The pursuit of laughter is drawing crowds to scores of comedy clubs around the country, even if the jokes may be a bit stale.

With almost 500 comedy clubs across the United States, stand-up comics from as far away as Australia are joining the circuit, trying to earn a living making audiences laugh - and boo.At the Funny Firm, Chicago's newest comedy club, Karen Bark holds the tiny stage with its lonely microphone. The expectant crowd is seated at tightly packed tables in tiers resembling the Roman Coliseum, ready to throw her to the lions.

"As far as exercise goes, I sit on the sofa drinking coffee while I watch the videotapes. My philosophy is `If you can't firm it up, decorate it' . . ." she says.

"I was in trouble right after the wedding ceremony - I'd given him the impression I got up every day," she continues, trying to squeeze a laugh out of the 300-odd audience.

Larry Miller, a headliner who has appeared on the David Letterman show, which has become a major showcase for comics on the rise, told the yuppie-filled house:

"We're a totally different generation than our parents. My dad worked three jobs and went to school. If I have to go to the bank and the laundromat in the same day, I need a map."

People in the comedy business say the surge in comedy's popularity in the last few years is simply because audiences were ready for something to make them laugh.

Despite the unevenness of the jokes, comedy clubs are profitable enough that even smaller cities such as Little Rock, Ark. can support more than one stage.

Audiences willing to pay often stiff cover charges plus two-drink minimums will listen to anyone who can work a crowd.

A few years ago, an aspiring comic would have had to put in a couple of years on the road for almost no money. Today, rookies get on the payroll in less than a month.

Comics working their way up are paid according to a scale, with opening acts and masters-of-ceremonies getting $250 to $450 a week.

According to a local club owner, the headliner pulls down from $800 a week on up to the $200,000 weekly fees demanded by such well-known comics as Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.

Jay Leno, a frequent substitute for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, receives $25,000 for one night's work.

Comedian Mike MacDonald has been joking around onstage for almost 10 years.

"I got kicked out of a lot of rock bands for being the wise guy. It was just a natural transition for me," he said.

"There's no real formula for what I do, I just relate the obvious in a funny way. If you read my stuff, it's not funny at all, it's the way I deliver it opposed to what I say.

"That's the traditional difference between a comedian and a comic," he said, adding: "Now that I've been on The Letterman Show I can relax a little more."

Breaking into the circuit is easy; almost every club has a night where the microphone is there for the talking.

The Funny Firm gets an average of 30 to 40 calls a day from amateur hopefuls.

"About 25 of them won't be funny at all," club owner Len Austrevich told Reuters. "You have to weed them out, but we're always looking for new talent."

A common complaint on the circuit is that everyone is doing the same material.

"The standard cop joke is, 'I always wanted to be a policeman, but I found out I was allergic to donuts,"' said Austrevich, who has his own half-hour act.