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Graduation day?

Comic Buzz Sutherland is big man on the college circuit. What's next?

March 30, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Nashville, Tenn. — Joey Edmonds tells a Jay Leno story to kick off the convention where hundreds of colleges line up their entertainment for the year, recalling how Leno once filled in for him on the campus circuit.

That was back in 1977, when Edmonds was part of a comedy team that worked the colleges. A sprained ankle kept him from making a $500 job at the New York state university in Fredonia, south of Buffalo, so his partner said, "Why don't you call that new kid?" The new kid -- Leno -- said "sure" and drove nine hours from his Boston home to perform at the school.

"A day later, I call him up, 'Jay, how'd the show go?' " Edmonds recounts.

"He says, 'OK, Joey, but there were only like 10 people there.'

"I said, 'That happens sometimes. Did they give you the check?' "

From the stage of the cavernous Opryland convention hall, Edmonds does a perfect imitation of Leno's aw-shucks voice replying, " 'Yeaaah, but I gave it back. I didn't feel like takin' it.' "

The story then fast-forwards a couple of decades to when Leno was hired to do a Doritos commercial, but not for any measly $500. The check then was for $1 million.

"And he says, 'Joey, this one I didn't give back!' "

As Edmonds delivers the punch line, two huge screens display photos of him recently handing Leno a plaque backstage at "The Tonight Show," honoring the comedian as the latest member of the Hall of Fame of the group that has staged this convention for the past four decades years, the National Assn. for Campus Activities (NACA). Past honorees include others who toiled on the college circuit and went on to bigger things, such as Jimmy Buffett, the Oak Ridge Boys and Simon & Garfunkel.

The story carries an enticing message to the 2,100 students and their advisors who have gathered for four days of talent showcases: The comedian or singer they hire to perform in their gym or cafeteria might be tomorrow's Jay Leno.

That's also a seductive notion for the men and women who have come here to audition, for the bands and hip-hoppers and hypnotists who are hoping these kids will like them, and book them: You may be performing in those gyms or cafeterias today, but tomorrow, tomorrow....

Tomorrow you may be another Leno.

Or perhaps you'll still be performing on some campus who-knows-where, which is how it's gone for the comedian sitting dead center in the 15th row, there among the students, "my people," as he calls them. That's Buzz Sutherland.

"I'm the biggest name in college entertainment," he likes to say, "and nobody's ever heard of me."

A KID AT HEART

Buzz Sutherland has never once been on network television, much less gotten the three minutes most comics aspire to, the prized stand-up slots at the end of Leno's show, or Letterman's. The one time he auditioned for a sitcom in L.A., they told him to lose 10 pounds. "Even the ugly people are gorgeous out here," they told him. When he tried to get on "Star Search," they didn't take him either.

It's another story on the college circuit, however, where Buzz has performed 1,873 times by his own count, whether to loosen up hundreds of freshman during their orientation week or entertain the lunchroom of a commuter school at noon.

But on this night he's going before the audience that counts most: the students who are his bosses, the ones who decide whether to hire him or not.

At 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, it's time for the first showcase of the 2003 NACA convention. For 2 1/2 hours, the activities committees from 500 schools -- backed by budgets of $100,000, $200,000 or more -- will witness 20-minute performances by a break-dancing funk troupe, an a cappella boys group from Orlando, a poet from the Bronx, a rock band that's opened for Dave Matthews, a trio of acrobats ... and Buzz, the master of ceremonies.

He comes out in jeans and the black-and-white striped jersey of a hockey referee, a white undershirt showing through at the collar. He often describes himself as "a tragically Caucasian individual," but he comes out strutting to blaring hip-hop music, and carrying a video camera he points at the audience, which is enough to get the kids in front standing and waving their arms, as if they're going to be on TV. That's the idea too, the key to "the game," as Buzz calls it -- to make it all about them, and the moment, and not about him.

"Whazzup!" he yells, right out of the beer commercial, and then he's into a bit about their endless drives to get here, all of them stuffed into those rows of white campus vans parked outside. He shares his own rules for road trips, the first being, "If I'm drivin' we listen to my music," and the second, "If I'm awake" -- he whistles -- "so are you," and they cheer as if he's one of them, a fellow 19-year-old fighting for control of the radio, and not a daddy-of-two about to turn 37 who lives in a $700,000 house in St. Louis, thanks to them.

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