Finding the right equation to get the laughs

During the summers as a kid, Lamont Ferguson’s mom would take him and his three sisters to the library for some low-cost activities. It was during one of those summers, as an 8-year-old, that he came across a five-album set of comedy albums with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Abbott and Costello and others.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the art and craft of making people laugh. I’d listen to (those albums) over and over, studying them, learning what made the people laugh, how the words were delivered, timing, pacing and pausing. All aspects of the craft,” he says. “To me, it was a fascinating science. That’s where the seed was planted.”

Years later, after some encouragement from the directors of a traveling group he performed with as a musician, he went from making his friends laugh to researching comedy clubs where he began making strangers laugh. Thirty-four years later, he’s still at it with West Coast Funnies, a combination of sketch comedy and stand-up in North County for nearly 15 years.

Ferguson, 51, recently moved to Escondido from Oceanside, and has four children. He’s a comedian and the producer and director of West Coast Funnies, where he writes material, runs the box office and handles promotion, among other things. He talks about why he started the show, what happens during a performance and the comedians who’ve influenced his own work.

Q: Tell us about The West Coast Funnies.

A: This show was born out of a lack of professional comedy in the North County. If someone here wanted to go see comics that they’ve seen on television, they’d have to travel down to San Diego or out to Irvine. I wanted to provide the folks of the North County the opportunity to see some of the top comics working in the country. I also wanted something that was a little different than your standard comedy show. I used to host a show at the Comedy Store where we did sketches intermixed with stand-up comedy. I sat down and started to mold a show that would be best for a theater setting. I combined sketch comedy ala “Saturday Night Live,” aspects from talk shows, a topical newscast where jokes are made out of the day’s headlines, and then had top-notch stand-up comics as the show’s centerpiece. We’ve done the show once a month since we started in 2002. It’s a different show each month.

Q: What happens during a performance?

A: I have a comic that does warm-up as the audience is getting seated, letting them know what the show is as well as just getting them loose and ready to laugh. The show starts with a cold opening sketch, usually something topical that’s been in the news. Then after the show intro, the host (comedian Kurt Swann) comes out and does about seven minutes of material. He then crosses over to the desk where he will conduct the rest of the show. Occasionally, I’ll write a comedy piece for him to do at the desk. After that, there’s a featured comedian that comes up and does 15 minutes. This is usually an up-and-coming comedian from San Diego or Los Angeles. The comic if followed by another sketch, then the news, and the show is closed out by the headlining comedian.

Q: What is your goal for the comedians who perform in the show?

A: The goal is always the same. I want the comedians to have a good time. That translates to the audience. If the comedian is having fun, it usually means that the audience is having fun.

What I love about Oceanside …

The revitalization that’s been going on in Oceanside is the greatest thing happening in the North County. I remember those old days. It’s so great to see what’s going on downtown. It’s full of life and energy. Oceanside is resilient, if anything.

Q: What do you look for when looking for talent?

A: I like the show to have a good mix of both stand-up comedians and comedic actors. I like them to learn something from each other. The stand-ups learn discipline and the importance of repetition to get things right from the actors. They also learn about working with other people. Stand-up comedy by nature is a lone wolf type of craft. On the other hand, the actors learn the instinct of getting things right when it counts. Comedians only get one shot to deliver the joke correctly; there are no retakes so it’s a conditioning. I look for a spark, the proverbial “it” factor. That thing that can’t be described, but you know when you see it.

Q: Which comedians have had the biggest influence on you?

A: Well, that’s an interesting question because of how history has a tendency to change over the years. It’s not a popular name to speak these days, but Bill Cosby was definitely one, as I’m sure he was for a myriad of comics today. He was clean, funny, relatable. Jerry Seinfeld was also another — I was a big fan of his comedy but also like the way he dressed. As a kid, I also listened to Steve Martin and Rudy Ray Moore. I’d also add Franklin Ajaye to the list of influences.

Q: Do you prefer to go out and watch stand-up or sketch comedy?

A: I would prefer to go out and watch rather than see it on TV. The bottom line is that there is absolutely nothing like watching live comedy. It’s a personal experience that only that crowd knows in that very moment. Also you never know what might happen during a live performance that adds to the experience. Live comedy is definitely a “you had to be there” kind of thing.

Q: What was one of the best comedy shows you’ve seen?

A: I’d say the best comedy show that I’ve seen was Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” tour in San Diego at the (former) Sports Arena. It was the height of his rise and there was an electricity in the arena that is hard to describe. The excitement of the crowd of being there to see him was crazy. At the start of the concert, he appeared in silhouette and the audience just went wild.

Q: What do you think are some misconceptions people have about what it takes to do humor?

A: That it’s relatively easy. That it doesn’t take much work. It’s one thing to be the goofy friend at the party making your friends laugh, it’s another to make a room full of strangers laugh that paid for you to do so. It’s a science.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work in comedy?

A: The biggest challenge is maintaining the work. It’s an odd beast that needs to be constantly fed. Because of that there’s also the challenge of losing a proper balance. You also have to stay relevant. It doesn’t mean that you need to keep up with every new thing the kids are talking about but you have to keep things fresh. You need to be constantly writing.

Q: What’s been rewarding about it?

A: In a weird esoteric way, it makes a difference. It really does. You’re making people feel good. You’re helping turn someone’s bad day around, you’re letting someone not think about their problems for a couple of hours. It’s been very rewarding that some crazy idea I had in my head has actually come to fruition and been supported by the folks in the North County for the past 15 years.

Q: What has working in comedy taught you about yourself?

A: It’s taught me that I’m pretty thick-skinned and resilient. You don’t have much choice in this business. You’re going to get knocked down quite a few times and it’s all about how many times you get back up.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: From my mom: “Never stop fighting and don’t stop being you.” You can get lost in this business of trying to be what you think the industry wants you to be.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I’ve taken one accordion lesson.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Well, ideally it would involve a full house at the West Coast Funnies. But generally, it would have to involve some beach time. I generally love the fact that you can do two extreme things in San Diego on one day: I enjoy a day trip to Julian, then taking in a sunset at the beach in either Carlsbad or Oceanside.

I think this is from “The Bachelorette” questionnaire.


Twitter: @lisadeaderick

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