The New Comedians; Will all the world laugh with them?
Hollywood — His arms frozen in a wild gesture, sunglasses on, and leaning well over to one end of the sofa in his Westwood apartment, an energetic Mike Binder shows how fast it can happen.
This is the dangerous work of comedy.
''I've put on the glasses,'' he says. ''I'm out here on a limb. There's no way I'm not trying to be funny.'' And in the audience could be any number of network casting agents and other key figures who could shape his career.
At that point, say, the improvised punch line falls flat. No one laughs.
In the time it takes to get back over to the mike, get the glasses off, and make a recovery, he says, a terrible thought has occurred to the audience: He's bombing. The tides shift and self-consciousness floods the room.
It can take two full minutes to win them back, Binder says - like a boxer discussing his next fight - if they come back at all.
Behind the mike and under the spotlight in this dark and crowded room full of tables at the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, the emcee announces ''Kid Comedy himself!'' and Mike Binder dodges through the chairs and bounds onto the stage.
He's a brash and tough-talking kid from Detroit. He has the healthy, alligator-shirt look of the suburbs, but he's got the pugnacious comic style of a guy who can hold his own on the street corner.
He gives Detroit a working over before moving on.
Once grounded on Halloween, he tells the audience, he was forced to egg his own house, only to be given away by the egg on the inside of the windows. (''Hey , I'm not bright but I'm happy, all right?)
He ribs the English, the Irish, TV evangelists, and Jewish grandmothers.
Be nice, shouts a woman in the audience.
Nice isn't funny, he says. He isn't paid to be nice. Still, he is likable in his verbal roughhousing. He laughs and enjoys himself.
But he skirts the edge of a precipice every working minute. Poise is the key, and it can take the balance of a cat.
This stage is the Grand Central Terminal of the comedic world. A boom in comedy clubs around the country in the past several years has meant a living to many new and funny faces in the field. It has been a grand time to be a comic. There are now clubs big enough to book comics by the week - and pay their air fare - in cities as far flung as Seattle, New Orleans, Houston, and Honolulu.
There is so much TV comedy, much of it bad, that some comics and club owners are afraid the public may grow weary of it. Nevertheless it's still a grand time to be a comic.
After Binder's act, Richard Pryor and Robin -Williams will make unadvertised appearances here, as they have almost nightly for weeks, to work out material and keep in comic shape.
This club has become a comedy colony, a comics' gym, sitting on the crossroads where the club circuit meets television. The audience is often peppered with scouts for the talent-starved networks. And now the Comedy Store has built its own TV production studios - just across Sunset Boulevard - to ride the cable-TV wave to what club entrepreneur Mitzi Shore anticipates as a ''comedy explosion.''
''I'm not a nightclub owner,'' stresses Mrs. Shore, who actually owns and runs a comedy ''farm system'' of five clubs at three locations, each a different comic environment. Tiny and bohemian-looking in her satin, cigarette-leg pants and wire-rimmed bifocals, she sifts the legions of would-be's for the really funny. ''I know people call me an extraordinary businesswoman,'' she says, ''but my goal has been to create an art colony where there is artistic freedom.''
That's what Mike Binder found six years ago when - just 17 years old - he drove from Detroit to Hollywood, after two days in college, to become a comic (against everybody's best advice).
At one time, comics sprang from the same place prizefighters came from: the cramped urban ghetto, notes UCLA associate professor Howard Suber, who teaches comedy and comedic history. Humor is the weapon of the weak against the strong, he says. The bright, aggressive, but unschooled children of immigrants clowned their way out of hard circumstances.
Not Mike Binder. Like many of his fellow funny men, he escaped from the other side of the tracks to the comic's life.
''I'm a businessman's son,'' he says. ''My father is wealthy. My grandfather is very wealthy.'' His brothers and sisters are of the architect and lawyer variety, making money and handling the business of life like professionals. ''They're right on with the numbers,'' he muses.
In high school, Binder was dead serious about comedy. To his family, it was a ''cute thing to waste your time with.'' When he graduated, his father enrolled him in a community college.
Two days later, he announced that he had $700 and he was headed for California to pursue his calling. His father did everything he could to talk him out of it. Unsuccessful, the senior Binder doubled his son's traveling money.
So young Binder jorneyed west and joined a tradition coursing back to the court jesters of the Middle Ages; back through Artemus Ward, the nonsensical Yankee lecturer who sent ripples of laughter through a decorous English-speaking world in the mid-19th century; or back to Mark Twain, Josh Billings, and Will Rogers.
If Binder had sought his comedic fortunes early in the century, he would no doubt have traveled with a vaudeville troupe. Here comedians could tour hundreds of cities and use the same routines, the same jokes, at every stop - until they turned to film and used up their gags in one swoop.
