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Comic opera High drama at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival: A comedian from Maryland seeking a manager, and a TV deal. A well-connected manager seeking new talent, and a TV deal. Would they find each other? Would both find a deal? You must be joking.

March 29, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

"My market will be predominantly black," he says. "That's my comfort level. That's where I came from. Ninety percent of black audiences know who I am. That's an edge right there."

He also knows, of course, that comics like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Steve Harvey have achieved such success because they make the crossover. Carpenter says he can work beyond his comfort level, it just bothers him that he has to do it. White comedians, he says, don't even have to think about this.

He's not complaining, he keeps saying, he's not bitter. But one evening Carpenter is sitting in a hallway at the St. Regis Aspen talking to a reporter, venting frustration about the personal politics of show business. Patrice O'Neal, a black comedian from Boston, overhears. He's heard it before.

"What is this story called?" O'Neal asks in mock outrage. 'One Angry Motherf-----' ?"

Carpenter laughs. But it's not been a very amusing night. Word just drifted down the hall that D. L. Hughley, an African-American comedian about Carpenter's age, just got a deal with ABC to star in six episodes of a sitcom. Hughley, it turns out, is represented by Dave Becky.

This news follows an unpleasant reminder of his own TV near-miss: a chance meeting with the woman from Fox who'd introduced him to the people who, it once seemed, had a deal lined up.

"What do you think when you see someone like that come up and give me a hug, and three months ago she wouldn't return my phone call?" he asks.

Dave Becky has seen a million of them. Comedians and more comedians. Ever since he started busing tables at the Improv in San Diego while he was in college, life has unfolded in an endless parade of stand-ups, sketch acts, ventriloquists, impressionists. Pretty soon he was booking the shows, then leaving college to manage the club, then producing segments for Dennis Miller's TV show. After Miller's show was canceled, he got into talent management.

Becky hung in from the boom days of the 1980s, when it seemed every beer joint had an open mike night, through the comedy shakeout of the 1990s, when clubs folded like so many S&Ls.

Reports of the death of stand-up comedy, however, were grossly exaggerated. With the explosion of comedy programming on cable television, stand-up has become a training ground for TV performers, writers, consultants, producers. Echoing through the Aspen mountains this year was the news about just how big television comedy has become: NBC offered Jerry Seinfeld $5 million per episode. Five million per episode. Comedian Steve White works it into his act. For that much money, says White, an African-American, he would join the Ku Klux Klan, put on the sheets, burn crosses, whatever.

"Our industry is so hungry for great new talent," says Julie Pernworth, NBC's director of casting. No, she did not come to Aspen looking for the Next Seinfeld. She's looking for "anything that will make good television. ... Someone who has a great point of view you can build a show around. Or someone we can cast in a show."

David Himelfarb, Disney's senior vice president for creative affairs, says festivals like Aspen save executives a lot of club-hopping. "This and Montreal [a July festival] are the only real scouting I do all all year."

Becky, though, still goes to the clubs. And it has paid off, leading him to clients like the Chicago-based Upright Citizens Brigade, which he's represented for several years.

In Aspen, the UCB's show features variations on themes of ethnic prejudice and political correctness. A bizarre exercise in group apology to a Jewish man quickly turns anti-Semitic. Also doomed is an attempt to show tolerance for a much maligned and misunderstood minority group: astronauts.

The group performs three times in Aspen, with Becky nudging TV executives into the shows like a legislative whip herding votes. In a business of colossal egos, Becky works the corridors and parties with an unpretentious, congenial manner. The approach seems to work. Even if he can't always land a long-term TV deal, he's seen several clients join what must be the fastest-growing segment of the American population: those who have had a half-hour comedy special on cable.

He's now managing about 15 clients, serving as their business adviser, their personal Web browser through the often complex connections that make things happen. At the festival Becky spots at least one comedian he'd like to add to his client list: Ed Byrne, an Irish stand-up whose humor might remind you of Guinness: dark with a sharp bite.

Becky is struck not only by Byrne's jokes, but his charisma and striking look: green velvet jacket, bone-white skin, mop of reddish hair. But Becky soon learns that Byrne already has representation.

Ted Carpenter, though, needs a manager. Becky catches two of his shows at Aspen, including his killer final set. He admires how Carpenter makes his so-called "urban" show work in Aspen. He likes his stage presence, his command.

4 "A great performer," says Becky. "Very likable."

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