IT USED TO be that every red-blooded all-American misfit kid wanted to strap on a guitar and be a rock 'n' roll star. Nowadays this kid is just as likely to be out picking up punch lines and planning to laugh all the way to the bank.
That's because a funny thing has happened to show business over the past 10 years or so. In fact, lots of funny things have happened -- enough to add up to a comedy boom of unprecedented proportions.
You can see it in Memorial Auditorium, where foul-mouthed Andrew Dice Clay drew more than 15,000 to revel in his rancor.
Or at Melody Fair, where this summer's biggest attractions are three of network television's funny favorites -- Bill Cosby, who performs two shows Sunday night; Rose-anne Barr, scheduled for July 13, and Bob Newhart, July 22. Or in one of the comedy clubs that have sprung up like crabgrass in every sizable village and town from coast to coast, some 6,000 of them.
Most of all, you can see it on cable television, where the premium channels tout their comedy specials, comedy segments have become standard drop-ins between films, and there's even a channel called Ha! (not yet available in Western New York) that dishes up laughs full time.
"It's acceptable hedonism," says funnyman Robert Fiorella of Amherst, who started his career telling jokes to warm up the crowds for the headliners at the old Town Casino in the early '60s. "It's one of the few things we can do that's fun and doesn't hurt us."
Nobody can say for sure what started funny business booming. Some say it was the proliferation of comedy clubs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
"It's cost-effective, sure-fire entertainment," Fiorella suggests. "Instead of paying for a band or investing in fancy disco equipment, all you need is one guy with a microphone."
And some say it was the exposure that comics got on cable television.
"I think television helped the clubs and created the hugeness of the phenomenon," says Airborne Eddy Dobosiewicz, who books acts for the Comedy Trap clubs in North Buffalo and Niagara Falls and serves as host comic there when he isn't on the road.
"Until cable," he adds, "most people hadn't seen stand-up comics in their own environment. They'd only seen them do their five minutes on 'The Tonight Show.' "
One benefit of the boom is that it's easier for an aspiring comic to find an outlet. In the days before comedy clubs, stand-up comedians were the odd men out in show business.
"When I started out," Dobosiewicz says, "it was in L.A. and it was hard to get slots. I played coffeehouses, I was the opening act in jazz clubs, I went to talent shows in schools, any place I could get on stage. These guys today don't have a clue as to how good they have it."
TODAY'S COMEDIANS may have more opportunities than yesterday's did, but they also have more competition, even at the lowest rung of the career ladder -- open mike nights at the comedy clubs.
For the five or six open mike slots each Thursday night at the area's two main comedy clubs -- the Comedy Trap and the Comix Cafe in the Town of Tonawanda -- it's not unusual have a dozen auditioners.
The open mike night is the proving ground of comedy. It's when the big names try out new material. For beginners, it's the answer to the biggest question of all -- can they make people laugh?
Just as there's a progression in the development of comedians, there's a progression to the shows they get. The step up from open mikes is getting paid -- first as an emcee.
From emceeing, they graduate to second place on the bill, which requires 30 minutes of material. Finally, the headliner goes on for 45 minutes or more. Touring headliners with a bit of national television exposure make $1,000 to $2,500 a week.
The fun of open mike sessions is the chance to see comics at every stage of development. A couple of pros rounded out the program on a recent Thursday night at the Comedy Trap. The emcee, who warmed up the crowd and introduced the comics, was a former Buffalonian named Eddie Long. The headliner was New Yorker Billy Jaye.
The amateurs got about five minutes each to sink or swim. In most cases, that was long enough.
The first fellow up was a study in what not to do. He ignored the microphone completely. In fact, he spent his first 30 seconds ranting in the direction of the wall behind him. For a finale, he pulled his T-shirt over his head and gave his impression of a sexually transmitted parasite.
The next guy started out shakily, with a couple of jokes about being Italian. Then he found his piece of common ground with the crowd -- a routine about telephone answering machines.
After him came a more experienced comic with a single line of self-deprecation -- his timidness and small stature, particularly in relation to his wife. "Stephen King bought the rights to my honeymoon," he said. "My wife's part is going to be played by Rutger Hauer."
After two more of these guys, headliner Jaye was a breath of self-confidence. He hit the stage singing an unprintable song by the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew. Then, having broken the ice, he went for the common ground.
"Last week was the Allentown Art Festival," he mused. "I come here this week and it's the Buffalo Construction Festival. They're trying to build everything at once."
But even Jaye stumbled. Confronted with a heckler who wouldn't shut up, he jumped on the youthful offender with full New York fury and verbally roughed him up so much that it scared the crowd. Whenever he spoke to someone in the audience after that, he had to add some friendly assurances.
To witness comedy on the edge of unpredictability, the place is Comix Cafe. The Friday night late show there is devoted to something that isn't seen much these days -- improvisation.
"I did a lot of improv when I was in California," says Rob Lederman, a touring comic and co-owner of the Comix Cafe, "but around here most people don't know what it is."
Improv is when a group of comedians ad-lib jokes in response to words or situations provided by the audience. Some improv troupes solicit suggestions in writing in advance, but at Comix Cafe they're just shouted out.
