By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

After several lackluster years, smiles have come back to local comedy club owners.

"Our club has been packed almost every night," said Jamie Masada, president and founder of the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. "I'm having to turn away a couple hundred people every Friday and Saturday night and send them to clubs down the street."

At the Ice House in Pasadena, night manager Amy Bernard-Herman says she's seeing more customers and repeat customers over the last couple of years.

Business has also gotten better at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, according to owner Mike Lacey. The shows are packed and people are taking advantage of the recently expanded kitchen to order more food than ever, he said.

All this is a far cry from the early '90s, when a major shakeout rocked the local clubs, putting an end to a decade-long boom that saw comedy clubs popping up most everywhere.

"Comedy really boomed here in the '80s, and a lot of people tried to cash in on the boom," Bernard-Herman said. "You had small and mid-sized comedy clubs opening up in strip malls and in suburban areas all around town."

But the boom ended as comedy moved to cable television and the recession hit, according to Steve Schrippa, director of entertainment for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, who has been booking acts for over 20 years.

"Comedy had become so hot that you had so many clubs and not that many really good comics," Schrippa said. "A lot of club owners got greedy and started booking second-tier acts. When the fad ended, they couldn't make it anymore; they found out it was very hard to run a full-time, seven-night-a-week club.

"However, the strong clubs the clubs that booked the quality acts, stuck with them, and looked for new quality acts survived and prospered," Schrippa said.

But even at the established clubs, there have been changes. "Shock comedy" is becoming less popular than it was three or four years ago. Now, political comedy is back in vogue, spurred by the travails of President Clinton.

"There isn't an evening that goes by that I don't hear a Clinton joke, even now, four months after the impeachment trial ended," Masada said.

Meanwhile, a new comedy phenomenon has emerged in L.A.: alternative comedy venues that mix cutting-edge comedy with other performance acts, like poetry reading or music.

"L.A. has been out in front on this, especially at the coffeehouses," Schrippa said. "It's yet to spread to the rest of the country."

One such alternative venue is LunaPark in West Hollywood. Booking and Publicity Director Johanna Rees said three or four years ago, the club would sell out comedy acts on Sunday nights. Now, the venue is booked for comedy several nights during the week and is often solidly booked for several months in advance.

"It's a really relaxed atmosphere, both for the audience and for the comedians," Rees said. "The comedians coming here do not have to compete against the touring national headliners. They feel they can really connect with the audience."

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