By Staff Reporter

Ever since buying a Studio City coffee house called Jennifer's last September, Mario and Shelly-Ann Martin have been trying to boost business through a series of comedy shows and spoken-word nights.

They've tried open-mike nights geared at musicians, storyteller nights, and they even brought in professional comedians fresh off national circuits. The real success, though, didn't happen until they changed the age of their performers by a decade or three.

Two months ago, Jennifer's started a children's comedy night to fill some dead time on Friday evenings before the weekly music show. The performers range in age from 4 to 16. And Valley audiences can't seem to get enough of them.

"We were expecting mostly parents," said Shelly-Ann Martin. "But it's become bigger than we thought."

To the Martins' surprise, the show, which runs every other Friday from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., has filled the coffee house to its capacity of 45 people, some nights standing room only. The audience is usually a mix of parents, their friends and people who just like to see kids telling jokes.

And the kids do make the crowd laugh, putting on adult-like performances with a child's take on life.

"One 7-year-old girl last week went up and said, 'I don't understand boys. They're different,'" said Shelly-Ann Martin. "Some of them are funnier than the professionals."

The kids' comedy nights were the idea of Toni Attell, an acting teacher who had been putting on a similar show at a nearby coffee house called The Kindness of Strangers. That establishment closed earlier this year, so Attell asked Mario Martin if he'd allow the show to go on at Jennifer's.

Attell had been holding the nights at Kindness on Wednesdays but never really drew a crowd, or many kid performers. "A lot of kids couldn't come because it was a school night," Attell said.

She brought a group of five children enrolled in her acting class to Jennifer's for their first show in April. Soon, some friends and siblings of the core comedians decided they wanted in on the action. Now, a typical night attracts between seven and 15 budding comedians.

The kids prepare their own material, though some get help from parents. Attell preps them before the show, peppering them with tips on stage presence and helping shape some of their material.

The show starts out with some group improvisation, then each kid is given two to three minutes of solo time to make the audience laugh.

"(Last week), an 11-year-old boy was asked to do improv as a woman with PMS," Shelly-Ann Martin said. "Obviously, his mother goes through it, because he was perfect."

While the occasional performer suffers stage fright and refuses to go on, most, with the encouragement of Attell and the others, make it through their acts.

"The moment they get up and they get claps and admiration, it makes them feel really cool," Attell said.

While they applaud the comedy night's jolt to the kids' self-esteem, the Martins are also happy about the way the show has jolted sales.

"They've all done very well for our business, and it has introduced the place to people who would never hear of it otherwise," Mario Martin said.

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