Those who survived into the radio and television age - Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns - had the ability to stay fresh for the joke-consuming, overexposing airwaves.
The master survivor of the mass-media age is Bob Hope, who stays fresh with the help of a fresh battery of staff writers, Dr. Suber of UCLA points out. Hope , Johnny Carson, and comedians like them also share the important ability to stand free of the jokes they tell. The jokes can bomb without the comedian's being damaged by the blast.
The real heyday of stand-up comedy came in New York in the late '50s and early '60s, symbolized by the club where much of the folk music of the that era was also weaned, the Bitter End.
Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl, and Rodney Dangerfield are among those who emerged.
Then something happened; comedy seemed to wane. As television came into its own, nightclubs began to fade. Aspiring young comedians, unless they could catapult themselves into TV or Las Vegas celebrity status, had nowhere to go.
There were other reasons for the slide. Lenny Bruce and his followers, Dr. Suber explains, had torn down the last barriers to obscene and otherwise taboo subjects. But in the turmoil of the decade, people were becoming squeamish about making jokes about what had long been the traditional stuff of comedy: sex and ethnic groups.
Polish jokes became popular then, he says, because everyone knew that Poles weren't really a deprived minority.Meanwhile, the bright and ambitious kids from the ghetto were getting a better shot at college and a career. They didn't need the comedy route so badly.
Comedy came back, not to New York and San Francisco, where it had last flourished, but to Los Angeles. Mitzi Shore and her then-husband, comedian Sammy Shore, opened the original room of the Comedy Store in 1972. The ''Tonight Show'' moved to Los Angeles the same year.
Mike Binder arrived in 1975 and did five minutes on a Monday potluck night. This is when miscellaneous hopefuls and adventurers sign up for a democratic chance at making people laugh from the stage. Now roughly a hundred a week go on at the three Comedy Store locations.
Mitzi Shore spotted Binder's potential and offered him a job (as a doorman; the Store didn't pay comics then). More than that, she took up his cause. Along with four or five other young comics she believed in, she invited Binder to spend holidays with her family and made sure his rent was paid. Then she got Norman Lear (with whom he later signed a seven-year contract) to see his act. She brought ABC in first, then the other networks. Since then, Binder has had contracts with each of them.
The Comedy Store is indeed a comedy colony, not just a nightclub. Here the life of the creative artist is the standard. To this day, Binder says, slightly embarrassed, the club's bookkeepers write his checks for him, freeing him from some of the humdrum activities of daily life. Against the background of a white-collar, professional family, it's easy for a comic like Binder to feel less than a legitimate citizen. ''They think I've got a problem,'' he says. But at the Comedy Store, where the comedians are, he can be an artist.
The colony idea does have its drawbacks. It can be a clubby group and ingrown. Comics listen to comics and often borrow each other's bits - usually accidentally, in the heat of improvisation. Other clubs pay better, give a headliner more time on stage, and offer more mainstream audiences to play to.
Says comic Peter Crabbe, who has headlined clubs around the country and has a ''Merv Griffin Show'' appearance under his belt, ''I'd rather make it as an outsider.''
And there is plenty of room for making it as an outsider. But the Comedy Store is still the widest road onto the television tube.Success has won over Binder's father. ''Now he loves the versatility of his kids,'' says Mike, sunk in his sofa, in jeans and a T-shirt. Through Mike, the senior Binder met Perry Como, now a boating companion, and a slew of other long-admired entertainers.
Binder was a television success by the time he was 18. He was a regular on ''Make Me Laugh,'' which was, for a time, the second-most popular independently syndicated TV show in the country. He was getting parts on network comedy shows and in movies and even made a pilot for a series that never flew.''
When I was 18, people thought I was really taking off,'' he says. ''No dues.'' He had a shot at the break that is still a major benchmark in the comic career: a ''Tonight Show'' appearance.
He balked, he says. It was too soon, so he turned them down.
Comedians face a choice in how they pace their careers. They can go as far as they can as soon as they can, or they can control the kind of public exposure they get as they polish their comic characters. Comics don't want to be seen too much by too many before they have developed their comic resources.
TV wasn't doing it. ''There's nothing there,'' Mike shrugs. ''You get your six minutes and say some lines in a sitcom that someone else wrote.''
He wanted to develop a complete comedic personality, to become the kind of comedian who can ad-lib fresh combinations and always keep his feet. It's the difference, he says, between a guy who can stand up and tell 10 jokes and a funny guy.So he left Hollywood, TV, and the Comedy Store. He moved to Sylvan Lake, Mich., a quiet haven near Detroit, to play the clubs scattered around the Midwest - ''to learn what makes the whole country laugh.''He came back this past September, feeling surer of his footing. In the meantime he has written three screenplays. As a hopeful screenwriter, he points out, he now has a real edge: He knows what makes people laugh.
