It’s Thursday night at an Italian restaurant in a Ventura County strip mall. Bruce Fine is standing at the back of a small room where he performs his weekly Las Vegas-style variety show, “The Laugh Pack,” an homage to the Frank Sinatra-Rat Pack genre of the 1960s.
If it weren’t for two large groups that happen to be having staff parties — one from a neighborhood Supercuts, the other from another low-cost hair salon — the place would be dead.
Fine tucks a chair under one of several empty tables and makes his way to the stage. The show has started late, and Fine banters affably with the audience, riffing on Tiger Woods’ alleged sex addiction — “There’s no such thing as ‘sex addiction,’ ” he says. “It’s called being a man.”
A young male crooner follows, singing to the particular delight of two middle-age blondes, followed by a self-loathing comedian who heckles a girl in the crowd to the point that she walks out. Finally, a former soap-star-turned-comic repeatedly recalls his glory days for the purpose of getting laughs, but it’s obvious that he misses daytime TV.
The following Thursday night, citing lack of business, the restaurant’s owner breaches the contract and won’t pay Fine for the show. Fine has to cancel all future “Laugh Pack” performances and find a new venue.
“A joke is a mini-story,” Fine said during an interview at a Starbucks in Studio City. “It’s a setup, premise and a punch line, [with] a character, a conflict.” Fine, an L.A.-based comic, writer, producer and show promoter, has spent 20 years in the business, a run that’s been defined by firings and cancellations. His story reads like a tragicomedy of dogged persistence, despite terrible odds against success.
Fine was born in a Boston suburb where there were virtually no Jews. “I was an outsider,” he said. “Here I am, this short little Jewish guy who’s not celebrating Christmas, and everybody’s looking at me like I’m weird.”
A self-described “wise guy and prankster,” he said his report cards from third grade all shared a theme: He needed to decide whether he wanted to be a student or a comedian. In high school, watching the not-yet-famous Jerry Seinfeld perform on late-night TV confirmed for Fine the path he wanted to take in his own life. He would make a career of making people laugh. In 1988, a month after graduating from Boston University, where he wrestled and studied business, Fine moved to Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t wait,” Fine says, remembering thinking to himself: “I’m gonna have my own sitcom. I’m gonna be a star.”
Like most wannabe comedians, Fine waited tables in Los Angeles to pay the bills and braved open mics around town. His drew his material from personal experience — from things like dating and going to the gym.
In 1991, he quit taking food orders and started devoting all of his efforts to being funny. Over the next few years, he appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and in guest roles on TV sitcoms such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Married ... With Children,” but he never got his own show.
His first Writers’ Guild job, writing monologues for late night’s “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show,” came at an opportune time. He had just gotten engaged and could not afford a ring. The show was canceled three months later.
Next, he got a job as a staff punch-up writer for Shawn and Marlon Wayans’ “The Wayans Bros.,” but after one season that show was canceled, too. The Wayanses hired him again to write jokes when they hosted the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Then a third brother, Damon Wayans, liked what he’d heard and hired Fine as a punch-up writer for his new family-sitcom, “My Wife and Kids.” Fine soon rose to staff writer and eventually was promoted to story editor. He made good money, got married and bought a condo.
I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in the real world,’ ” Fine said. “‘I’m not this guy who is going to comedy clubs, trying to pay his rent.’”
After two and a half years with the show, all the writers were fired.
Still, Fine kept working. In 2003, he became the comedy producer on the daytime talk show “The Wayne Brady Show.” The show was nominated for an Emmy, but then it, too, was canceled.
When reality shows began taking over the business in the late 1990s, there were fewer writing jobs available. Fine hit the road for a national comedy tour, doubling as Shawn Wayans’ opening act and road manager. After that, he went on “Last Comic Standing,” an “American-Idol”-style competition for comedians, where he made it to the semifinals.
By now, Fine was nearing 40. He had worked with various comedians but always under them, as part of a team. He decided he’d learned enough, and it was time to break out. He created “The Laugh Pack,” which he also hosts and produces, as a vehicle to showcase his work. Since July 2009, the show has run once or twice each week. Fine had booked approximately 150 comics on the show, including Orny Adams and Eric Schwartz, until it lost its home.
When we last spoke, in mid-February, Fine was still looking for a new venue. Asked how he was always able to keep going, despite the many setbacks, he responded: “For 24 hours, I’m a mess, but after that I’m OK. It’s ancient history. I’m already moving on.”
In fact, Fine now has even bigger plans for “The Laugh Pack” — to bring it to Las Vegas and turn it into a television show. Straddling a fine line between relentless optimism and denial, Fine’s unshakable dedication to his childhood dreams might seem stubborn or even irresponsible, but in a society where most people don’t have the courage to defy failure, much less go after what they love, Fine’s optimism, his denial, can also be seen as heroic.
He and his wife, Shelby Fine, a teacher at Adat Ari El Day School, have two young kids, making the instability of his profession scarier than ever. But they’re committed.
“I support him,” Shelby said. “We take it one day at a time, the good with the bad. It gets tough, but he’s a hard worker, and something one day will click. We’re just waiting.”
On Feb. 6, Fine performed at a Saturday morning Shabbat service at Adat Ari El. He told funny stories about his family and explained the origin of the word “gig.” In older times, he said, before the word existed, when entertainers got jobs performing they would consider it a blessing. They would say, “God is good.” Repeated so many times, eventually the phrase got shortened to “gig.”
He does some commercial work, too, and that has often saved the family financially. This year, he played a small role in “Hotel Hell,” an Internet promotional vehicle for the vacation-rental company HomeAway that doubled as the new installment in the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” franchise, with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’ Angelo reprising their roles as the Griswolds. A commercial aired during the Super Bowl.
To explain his dedication, Fine, sitting in the Starbucks, started to sing Frank Sinatra’s famous lyrics: “Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. That’s life!”
Then he stopped and thought for a moment.
“This is the life I’ve chosen,” he said. “It’s all worth it.”