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Chuckle and bucks. Comedy clubs laugh all the way to the bank

THE comic stands on stage before a beaming crowd, mike in hand, talking about a subject dear to the funnybones of New Yorkers: crime. ``I don't know how they catch crooks. My post office has `Wanted' posters on the wall; does that work? I check the poster, I check the guy standing in line behind me. If it's not him, that's pretty much all I can do. Let's face it, the most annoying thing is: Why didn't they hold on to this guy when they were TAKING HIS PICTURE!''

The crowd, squeezed in around small tables, laughs. It could be any comedy club around the country. But this one's got a different hook. The comedian in this charmingly renovated basement club in Harvard Square is nationally known headliner Jerry Seinfeld. And the club is a brand-new offspring of Catch a Rising Star, a 15-year-old New York comedy and music club that has spawned the likes of David Brenner, Gabe Kaplan, Richard Belzer, and Pat Benatar.

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The Cambridge club is the first of what Richard Fields, president of Catch a Rising Star, hopes will become a chain of 25 similar clubs from Atlanta to Toronto. They won't be alone, in most cases. The last decade has seen a rise in popularity of comedy clubs; an explosion in the last three years. Clubs with names like Belly Laff, Punch Line, and Funny Bone run rampant through the cities of America. Comedy has become big business.

``What has happened in the last few years is that comedy is doing very well around the country, and in places that you wouldn't normally think it would do too well,'' said the suave Mr. Fields in an interview at a quiet club in a Cambridge hotel.

It's doing so well, in fact, that Fields is working on a whole self-contained comedy factory. In addition to the clubs, the parent corporation, Catch a Rising Star Inc., includes a management service and a television production studio. The impresario has a vision of hundreds of new comics being discovered at these clubs and developing their craft by performing on this Catch circuit to see if what plays in Peoria will also get giggles in Galveston.

Some of the more promising will be managed by the company; many will gain national exposure through the company's recently acquired cable show, which will channel coverage from the regional Catches and from the New York club.

To provide the capital for this ambitious project, the parent company has gone public - the first comedy club to do so. Underwritten by D.H. Blair & Co., it made $3.5 million on the initial stock offering two weeks ago.

The clubs, planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Toronto, Washington, and other cities, will be wholly owned by the parent company, with local managers reporting to corporate offices in New York. Each of the new clubs will have an identical format: a big-gun headliner and lesser-known opening and middle acts, many of which will be local comedians. The clubs will have music acts sprinkled in as well.

The headliners will include some of the rising crop of women comedians, like Joy Behar, who was scheduled to open at the Cambridge Catch this week. A weekly ``Open Mike Night'' will introduce local talent to the club's talent coordinator, who will groom the best of them and pass them into the system.

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``Not only do we want to bring headliners into it; we want to take out of it people that can explode,'' explains Fields. ``I'm looking for people who need a stage to work out and in a couple of years they're going to have it.''

Fields has a particular kind of audience in mind for the type of humor he's selling. ``We have a different kind of philosophy at Catch,'' he says. ``We have a hipper, brighter audience that demands the shows be intelligent. That doesn't mean you can't have a little blue humor, but it's not going to be bathroom humor.''

Actually, opening night at Catch did have its share of booze, drug, and bathroom humor from emcee Gary Lazer and opening act Paul Kozlowski, but Seinfeld's set was clean, astute, and unpressured.

The Long Island comic started out himself on ``open-mike nights'' and moved up to appearing on Johnny Carson 25 times. Late-night shows, like Carson's, David Letterman's, and ``Saturday Night Live,'' as well as HBO's and Showtime's nationwide searches for new talent, have fueled the comedy boom, says Fields. That's brought out a ``deluge'' of newcomers, says Steve Hewitt, East Coast vice-president of programming for Showtime.

And clubs have sprung up as well: There are today 200 full-time comedy clubs and 1,000 that feature comedy occasionally, says Jon Fox, publisher of a newspaper called Just for Laughs. That's up from 50 to 75 three years ago.

Field's plan has its detractors. Some in the entertainment field say it will be difficult to get headliners willing to commit to long tours because they'll want to be available for the wider exposure of television gigs. (Seinfeld says that they'll be more apt to do it if the 25-club circuit is broken up into chunks.) Others say that the salaries Catch is willing to pay the two other acts is low. (Fields counters that salaries will be competitive with other clubs, and comics will have the bonus of being able to get steady work on the circuit and gain the national exposure of the cable show.)

Some say that the market is saturated, that adding more clubs will worsen the quality of the acts. Fields, they say, is catching on to this trend too late. ``The reality is that most of the territories are occupied now,'' says Mr. Fox.

``Crowds get most excited about local clubs that make good. You send a typical New York act out into the heartland of America, I don't know if you'll get the right chemistry.

``Clubs are closing all the time. I can't help but worry that the more clubs open up, the worse the quality becomes. The combined effect of new rooms and TV gobbling up talent has got to have an effect on the standard of quality that you see in the clubs.''

Boston, long a spawning ground for up-and-coming comics, already has four clubs. Can the area support a fifth? One local club owner doesn't seem to be too worried about the big-city club marching in across the Charles River. Sonny Paige, part-owner of Nick's Comedy Stop, says, ``It's good for the comedy scene in the city; we wish them luck. I don't think they'll be a threat. The most aggressive club that gets the best talent gets the best business; the rest fall by the wayside.''

``I tend to feel that we'll be expanding the market, not cannibalizing it,'' says Fields. ``Besides, our format is completely different. Other clubs don't combine music and comedy.''

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