Now, whether writing or doing stand-up, he explains: ''I'm sure of it, because I have gone to the well so many times and tasted the water.''
If he kept two of every 20 jokes he wrote in his early days at the Comedy Store, he might keep 18 now. ''The people of this country have told me what's funny.'' The people, the public, the audience - Binder speaks of them with unabashed respect. ''I love the people,'' he says with what appears to be genuine fervor.
Most comedians seem to either love or detest their audiences, or work under various strong, steaming mixtures of the two attitudes.
Even the most savage and hostile comics in the business, New Yorker Richard Belzer, for instance, will, upon leaving the stage, compliment the audience with a glint of felt sincerity. In Richard Pryor's foul-mouthed reverence for life, his eyes almost seem to water at a low, mumbling punch line that sends the crowd into a roar. He's smiling, but is he also about to cry?
The people, Binder says, respect hard work. So does Binder, because what he really wants is to be master of his own comic fate. He wants to be funny, not lucky. ''If the public sees someone work hard, they care about them.'' The people who took years to make it, he notes - Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin - are the lasting stars, no matter what kind of breaks they get.
Those who make it fast through luck and talent alone are natural fodder for the National Enquirer. The public envies but doesn't admire them.
''Idealistic stuff'' like patience, perseverence, and practice is the key to comedy, just as they were to high school football, he says. His model is Sylvester Stallone: He relentlessly churned out seven screenplays before he struck gold with ''Rocky.''
Like Stallone, Binder wants to sell only finished screenplays, not the usual series of treatments and scripts building toward it, so he can keep control of his projects. ''I've been owned by TV networks before; I don't like it.''
As for the ''Tonight Show,'' he feels ready now. In fact, he just taped a Canadian version, the ''Alan Thicke Show,'' in Vancouver.
NBC scouts are not in the audience as ''Kid Comedy himself'' bounds onto the Comedy Store's original room stage and takes the mike. But a week later they are.
On this evening, in a coat and tie, he runs briskly through a set of routines. The audience responds well. But Binder really doesn't feel good about it. The ''Tonight Show'' format is tight and formalized. Comedians stand on a ''T'' on the floor. No roving the stage. Little improvising. Although no one else can tell he is doing it, he is uncomfortable running from set joke to joke. He wants to stand up, footloose and free-form, and be funny.
''I've always felt that stand-up is a very dangerous thing,'' Binder says. It's an immediate feedback-business. Either the audience laughs, or the comic is left a ridiculous failure under the unforgiving spotlight. ''It's like the edge of a precipice. You always know it's there.''
It can happen so fast, he says in earnest exaggeration, that in saying ''the end,'' you can be killing (comedic jargon for knocking 'em dead) on ''the'' and bombing on ''end.''
For what they think at the ''Tonight Show,'' he can only wait to hear.He'll never give it up. The reason is obvious. It's the sound of 200 people really laughing - the force of it tightening their bellies and screwing smiles onto their faces. Then Binder thinks: I've got the antidote. The news is frightening and times are tough, he thinks, but I have the antidote to all that.
Behind the audience, in the back of the club through a labyrinth of black-walled halls, stairs, backstage doors, and crows' nests for stage-spying, Mitzi Shore sits on the sofa in her dark, gypsy-lair office. The walls are hung heavy with photos of Comedy Store comics and work is spread over a desk perhaps 12 feet long.
Although not a comic herself, she is devoted to comedy and the undisputed matriarch of her comedy colony.
''I love the people who make other people laugh,'' she says with conviction. Not something she can explain, but she feels it every night.
In contrast to what her frequently flashing phone light and hurried aides would suggest, Mrs. Shore's manner is low key and almost whimsical.
It is the comedians, not comedy, that absorb her. ''I can't think of enough glorious words to describe them,'' she says. ''I wish I were a writer.''
What does she look for in young comics? ''I don't look for anything.'' But her interest is in a comedian's personality, rather than his material. The jokes , she says, will come.
The ultimate, she says, is what she calls comedic purity: honesty, joy, and creative freedom on the stage.Mitzi Shore now runs an original room (where most everybody starts and even the superstars come back to work out routines); a Westwood Comedy Store (where green comedians can get their stage feet before mostly college audiences); a La Jolla Comedy Store (a nightclub near San Diego for slicking up club acts away from the Hollywood whirl, including an apartment as a comedian's retreat); and the Belly Room (a place for comediennes to build their confidence working in a comfortable, living room style setting).