Although the rest of the world may often find us amusing, Utah isn't exactly known as a breeding ground for comedians. Maybe life is just too comfortable here. Unless you're a woman who always felt she was looking at the local culture from the outside - a woman like Rose-anne Barr. Or Janine Gardner - Utah's newest comic export.
Unlike Barr, who will star in her own network sitcom this fall and is thankful that she no longer calls Utah home, Gardner still resides here. Or at least her answering machine and her furniture do. Since quitting her job last January at Eimco, where she handled customer complaints about sewage treatment, Gardner has been on the road most of the time lately pursuing a career in comedy.Earlier this week she made her concert debut, opening for Ray Charles at Symphony Hall, in a benefit for Neighborhood Housing Services. The audience, the vast majority of which had no idea who she was when she stepped out on stage, laughed enthusiastically at her jokes, particularly those about Utah's unique lifestyle.
"I don't know if you know this," she told the crowd, "but Utah is the largest importer of Jell-O and miniature marshmallows. In Utah, if it doesn't quiver, it isn't a salad."
On her travels throughout the country, she says, she meets a lot of people who think Utah is a pretty, conservative state, but she explains to them that a lot of us sit around playing our Mormon Tabernacle Choir records backward, "listening for subliminal Cool Whip recipes."
Gardner did her first stand-up routine four years ago at Cartoons. At that point, live comedy was new for both Gardner and most Salt Lakers. Gardner memorized a five-minute routine off of 3-by-5 cards. Salt Lakers tended to laugh at just about anything.
"We all grew up together," she says of herself and her audience, as they both gradually became a little more sophisticated about humor.
In February of 1985, Gardner won first-place in Cartoons' amateur Laff-Off. But it took three more years - and getting past some agonizing moments in front of unreceptive audiences - before she felt confident enough to make a career out of comedy.
As she has matured on stage, Gardner has dropped her raunchy material and has given up her jokes about things like feminine hygiene and women's issues in general. She says it's important to her to communicate with the men in her audiences, "without them feeling like they've gotten a thrashing."
She's been booed in some southern cities, she says, for jokes about women's rights. But the bad experiences in places like Albany, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., have strengthened her as a comedienne, she says.
"I'm honing down anything threatening in my act. I'm trying to soften it. I don't want men to feel competitive with me on stage. I want them to think of me like the girl next door."
Her appearances throughout the south have also given her a new appreciation of how "emancipated" Utah women are - and how willing Utah men are to listen to a female comic.
She still finds it a challenge, though, no matter where she appears, to get past the assumption that a female comic can't be attractive.
"You're too cute to be funny," is the standard line she gets from men, particularly before she goes on stage.
Gardner, 34, has liked comedy ever since she was a little girl and her mother would wake her up to see funny comedians on "The Tonight Show."
Gardner's childhood was less than perfect but, as with many comedians, the flaws were what provided the backdrop for a compensating sense of humor. Today, Gardner's stand-up routine often includes remembrances of her mother's long-time Valium addiction.
Gardner moved to Utah from California when she was 9. A Catholic in a mostly Mormon neighborhood, she says she often felt like an outsider.
Her parents were "blue-collar people," she says, and today her favorite audiences are also blue collar. Her favorite age for an audience is 25 to 45 - "with enough life experiences to appreciate my jokes."
In the hierarchy of comedy, Gardner has moved up from being an opening act to being a middle act and sometimes being a headliner. She thinks she's ready to headline more. After all, she says, she can do 35 to 40 minutes "with high LPM (laughs per minute) and no jokes about condoms."
She hasn't appeared in comedy's mecca yet - the Comedy Store in L.A. But she says she's closing in on it. She has done shows in Ventura and Fresno, zeroing in on L.A. itself.
"I want to be ready," she says about the prospects of standing up on stage at the Comedy Store. "I don't want to blow it. I think you only get one chance."
In the meantime she's off to Omaha and Des Moines.