At age 14, stand-up comedian Jeff “Big Daddy” Wayne wrote a fan letter to his hero, Groucho Marx.
Pretending he was working on a term paper, Wayne asked Marx about the box office receipts for 1946’s “A Night in Casablanca.”
The famous comedian’s response came about four months later. After apologizing for his late reply, Marx wrote, “ ‘I hope the (grade) on your paper is as good as your patience,’ ” Wayne recalled. “It is a treasure.”
Wayne, who will perform two shows on New Year’s Eve in Pismo Beach, treasures his connection to comedy’s past. His vast collection of show business memorabilia includes Oscar Wilde’s American calling card, Bob Hope’s cuff links and Lou Costello’s personal script for “Abbot and Costello Go to Mars.”
“I do love show business,” Wayne said.
Born and raised in northern Kentucky, Wayne settled on a career in comedy as a teenager.
“It seemed like a wonderful thing to do,” recalled Wayne, who sought inspiration from the likes of W.C. Fields, Phyllis Diller and Bill Cosby. “You make people laugh and you get to travel.”
He started out performing at small clubs across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. Then, at age 23, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedy superstar.
“The audiences were just incredible then,” Wayne said. “There was an energy and excitement in those days. The comedy boom was just starting.”
Although some young comics might have been intimidated by the caliber of comedians competing for stage time, Wayne saw the 1980s as a chance to hone his craft amid comedy’s best and brightest.
“You might be going on before Richard Pryor. You might be going on before Sam Kinison. Robin Williams has just left the stage,” he said.
“My youth and my energy kept me going,” Wayne added. “I had a goal that centered everything, that focused everything.”
Over the years, the comedian has plied his craft in comedy clubs across the United States and Europe. He’s released six comedy albums, performed on cruise ships, and appeared on HBO, Showtime and MTV.
In 1993, Wayne teamed up with “The Love Boat” actor Ted Lange to create a one-man show, “Big Daddy’s Barbecue.” Its premiere coincided with the success of Tim Allen’s “Men Are Pigs” and Rob Becker’s “Defending the Caveman.”
In “Big Daddy’s Barbecue,” Wayne plays an ordinary guy torn between hosting a barbecue for his friends and accompanying his wife to the opera. “I try to throw in as many contemporary references as possible,” said the comic, who estimates he’s performed the show about 1,000 times.
A performer who prides himself on his ability to relate to his audience, Wayne said his act has evolved over the years.
“One of the things I used to try to do is take controversial topics and try to (make) them funny,” he said, recalling jokes about gun control and capital punishment.
He also finds humor in political correctness.
When the Los Angeles Times decided it would no longer use the term “illegal alien” to describe citizens of foreign countries who come to the United States without visas or other documentation, Wayne joked, “Pretty soon, we’ll call burglars ‘unwelcome houseguests.’ ”
These days, Wayne’s act typically covers subjects such as marriage, divorce, parenting and the economic recession. ( “I came to L.A. without a nickel in my pocket. Now I’m half a million in debt,” he said.)
His family also inspires much of his comedy.
Take his daughter, who’s dating a Muslim man. “She said, ‘I’m coming over and bringing my Persian.’ I thought she was bringing a cat,” Wayne quipped.
Although Wayne’s comedy career can be demanding at times— “In my job, I have to be funny on demand,” he said—he loves sharing his unique perspective with audience members.
“In stand-up, it’s just you and the audience,” Wayne said. “(You’re saying) ‘Here’s my sense of humor. Here’s what I think is funny.’ ”