It's a long trek, economically at least, from the comedy clubs to a hit TV series.
Ask Paul Reiser. "You started at nothing, coming to the city, then you'd work your way up to $5 a night, $20 a weekend, $50 for a gig here and there," Mr. Reiser recalls. "With luck, you could put that together and you'd get enough to pay the rent."
About 15 years later, of course, rent money is the least of Mr. Reiser's concerns. "Mad About You," the situation comedy he co-created and stars in, leads off NBC's Thursday night juggernaut; he also found time along the way to write a No. 1 best-selling book ("Couplehood") and make a recent foray into movies ("Bye Bye Love").
Still, he says, perhaps a little disingenuously, "Certainly, no one goes into comedy for the money. You can't make money."
Sure you can't. Maybe the clubs will only give you $50 or $100 for a night's work these days, but consider:
* Jerry Seinfeld, after leading his sitcom to the top of the ratings for the 1994-1995 season, signed a very lucrative deal for one final season, the details of which he has elected to keep secret.
* Ellen DeGeneres, on the strength of her own hit sitcom on ABC, will receive $2 million -- a sum out of reach even to many veteran film actresses -- for her movie debut.
* Martin Lawrence's stock escalated faster than the bullets he fired in the spring theatrical film "Bad Boys."
* Jim Carrey, after a three-for-three 1994 (his films grossed more than $300 million combined, while his latest, "Batman Forever," blew past $100 million in a mere 10 days), recently signed a $20-million-dollar deal.
Next fall, 28 of the 42 series debuting on the four major networks and two mini-networks will be comedies; more than a third of those will star stand-ups. And in the Emmy Award nominations announced Thursday, Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Reiser were nominated for best actor in a comedy series, and Ms. DeGeneres and Roseanne were nominated for best actress in a comedy series.
"Comedians explode almost faster than anyone in our society," says Michael Fuchs, CEO of HBO, which co-sponsored a comedy arts festival in Aspen in March to give the industry a chance to scout new talent. "This country likes to laugh, it likes to laugh at itself, it's how we get through. When something happens, like the O. J. murders, everyone wants to hear the first jokes out about it. That's very inherent in our personality of this country, it seems.
"When [HBO] started 20 years ago, there were about seven comedy clubs," Mr. Fuchs reflects. "And stand-ups were people who made their living doing stand-up and rarely had series built around them."
Now, whether for sitcoms, talk shows or even game shows, networks can't grab stand-ups fast enough. The same industry folks who hit Aspen anticipate finding the next big thing in Montreal, at the 13th annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, the world's largest comedy festival. It started July 19 and continues through July 30.
Comics whose careers took off after Montreal appearances include Mr. Seinfeld, Tim Allen and Brett Butler, according to Andy Nulman, CEO of the festival.
"There definitely is a feeding frenzy," says Mr. Nulman. "I only really noticed it two years ago and last year. . . . People were saying, 'We've signed you to this deal, drop your next show.' They were worried that someone was going to come along and say, 'Although you signed with this person, there's a way to break it, we're goinna give you more money.' I remember backstage at one small club, people climbing over one another screaming, 'Speak to me before you make a deal!' Business cards flying, it was almost surreal. That's when I started thinking, Things are getting a little weird.' "
Comedy actor Albert Brooks ponders the comedy boom, which rescued him from his early days as an opening act at rock concerts. "I've heard theories," he says. "One is that as the world gets crazier, this profession gets more needed. If we are heading toward the apocalypse, then every place is going to be a comedy club."
Harland Williams came to Los Angeles less than three years ago; his sitcom, "Simon," debuts on the Warner Bros. network in August. Interest in his act began the first time he set foot on an L.A. stage.
"That first night, [comedy manager] Rick Messina saw me," Mr. Williams says. "Afterward, he asked me if I would do the show 'Comedy on the Road.' It started immediately, my very first gig, and I was offered a national TV show. It's been going ever since.
"They're understanding that we're more versatile than they gave us credit for," says Mr. Williams, who was also in the film "Dumb and Dumber." "Some of us are capable of serious dramatic acting, doing cartoon voices, churning butter. They're learning to capitalize on our talents."
Mr. Reiser is proof -- he took a circuitous route to his current success, appearing in roles that didn't just require quick quipping in "Diner" and "Alien," though he says those weren't strategic career moves.