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So this retired UCLA professor walks into a bar ...

Jack Rothman, 80, started doing comedy five years ago. A former social psychologist, he offers kindly looks at people's foibles.

February 15, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

For a guy who's four-fifths of a century old, Jack Rothman is a million laughs.

Take, for example, this bit he wrote:

Two important factors place constraints on the prototypical rationalistic mode. The first is the intensification of constituency politics, a contemporary development that makes planning highly contentious and interactive.

Oh, wait. Wrong bit.

We meant this one:

I was sittin' on a park bench, and this college-age guy comes over, and he's got all these spikes in his hair -- red, orange, green, purple. He sits down, and after a while I say to him, 'Pardon me for staring, sonny, but one wild night years ago, I had sex with a peacock, and I'm wondering if you're my son.' "

Rimshot: Ba-boom-BOOM!

You can count on one finger the number of UCLA professors emeriti who segue from the graduate-school seminar to the stand-up comedy stage, and that single digit would be Rothman.

Five years ago, when the retired professor of social psychology and author of numerous scholarly books was 75, he embarked on a second career, getting people to laugh instead of teaching them to grasp the intricacies of community organizing, his academic specialty.

"For my birthday, my children gave me a certificate to take a stand-up comedy class," he said. "They told me, 'Dad, if you're gonna go around the house trying to be funny, why don't you actually learn how to do it?' "

At home with his wife, Judith, and three children, Rothman was a ceaseless joke-maker and shameless punster. "Oh, sometimes we got irritated with him because we felt like he wasn't taking things seriously," said daughter Amy Rothman, an interior designer who with a steely eye helps edit her father's routines. "Some of his jokes are a little too schmaltzy for me, but I like his outlook on life. And my mother really appreciates his sense of humor."

Rothman now stands on the threshold of his greatest achievement as a laugh artist. Tonight he'll set his shtick against that of nine other comics (all young enough to be his grandchildren) in the finals of a contest at the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena. The winner gets $500 and a slot in a Seattle competition.

Rothman has competed before, but this is the first time he's made it past the preliminary round. He "most definitely" has a chance to take top honors, said Barbara Holliday, who produces the Pasadena contest. "In comedy, like golf, it's a plus to have a handicap, and Jack stands out because of his age. His jokes are kind of campy, but because he's 80, the audience loves him."

Rothman is a slightly pear-shaped man who wears a couple of formidable hearing aids and has a drawerful of vaguely funny caps for covering his mostly bald pate and conveying a likable casualness to comedy audiences.

His years on Earth are the basis of his routines (senior citizens getting into movies for half price: We oughta. We sleep through half the movie. We oughta get in free -- the other half we don't hear.)

"It's good to have a signature, and for me, age becomes a signature," he said. "The audience can see it as soon as I come on stage, and it's good to step off of that. It connects them to you right away."

Rothman grew up in the Bronx, a boy with a streak of humor that was, to him, mystifying. His mother, Anna, died when he was 2, and he was raised by his father, "who was very dour. Nobody else in the family was funny. I was like an island of humor in a sea of somberness."

It was only a decade ago that he sought to learn more about his mother, by interviewing elderly cousins. "I learned that she was a remarkable person and that she had a strong sense of humor. When salesmen came to my parents' candy store, she told them dirty jokes. When the family went on vacation, she'd short-sheet the beds. It was wonderful. I connected."

He has been delighted to find that the strain of family humor has continued beyond him, in the person of his only grandchild, Amy's 9-year-old Andrew, who is also an inveterate jokester.

"He's pretty good, too," Amy Rothman said. "I'd like to get him up there performing with my father. They really have a good time when they get together because of that. My father likes to say maybe a sense of humor skips a generation."

Rothman's humor tends to be observational and kindly. He has a pronounced distaste for much of the stuff he hears in comedy clubs, venues that he and Judith didn't frequent before he developed his own hunger for the stage.

"Jack Benny is a kind of hero of mine," he said. "He had this benign humor -- such decency to it.

"So many modern comics are crude, ugly, attacking wherever they can, including the audience. I hate these comics that come out and the audience doesn't laugh and they blame the audience. It's a total lack of professionalism. It's their job to make the audience laugh.

"Winning the first round of the contest, the thing I'm most proud about is, I didn't use one four-letter word. Not one."

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