Last Friday night, Lederman and two sidekicks, Dan Pordum and Rick Kirkwood, ran through a bunch of improv exercises. In some ways, it was like a game show -- Stump the Comedians.
First they gathered a bunch of unrelated words -- orgasm, occult, exhaust, vitreous, luminous, brownie, rabbit and love -- built a conversation around them. Then, with a volunteer from the audience, they made up a skit of emotions proposed by the crowd.
Fast-paced and silly, the improv group finally hit the wall during a nonsensical game called General Store, in which Pordum, the store owner, was supposed to guess what his customers wanted as they told him in charades. When the confounded Pordum started forgetting the clues he'd previously figured out, his compatriots attacked him physically, much to the delight of the crowd.
In his own act, Lederman takes pride that he doesn't indulge in ethnic or sexist humor. But that doesn't mean he's G-rated.
"I've got 20 minutes I can do in front of my parents and grandparents," he says, "and 20 minutes I can't. I'd like to be able to do 45 minutes of squeaky-clean stuff, but it's tough. It doesn't play well on the road, and I'm a road comic. Most people want something a little more adult. It's like, 'We've left the kids at home, do something for us.' "
Lederman finds the same sentiments in his own club. Patrons gave bad reviews to a clean comic who played there this spring, so he won't be coming back. Of the major comedians, the pristine exception is Jerry Seinfeld.
One of the dirtiest jokes Lederman's heard, however, wasn't told by the likes of Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay, but rather by Joan Rivers at Melody Fair. When she came up in the '60s, Rivers was a rarity. Few other women were doing stand-up comedy. Even now, the field is overwhelming male-dominated.
"It's a man's world," Lederman concedes. "Most of the time, you look at a comedy club audience and it's more men than women. Women comics have to be as totally likable for men as they are for women, and that's really difficult."
ONE THING aspiring comics don't recognize at first is just how hard stand-up comedy can be. To Lederman, it's not just a matter of telling jokes, it's an art form.
"You take guys like Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay," he says, "and what kids don't realize is that -- like 'em or don't like 'em -- there's a tremendous amount of professionalism to them. All they see is the attitude.
"You go to open mikes and you see kids with attitude," he adds. "One trick on stage is to have a drink or a cigarette in your hand as a means of projecting attitude.
"I had one guy at an open mike with a drink in one hand, the microphone in the other, and then he tried to talk with his hands. I had to go up and mop the stage when he was done."
The way Lederman sees it, unless it's someone like George Carlin holding a microphone to his throat while he swallows, a comic doesn't really have much time to stop and sip a drink.
"I do eight minutes before I take a break, take a breath, talk to somebody in the audience," he says. "I start out doing my best, cleanest stuff because I want them to like me. Then once they're laughing, once they trust you, then they allow you to take that sip of water."
Not everybody's cut out to be a comedian, even if they have a well-developed sense of humor. There are people who can write jokes, but can't tell them. And vice versa.
Nevertheless, there are basic techniques to creating comic material and putting it across. That's the premise behind a University at Buffalo Life Workshop that Fiorella is organizing.
The organizational meeting takes place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 101 of Baldy Hall, on UB's North Campus. A preliminary call is recommended to the Life Workshop Office at 636-2808 or Fiorella at 833-4579.
It'll be a six-week workshop, winding up in August with videotaping sessions and an opportunity to perform at open mike night at Comix Cafe.
"I don't think you can teach someone to be a great comic," Fiorella says, "but I think you can take the raw material and shift it around. We can teach them performing skills, like good diction and listening for response. We can show them techniques of how to disengage the audience from their fear or nervousness.
"Most of all, you've got to follow a particular form. You've got to have fast setups and punch lines. You've got to get a lot of laughs per capita. If you go to open mikes, you see that the most successful comics are the ones that are following the formula."
Fiorella suggests that an audience will give a stand-up comedian they don't know about 30 seconds to make them laugh.
"Thirty seconds?" Dobosiewicz exclaims. "I think it's more like seven seconds.
"Usually the best things to do when you first go on is acknowledge something about yourself that's very evident -- obesity, thinness, ethnicity -- something that's very obvious. Or else say something that the audience and performer have in common, maybe something about the government, and that kind of makes you all one.
"If you call a joke on yourself immediately, that makes it safe. The audience will think, 'He just abused himself, so we're safe.' They don't feel you're going to pick on them. Bad comics pick on the audience because they don't have material. Real pros don't pick on people."
Dobosiewicz also has taught stand-up comedy. Some of the students from his adult education classes at Kenmore East High School have turned out to be familiar faces at open mike nights.
"The first step is to get on stage," he says. "Then you get material, you get timing and delivery, and once you get that, you work on your personality. Then you've got substance, an act.
"Rodney Dangerfield is the guy who doesn't get any respect. Sam Kinison is that angry guy. Who I am is a guy with an attitude, a little bit arrogant, but I'm not mean about it. I'm a young married guy with an attitude about life in general.
"I do a lot of material about being married. That's why I can't wait to have kids. It'll be more material."