'Is this thing on?' Today's comics find success elusive

With his dark Stiller-esque looks and Seinfeldian delivery, Ray Ellin should be poised for stardom – super stardom. Already, there are signs that the New York stand-up comedian is on his way. Mr. Ellin has signed with Howard Stern's agent, has hosted a popular local cable show, and has costarred in an independent movie opposite Jessica Capshaw. Yes, that Capshaw – Steven Spielberg's stepdaughter.

However, Ellin knows that the road to extraterrestrial success has rarely been tougher for him and other stand-ups. With reality television on the rise, increased competition, and fewer comedy clubs, it is getting tougher and tougher for the next Jerry Seinfeld or Eddie Murphy to break through.

"It used to be that a deal seemed to come with the territory. 'You're a comic? Here you go,' " recalls Ellin. "Now they're much harder to come by."

"It's much harder to break out of the pack," agrees comic Elon Gold, who is starring in NBC's fall sitcom, "The Inlaws." "With the Internet and satellite television, there's just so many choices."

On the eve of the fall TV season, comics, talent scouts, and Hollywood executives are wondering if this is the year the next comic superstar will emerge.

"There's a hole for the next big thing," Mr. Gold says. "I might have to go in and fill that hole."

We'll see.

When Murphy, Roseanne, and Robin Williams captivated audiences in the 1980s and early '90s, all of America seemed to be holding its sides. Comedy was booming, saturating TV and often playing live at a venue near you, sometimes very near.

"There used to be a comedy club in every town in the country," says veteran comic Jeff Nichols. "In bowling alleys, they used to put plywood over the lanes, get a microphone, and call it a comedy club. They had comedy clubs seven nights a week. An opening act could make $2,000 a week."

Now, Mr. Nichols says that he is lucky to get $200 for a two-night weekend engagement. "I'm one notch above a karaoke singer," he laments. "Comedy is dead. The audience members are funnier than the comics."

During the boom times, stand-up TV shows like "Caroline's Comedy Hour" abounded. "You couldn't turn the channel without seeing a comic on the screen," quips Ellin. "I wondered what was going on. I was just looking for 'Family Ties.' "

Meanwhile, Hollywood development deals were being pumped out regularly – all you needed was eight minutes of a routine. Most industry types agree that too many deals were given to too many of the wrong people.

They gave money to people that they should not have given money to, says Jason Steinberg of Steinberg Talent Management, who discovered comedian Dave Chapelle.

Oversaturated, the stand-up boom went bust in the early 90s. "It was like the death of disco. TV killed it," he explains. "Stand-up doesn't translate well on TV. If you can see it on TV, why pay $12 bucks and a two-drink minimum to go to a comedy club?"

Comedy clubs across the country packed up their mikes and closed their doors. Soon, the TV development deals dried up as well.

"The conglomerates of the TV industry got tired wasting money on talent that went nowhere," explains Michael Herbert, who works in casting for Dreamworks SKG and trolls comedy clubs looking for fresh talent. "They became much more cautious."

Ultimately, Steinberg says that Hollywood executives became gun shy, selecting vanilla acts that lacked the edge required for superstardom. "Even Seinfeld had an edge," he notes.

While there are fewer deals to go around, it seems there's no shortage of would-be funnymen eager to try out their one-liners – for free, no less.

Novice comics who bring in customers in exchange for stage time enable many comedy clubs to stay open. Stand-up school has become a cottage industry. Club owners are looking for alternative ways to cash in. Many serve as personal managers, using stage time as bait to lure comics.

"It's a conflict of interest. I think it's hurting the business," declares Steinberg, who believes that this dynamic is serving as a roadblock for new talent. "Often [the owner's] act is not the most qualified act for the show. They're taking away an opportunity from someone who deserves to be on the stage."

Perhaps the next Murphy or Seinfeld is out there, but just can't get stage time.

New York is the undisputed hotbed of comedy, but right now, the only audience the veteran Nichols can find there is on a street corner. To get work, he has become a comic-in-exile, performing in places like New Jersey and Kansas for a few hundred dollars for three weekend shows.

In hopes of breaking through, comics like Nichols and Ellin are trying, well, anything they can think of. Nichols has completed his memoir, "The Little Yellow Bus," which chronicles his life living with mental disabilities. Ellin is producing an alternative comedy show. "It's 'Star Search,' 'The Gong Show,' and a poetry slam all rolled into one," he says.

Perhaps no one is more determined to make it on TV than comic D.C. Benny, who is actually producing TVpilots himself.

While Steinberg encourages this kind of creativity, he is not always impressed by the results.

"Often alternative comedy is not funny," he says. "It's, like, 'What are you doing?' "

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