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Laughing Matters - New Shows Strike Comedy Gold

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THE GOLD RUSH BAR & GRILL, on 10th Avenue and 38th Street, has only been open for a few months, but already management has realized that in New York patrons expect to be served great entertainment with their grub. As well as offering barbecue and an Old West decor complete with antler chandeliers and oak walls full of Western memorabilia, the Gold Rush offers live music daily and, on Thursdays, a special comedy night featuring high-quality lineups you'd only expect to see at top weekend shows. (Think Todd Barry, Dave Attell, Elon Gold etc.). With each week featuring four comics from Leno, Letterman, and Conan, as well as new sitcom stars from the WB and UPN networks, it's amazing that there's no cover or minimum for this primetime 8 pm show.

The management has especially struck gold with the show's host, Ray Ellin, a young comic Everyman, who has that winning combination of strong material plus a likability factor that just goes through the roof. Whether talking about his family (picture this guy forced to wear his sister's Hello Kitty hand-me-downs) or dating, or making observations on topics ranging from New York cabbies to pop music (my favorite bit was his trying to explain the correct use of irony to singer Alanis Morissette), his playful and very bright commentary had the audience in high gear and begging for more.

Ellin also recently caught the eye of the folks at ABC's "Prime Time Live," who used his comedic take on men and women for one of their broadcasts. The September pages of Marie Claire showcased his observations, and he's been featured on the college tour circuit, on NBC's "Friday Night," and on commercials for Coke and Entertainment Weekly. And he is a regular at the Comic Strip and Comedy Cellar. This is a very castable actor and stand-up, so catch him now at this big comedy bargain. It doesn't take a "Psychic Friend" to see he's going to be one hot property.

THE FALL SEASON and my mail box are suddenly overflowing with offerings from improv and sketch performers. Now, I don't usually get that excited about these groups, because it's hard to find one that provides the right combination of professionally presented high-energy audience interaction and strong scripted material. Sometimes, louder, faster performances don't pass go and never become funny. (Have you noticed how some groups are always running around on stage looking like they're working too hard? In comedy it really is true that "no one likes to see you sweat.")

Also the level of talent often goes all over the place, with some individuals standing out as real comedy finds and others making me want to run screaming into the night the next time I hear the word "sketch." Then there's the whole improv-versus-sketch question, and too many non-singers trying to do musical parodies. This is also a market that can easily get so over-hyped and saturated that I'd rather schedule root canal than attend one more show.

THAT'S WHY I'm especially pleased to tell you about the "curdle free comedy" of Spilt Milk, now the house sketch comedy group for Carolines on Broadway, After making a big splash during this year's Toyota Comedy Festival at Carolines, the troupe was invited to make special-event appearances at Comedy Nation as well. This is the most consistent group I've seen. They also have killer materials and a great video. Founders actor Adam Selkowitz and stand-up Ed Madden have gathered a strong cast (attention, actresses, they are now on the lookout for women performers) and solid material, and they present a fun evening's entertainment. They are currently performing on the college circuit, but look for their return to New York soon. Whether you are just forming a group, or think you are a seasoned professional, I strongly recommend that you go see Spilt Milk.

ANOTHER RESPECTED GROUP--this one with a 16-year track record of successful shows--is Freestyle Repertory Theatre, which moved into the Grove Street Playhouse on Oct. 2, to run through Nov. 1. You may already be familiar with Freestyle Rep for its signature show, "Theatre Sports," involving improv teams and judges. These days the company has free improv jams and a new series called "Innovations" showcasing their works in progress.

The thing that has always struck me about this group is its willingness to further improv as an artform. You will often find the Rep reporting on how other groups (even its competition) are doing and where the innovators are. If you want a real education, get the newest FRT mailer (212-642-8202), just to read Artistic Director Laura Livingston's explanations of the differing styles of this medium and to find out what groups all around town and the country are working on. If this is the area of comedy you're interested in, then you should be familiar with FRT

IN THE CONGRATULATIONS CORNER: Sunda Croonquist has headed out to La-land to tape Comedy Central's new winter showcase series, scheduled to debut mid-month . That channel will also be featuring venerable WOR-AM radio personality Joe Franklin, on Oct. 27, as one of many guest stars in its spoof on A&E's "Biography." Titled "Milo-Death of a Super Model," it's created by and stars Lizz Winstead, from "The Daily Show" . Congrats, too, to Lewis "Let the love flow" Schaffer, who just shot his first national TV appearance in L.A., for "Vibe." I've known for years what a comedy find Lewis is and I'm so excited that now the industry powers-that-be are discovering him as well. Go, Lewis!

Kudos to Angela LaGreca, who is doing the warm-up for "The View," on ABC, and who starts another season of her wonderful "Monday Madness" shows at the newly remodeled Eighty Eight's . A big bravo to musical mirth-maker Seth Rudetsky, who just celebrated his first year performing and producing his very successful Saturday shows at Rose's Turn . Comic Frank Giresi is just finishing a stint as an actor at Surf Reality, in Steve Naidich's serial comed

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