Gag Reflex

It's a place for comics, amateur and professional alike, to test their fates onstage at the mercy of an audience. Every Wednesday night at the Backstage Bistro, it's the audience that decides who will strut their comedic talents at the "Funniest Person in the Valley" contest's grand finale, where there's $1,000 up for grabs and the winner will be chosen by a panel of celebrity judges.

You can't always laugh at these budding acts -- more often than not, the three-minute time limit ends up being one minute too long. Many of the comics falter in the face of fear, pacing back and forth across the stage with not much to say but a bunch of over-rehearsed jokes. Not all of them fold, though.

One who certainly doesn't is west Valley real estate agent Clint Clark. Decked out in tan poly slacks and a red short-sleeved shirt gathered neatly around his waist, he won the biggest share of laughs one recent Wednesday. He jokes about his sex life and Viagra -- he's in his 60s -- but he has an original take on these subjects. One of his jokes, involving a strobe light, could give you a stomachache from laughing.

Here's how the nine-week contest breaks down. It's open to everyone, even the winner from the last run, Bob Howard. As promoter Jimmy Danelli explains, "Would you prohibit the New York Yankees from appearing in the World Series the following year if they won the championship?" Maybe not, but it sure pisses off a couple of the other contenders. Comics can perform every week, as long as they sign up the week before. Many of them show up even during the weeks they're not scheduled to perform. According to Danelli, "this [contest] gives them a chance to hang out, converse, network, to bond," and members of the comedic brotherhood are admitted free of charge, door fee waived. Winners of the weekly contests will compete in the grand finale, scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, August 17.

It was Danelli who came up with the idea for the contest. After appearing in supporting roles in unsuccessful TV pilots, he decided to move to Arizona to escape the Hollywood rat race. His success now stems from the hopes and dreams of others, and he is quick to provide aspiring comedians with their own opportunities, providing an audience at just $5 a head.

Danelli says revenue generated from admission and entry fees covers the cost of production, with a little pocket change on the side. In return, his reward is being able to watch comic foundlings take off on their own.

"Watching the comics get started and giving them a launching pad is fantastic," he says.

If you're kicking yourself in the ass for not entering the contest, don't fret. It has evolved into a profitable business, and Danelli says it will continue indefinitely, with the third round starting on September 5.

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Sherri Bellefeuille