The first time Bill Bronner performed at a comedy club he took along a support group - his brother, his roommate and a woman from his office - because if all else failed, at least three people would laugh.
That was in San Francisco in 1982. It was open mike night at a downtown club and Bronner, a total newcomer, was slated to perform last.As the evening wore on he began to have second thoughts. The other comedians were funny. One of them in fact was Dana Carvey, who later went on to be The Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. Bronner began to wonder if he could measure up. He had worked up some jokes about his family; maybe, he began to think, he should be telling these things to a psychiatrist.
By the time he got up to the mike he could hardly get the jokes out of his mouth, and it was a good thing he had brought along his three friends.
It would be two months before he would be brave enough to get back on a stage.
So Bronner knows how much courage it took for Brandi Hoggard and Karen MacArt and a handful of other aspiring comedians to stand up on the stage of The Comedy Oasis at the Salt Lake Marriott on a recent winter night.
The aspiring, perspiring group was the first graduating class of Bronner's Comedy Academy, a six-week course in how to be funny for seven minutes without stopping to say "um."
This was the final exam: To stand up in front of a real audience at The Comedy Oasis, which Bronner runs with another comedian from Los Angeles.
The next session of the Comedy Academy begins Monday, Feb. 4, in Bronner's living room in Rose Park. Once again the mike stand will be set up in the middle of Bronner's green shag carpet, and a dozen people will begin to live out their fantasy.
Most of them will be people, like Bronner himself, who once made someone laugh at a party or at work. "Hey, you're funny," someone probably said to them. "You ought to be a comedian."
People laugh at Karen MacArt at FHP, where she is an emergency care nurse. MacArt wears her nurse's uniform for her stand-up act, too, because she hopes it will set her apart from the thousands of other people who also want to be discovered by David Letterman's producer.
"My goal is to be an overnight success," says MacArt. This is a joke, because of course that's not the way it works in comedy. "And to be filthy rich so I can support a full-time housekeeper," MacArt goes on to explain. She has three children, two of them still in diapers.
Bronner's first class of would-be comedians also included a teacher, a landscape gardener, a piano teacher and a lawyer.
The lawyer is Ed Havas, who has had lots of practice performing in front of juries and judges but who discovered that he is still prone to anxiety attacks in front of people who have paid to hear him be funny.
"I had the jitters immediately before going on stage," says Havas about his performance at the Comedy Oasis. "I thought I might puke on the people in the front row. Or freeze up. Or, the worst possible scenario, the audience might react with stone cold silence. It was a daunting kind of image."
As it turned out, Havas is a natural. He may feel terror, but he looks calm and sure of himself, and he makes it look effortless when he launches into the shtick about his Jewish mother, who now owns an answering machine.
"Now she can inflict guilt and be off playing cards at the same time," he explains.
Then Havas begins talking in his Jewish mother voice: " `That's all right. You don't have to leave a message. It's enough you should call. It's okay, the doctor says it's nothing.' Beeeeep."
Like Havas, Bronner used to be a lawyer, too. Now he's a full-time comedian/comedy club producer. What turned the tide for him, he says, was taking a comedy class in California in 1984. "It was a gentle baptism into comedy," he says. Since then he hasn't gone more than two weeks without performing. And now his palms aren't even sweaty.
For information about the Comedy Academy or about weekly auditions for the Comedy Oasis's Thursday night amateur showcase, contact Bill Bronner at 575-5138.