When Steve Hofstetter joined Hunter College High School's Improv club, his interest was otherwise occupied.
By a pretty girl, to be exact.
Two weeks later, she quit — but he didn't follow.
"I was hooked," said Hofstetter, 34, who will take the stage at Tap House in Huntington Beach on Tuesday as part of the venue's "Battle of the Comics."
The New York City native relocated to Los Angeles in December and was alerted to the competition by a friend and fellow comedian.
"If I win the whole thing, great — I win $1,000 — and if not, I get to check out Huntington Beach," he said.
According to host Keith Reza, this is Tap House's second comedy contest of 2013. The first, in January, was organized at the last minute and drew 70 participants, while the current face-off welcomed 100 entrants, who have since been whittled down to the top 40.
Both "Battle of the Comics" events are part of the restaurant's "Tuesday Night Laughs" series, which brings stand-up comedians to the Tap House every week along with about 50 audience members per show, perhaps enticed by the $1.50 tacos.
"I have this thing called Asperger syndrome, and it's hard for me to get booked at places because I can't bring friends and I don't know how to ask in a professional manner," said Reza, a 26-year-old Huntington Beach resident. "So I have been running shows for about three years, and I saw Tap House was opening and wanted to continue living my dream of performing my humor for people."
Established in 2012, Tap House, which features a main stage on the first floor and another on the lower level, hosts bands, Ultimate Fighting Championship viewing parties, fundraisers and arm wrestling. With the help of owners Jeremy Foti and Dwight Chornomud, Reza books comics for the 10,000-square-foot venue, where bigwigs including Bruce Jingles, Brian Scolaro, Rosie Tran and Skyler Stone — all his personal friends — have headlined.
To be eligible for the contest, Reza requests a headshot and five-minute clip. He and his booking partner, Alan Lee, have to find the material funny before applicants are accepted. Voting is split between the audience and judges differently for every round in an attempt to ensure fairness.
'Everyone wants to laugh'
Hofstetter, the youngest of four siblings, doesn't sweat before a tough audience. As a child, he performed to be noticed by classmates, and this fascination spilled into his teens and adult life when he took to stand-up comedy.
His "a-ha!" moment came in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The graduate of Columbia University, in New York, described a show at which the crowd was unresponsive and the comedians who preceded him did "very poorly." Still, as he sat on the sidelines, his excitement didn't wane.
"I was waiting to go up, thinking, 'Who cares if they're doing badly, I'll do it,'" Hofstetter recounted. "I played sports a lot as a kid and was always afraid of getting the ball when it mattered. That was the first time in my life that I wanted the ball when it mattered, and in that moment, I realized, 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.'"
A longtime fan of Bill Hicks, Eddie Izzard and Louis C.K., Hofstetter finds inspiration and material tucked into life's many details. If handed a picture of a crowd amassed around a tragedy, for example, his sight would probably be arrested by the person chomping on a sandwich.
Having appeared on "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," "E! True Hollywood Story," "Comics Unleashed" and "Comedy All-Stars," he believes that making the audience laugh is important, but it is not his sole priority. Once onstage, his gigs, which always end with a question-and-answer, encourage people to think and question the status quo.
It's not his style, he said, to pick on ticket-holders — it's "mean" and not in keeping with the role of an entertainer. If people interrupt him, however, by talking loudly or heckling, they're "dead" — metaphorically, of course.
"I feel guests look forward to coming to [a] comedy night because we all have sad, depressing lives that none of us human beings really want to talk about," Reza said. "I believe everyone wants to laugh."