Attorney turns to stand-up shtick

LET'S LAUGH ABOUT IT

October 03, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Say, have you heard the one about the lawyer with the multi-million-dollar practice who becomes a stand-up comedian?

Really. This is a killer.

You know the lawyer, Stephen L. Miles. All right, "former Assistant State's Attorney Stephen L. Miles." For those unfamiliar with technical legal language, that translates to: "did not make Law Review."

But seriously.

The man made his professional stand-up debut at the Comedy Factory in Baltimore Friday. Yes, the Stephen L. Miles, the guy in the "Let's Talk About It" television ads, the man who has parlayed personal injury and drunken driving cases into an eight-office operation with a monster advertising budget. The only things missing are the drive-up window and the plastic clown.

But who needs a plastic clown when you have Mr. Miles, who takes the stage wearing a sombrero the size of a wading pool? He quickly removes his black shirt to reveal a "Let's Talk About It" T-shirt. Not to say the man loves self-promotion, but next to him, Crazy Eddie was an Amish minister.

He gets up there and grabs the mike and does about 40 minutes in each of two shows. He displays reasonably good poise, even if he does have to read from notes. He gets hearty laughs with a bit about a sperm-count test and other jokes not printable in a newspaper purchased over the counter.

He does bits about his two children, about his son's dog and some rambling business about an armed-robbery trial. Much of the act is as funny as a bail hearing:

"'Free Willy,' have you seen the ads for three months? I am so dense I actually thought President Clinton had been kidnapped."

Ba-da-BOOM.

"Formal indictment? In 22 years of being a lawyer I have never ever seen a judge come out in a tuxedo."

Come on, the paralegals love this stuff.

Of course, they work for the man. He's got about 30 people working in eight offices in and around Baltimore: paralegals, five other lawyers and receptionists. Mr. Miles won't say how much the practice makes a year, but it's enough to support an annual advertising budget of about $750,000. For years, Mr. Miles has ranked among the top advertising lawyers in the country.

So he's got the big practice and a black Porsche and a weekend talk-radio show and more name recognition than Beavis and Butt-head. He's already a celebrity, so why does he need the stand-up shtick?

"I guess the stand-up comedy comes from a mid-life crisis," Mr. Miles, who turned 50 in April, says in an interview in the Glen Burnie office weeks before his opening night. "Some guys get a divorce. I did that 20 years ago. Some guys buy a sports car. I did that 10 years ago."

Besides, he says, "I've always been funny . . . always the class clown."

And what is trial law if not a show, says Mr. Miles, who has probably tried cases before a couple of hundred juries. "You're always performing with that. You get the jury to like you or your client, you're 80 percent home."

As for the professional image versus the picture of an attorney on stage in a sombrero, joking that "we win cases the old-fashioned way, we fix 'em," Mr. Miles says this: Image, shmimage.

"That whole image thing, I think lawyers are so hung up on that," he says. "You only go around once in life; you have to live. If I lose a few clients, I don't care. I've never been one not to do what I want to do."

To celebrate his 50th, he spent $330 for a 10-session comedy workshop in New York City. For five weeks this summer, he commuted to Manhattan to work in a group of about 10 students on writing, timing, presentation. The best of the group were selected to do five minutes for no pay at a club called Caroline's -- on Broadway, no less.

Mr. Miles made his comedy debut there in a city where no one knows his name. He did the sperm exam bit, made a video of the performance and presented it later to Bob Anderson, who owns the Comedy Factory with his wife, Joyce.

"The material he had was good. It was funny," Mr. Anderson says. The impresario says he was concerned about Mr. Miles' lack of comedy experience, but he figured the name alone would pack the 250-seat club. He billed Mr. Miles as headliner, bumping him over two veteran comedians, and raised ticket prices from $10 to $12 or $15. No drink minimum.

"There will be just as many people there who would like to see him crash and burn as people who would like to see him be successful," Mr. Anderson says before the show.

More than 180 people show up for the early Friday night performance, including many friends and relatives of Mr. Miles. The late show crowd numbers about 150.

One guy at the early show shouts, "You stink," during the performance, but folks interviewed after the late show give Mr. Miles credit for effort, also for being funny.

Darlene Bonner, of Columbia, says: "I think as a stand-up comedian, he's OK. I'd still go to him as a lawyer."

And Mr. Anderson says he'd book Mr. Miles again. Mr. Miles says he's too busy practicing law to launch a full-time comedy career, but adds, "I'll think about it."

Nice slogan, but as they say on the circuit: Don't quit the day job.

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