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Cover Story

Standing for Something

A TV sitcom is not the goal of every artist practicing comedy in L.A. Meet a few who seek live laughs by alternative means.


They have known one another for a while now. Oswalt and Tompkins first crossed paths in the late 1980s, when Tompkins was based in Philadelphia and Oswalt was working clubs out of Washington, D.C. Later, Oswalt moved to San Francisco and met Kilgariff, a native of Petaluma who had just gotten into stand-up and was working San Francisco nightspots like the Holy City Zoo and Cobb's, finding her anti-comedy comedy voice.

"It was good to see somebody as frustrated with comedy as I was," Oswalt says of the first time he saw Kilgariff perform. "Except she had brought it onstage. I didn't think you could tell the audience how [bad] it all was."

By then, the comedy boom that had given birth to a million Chuckles and Laugh Stops was coming to an end; two years after Oswalt landed in San Francisco, 10 clubs had closed, he says. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing--a glut of clubs meant a glut of bland comics. For Kilgariff and Oswalt, it was time to move to L.A., anyway. Tompkins had gone as far as he could in Philadelphia and come out too.

"It is good that we all kind of come together," Kilgariff says of the camaraderie among her like-minded alterna-comics. "If you lived here and you were alone and all you had was some creepy agent, of course you would sell out for anything that came along."

These days, all three have things to plug. Kilgariff has done guest spots on "Cybill" and "The Drew Carey Show" and co-starred in an NBC pilot that went nowhere several years ago. Oswalt wrote for "Mad TV," had a half-hour HBO special recently and has been meeting with writers about developing his own sitcom. Tompkins did a spot on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and wrote for HBO's often-brilliant sketch show "Mr. Show" for two years.

So what's the next step for a young stand-up comic who obviously has brains and talent?

That question employs many, many people in the entertainment industry. Tompkins recently signed a two-year development deal with HBO Independent Productions, the pay channel production arm that takes comedians and tries to mold their acts into salable sitcoms (CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," starring Ray Romano, is its latest success).

For a comedian as young as Tompkins, though, such a deal treats him more as a work-in-progress. Since signing, he has appeared at the HBO Workspace, in a one-man show that he took in March to the Aspen Comedy Festival. The hope is that these vehicles will increase his marketability with network and studio brass. Oswalt signed a similar deal with HBO Independent Productions that resulted in his HBO half-hour special but is about to expire without a sitcom. Kilgariff has resisted any deals, feeling it's not the right career move yet.

"They see themselves as alternative comics, so there's this reluctance to give into a more commercial adaptation of their work," says Lowell Mate, an executive at HBO Independent Productions, talking about why Kilgariff, Thompkins and Oswalt are considered not-ready-for-prime-time players.

On the other hand, all three have seen what can happen to friends (Margaret Cho, Tom Rhodes) who capitulated creatively ("All American Girl" and "Mr. Rhodes," respectively), only to become prime-time road kill in quick fashion.

Says Kilgariff: "In the end, when your show does suck rocks, and it's over and you have no career, no one says, 'Where's the creative team at NBC that's responsible for this?' They say, 'Tom Rhodes, you ate it.' "

Says Oswalt: "If you cash in your chips with the network, that's the quickest way to end your career. . . . I would much rather do the kind of thing that Garry Shandling does or Albert Brooks does, or Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] of 'Mr. Show.' Where I have control over the output."

Says Tompkins: "If you look at the [shows] that are really successful, that everybody across the board likes, it's always something where there was a vision and people were left alone to do what they wanted. But [executives] are just too scared to let that happen. They're like, 'It's gotta have an element in there that I recognize, something people will talk about at the water cooler.' "

Says Oswalt: "If you went to Largo or Tempest or the Uncabaret, you would see at least eight or nine really unique voices that you could develop a show around, if you were given the time. The thing about sitcoms now is, they're given two weeks, and then they're killed. Something like 'Seinfeld' . . . through these weird set of circumstances, they left the show alone for two years. When will that happen again?"

Comedians who bug them include very popular ones: Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams.

They're alternately deemed gimmicky (Williams), vanilla (Leno) and way too pleased with himself (Crystal). If you agree, then you're a good candidate for a Tompkins/Kilgariff/Oswalt show. Disagree and these three will probably strike you as pompous and bitter and still young.

Still, they can never be accused of contributing to a prevailing sense that stand-up comedy is irrelevant.

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