of things that are going to make you want to give up," he says. "That's not an option. You must always persist."

The class listens intently. Pretty amazing, considering these are the kids we knew in school who stuck pencils up their noses and painted eyeballs on their glasses.

Jamey Williams, 16, is taking notes. A junior at Culver City High School, he has the standard rap sheet of a class clown. As a toddler, he filled the family's fish bowl with apple juice, em1886677349f bottled soap and blew bubbles out his mouth.

He defines himself in large part by the feeling he gets when others laugh at his antics. They place upon him a badge that carries with it expectations and a willingness to endure: They say he is funny.

Parts of his life are too painful to laugh about. He tries not to think about the day his family split apart, when his mother gathered him, his younger sister and brother and moved them into a shelter. He knows the fear of having a gun held to his head, the pain of losing friends to violence. Comedy, he says, is an escape. It is his way to persist.

"If I'm sad or having problems," he says, "I just try to laugh. If I laugh, all the bad stuff goes away."

The camp was initiated by Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who wanted to use comedy to enrich the lives of young people growing up on an uneven playing field. Like those in the camp, his dream, too, was to be a comedian. When he was 14, he left his family and native Israel to come to Hollywood. He says he faced two primary obstacles: He spoke no English and he wasn't very funny.

But he remembered the lessons of honor and hard work taught by his father, a cantor, and found success on the business side of comedy. He opens the doors to the club to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving. He hires the homeless, laughs and cries with the comedians who work his stage, because he never lost sight that beyond the laughter, there was suffering.

Masada charges nothing for the program, which is 3 years old, and reimburses families for gas, tape recorders and other expenses. The next camp begins next month.

Some of the brightest stars in comedy come each Saturday to the Laugh Factory to share insights, offer tips and address the complex fierceness and powerful force that smolders and flames within the heart of the jester.

Allen emphasizes the importance of reading and setting goals. "What are your goals?" he asks Jamey.

"Well, if the comedy thing doesn't work out. . . . "

Allen cuts him off in mid-sentence.

"Whoa, let's back up. 'If the comedy thing doesn't work out?' When I think about Martin [Lawrence] and [Richard] Pryor and [Eddie] Murphy, I don't think they ever gave themselves an option, ever," Allen says. "It was just, 'This is what I do, I love doing this.' "

The program encourages the youngsters, ages 7 to 16, to believe in their dreams and to commit to them, but that type of commitment can be difficult for young people today, when, as Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, explains, "Intense commitment to a 9-year-old is to make it to 10."

Fleischer's presentation to the youngsters is about science. Everything is science, he tells them, as he explains that the days of the week are named after the planets.

They begin to yawn as Fleischer explains molecules and atoms. Kenneth Crawford, 8, sits up front chewing on a smashed Coke can. Fleischer asks if there are any questions, and one of the youngsters raises a hand. "Can you act like Roger Rabbit?"

Fleischer goes into his routine, then there are more requests: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Batman, Donald Duck, Pluto. Fleischer is stumped by Pluto.

"Are you a star?" a youngster asks as he leaves the stage.

"We all are," he answers, "Some of us just haven't been discovered yet."

*

Jamey Williams stands against a backdrop of glazed doughnuts and sweet rolls at the Winchell's on Melrose. A guy with a patch over one eye sits quietly in the corner. A man parks a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans outside and steps in for a cup of coffee.

Moon Jones, a former college basketball coach now focusing on comedy, has brought Jamey to the pastry shop to get him used to being in front of people. Later, the two will go to 5th Street Dick's across from Leimert Park, where on Monday nights, young comedians gather to work the kinks out of their material.

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