Comedy is alive and well hard by the banks of the Anacostia. And that's no joke.

Just across the Sousa Bridge, at 2314 Pennysylvania Ave. SE, a smoky little red-neck bar has stood unnoticed in the heart of the Anacostia business district for 25 years. But in the past year, as the only area outlet for the talent of stand-up comedians, El Brookman's (584-1513) has become Washington's comedy center.

Last March saw live entertainment return to Brookman's for the first time in a decade. When the country singer took his break that first night Paul Brookman, son of owner Eleanor Brookman, took to the stage and cracked a few jokes stolen from Rodney Dangerfield. The crowd loved it. Brookman and friend Joe Norris then placed a classified ad under the heading "Help Wanted/ Stand-Up Comedians," and got 40 responses. They had uncovered a pool of talent with no place to go, and Brookman's hasn't been the same since.

From the start, the emphasis has been to take comedy seriously. Patterning Brookman's after The Improvisation in New York City and The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the management never gave any thought to presenting another amateur hour or gong show. While the comedians aren't formally auditioned, they are screened to determine the seriousness of their intent. If it's in place, they can go on. Norris has only one criterion: "Be prepared. You can't stand up and wing it anywhere. This is an art."

Perhaps the star of the bill is Burt Rosenberg, a wired-up free-lance artist whose nervous energy surrounds him like static. Since starting at Brookman's he's gone on to do gigs at the Far Inn, Georgetown and George Washington Universities, and the Stampede Inn in Camp Springs. He does a 15-minute radio show on WPFW (89.3 FM) on Friday nights at 9:15, and recently traveled to New York for a shot at The Improvisation.

Some of the acts aren't quite as slick, some are just terrible and, in the words of Paul Brookman, "Some people think this is the out-patient clinic for St. E's." But whatever's on stage, the vibes at Brookman's always seem good. Paul says it's all due to his mother.

Maybe five feet high in her spiked heels, Eleanor starts the night behind the bar. As the crowd builds she scampers around delivering pizza and pitchers of beer. Every once in a while she'll perch for a moment on the edge of the booth. And through it all her face is wreathed in a smile. She thought the comedy idea was a fine one that wouldn't work. A year later, with business up 300 percent, Eleanor's the last to laugh, though she still doesn't get the jokes.

"There's a magic to my mother," says Paul. "There's a magic in some of the comedians, too. And there's magic in the people who come down here. It's not the bar, or the lousy decor or the smoke -- it's the people. It clicks."

But, like a lot of things, El Brookman's has to be seen to be believed. The Showcase gets under way every Friday night, alternating sets with the country sounds of Tiny, Bill, Big John and Chuck.