The first joke Jeff Capri played on his future partner was a practical one.
In the 1980s, when Bob Perkell was producing comedy shows in Southern California, he got a phone call raving about Capri. The voice on the phone, which claimed to be that of Capri's agent, David Gladstone, praised the comic's talent and urged Perkell to book him for a night.
Perkell took the bait, and Capri, sure enough, put on a show that had the crowd in stitches. Two years later, the comedian finally revealed the truth: He had posed as his own agent to get the booking.
Rather than being mad, Perkell reasoned that any comedian who could pull off a trick like that had a savvy mind for business. So when he sought to open the Surf City Comedy Club in his hometown of Huntington Beach slightly more than a year ago, he enlisted Capri as his co-founder.
Perkell homed in on an available location within the 46,000-square-foot restaurant and entertainment center Endless Food and Fun.
When he initially approached Capri with this idea, his immediate reaction was, "I got into comedy so I wouldn't have to work in an arcade!"
After hosting a crowd for the first time on New Year's Eve, the venue has become the city's only official laugh space and has picked up a loyal fan base.
"There was a real boom of comedy clubs in the '80s — they were so popular," said Capri, 45, of Hermosa Beach. "We have tried to capture that format and offer a warm and intimate atmosphere."
Capri, who comes from a show-business family, decided to follow in his father's footsteps and pursue a career in comedy. According to him, the most rewarding part is the ease with which he can travel to different corners of the world — something he might not otherwise have been able to do.
"It takes a long time to get good," he said.
Perkell, a Huntington Beach resident, echoed the sentiment, calling to mind the first time he told a joke at a public venue and, under the spotlight, forgot the punchline.
Only after starting over three times could he overcome his nerves and recall how to make the audience laugh.
"When I was done, people applauded — I'm pretty sure just to get me off the stage," Perkell, 53, said with a chuckle.
Twenty-four years later, Perkell, who by his own admission was an "attention-starved" middle child, is a full-time stand-up comedian and familiar face with troops overseas as well as at 12-step conventions.
For both him and his partner, daily life provides unparalleled performance material.
"As a comic, the most important thing is to keep a notepad or recorder on hand," Perkell said. "The best feeling is trying out a joke for the first time and getting a laugh. Ba-boom — that's a keeper!"
Every Saturday, Perkell and Capri introduce three heavy-hitting comics — an opening act, a featured performance and a headliner — at 7227 Edinger Ave. from 8 to nearly 10 p.m. For each show, Perkell, who has appeared on Showtime, and Capri, who has performed on Comics Unleashed and Last Comic Standing, turn to their contacts in the entertainment industry.
The club's lineup, which has included Chuck Martin, Alvin Williar and Darren Carter, is typically greeted by a full house of 110 patrons.
Anthony Verrecchia, 77, from Westminster, gets there early to nab a front seat because, he said, he "gets a kick out of sitting right there under the microphone." Having heard about the club about three months ago, he has attended five shows, discovering that the acts are funnier than what television provides.
"I took my girlfriend there and she just roared," Verrecchia said. "The acts are really funny. I don't think people could go to the Surf City Comedy Club and not enjoy themselves. We are literally falling off our chairs with laughter!"
Knowing that the audience consists of such loyal guests pushes comedians to perform better, Capri said.
"In our acts, the audience plays the biggest role ever," he said. "They have to respond."
Perkell agreed, adding that Huntington Beach has been an extremely gracious host.
"These are tough times," he said. "People need some relief. My job is to go up, entertain them and bring laughter and happiness, so that while they are with us, they can forget about problems at home or at work."