ON A STRETCH of Connecticut Avenue that quiets to a whisper at night, inside an unremarkable office building, down a winding flight of stairs, there is a wide, low-ceilinged room with tables packed tight, each facing a shallow stage in front of a brick wall.
This is the DC Improv, a 13-year-old offshoot of the Improv franchise, where comedy-lovers 18 and older can get their yuks nearly every night, with local comics opening for national acts and headliners who, quite often, have made their way into living rooms via Comedy Central or HBO specials.
Entrance fees are modest, though there's a two-item minimum; it's up to you whether you'd like your comedy served with a burrito (courtesy of California Tortilla), a cocktail or a slice of cake. The Improv takes care of the rest, including booking comedians for shows that jell nicely, no matter how different an audience's tastes.
And if contrast breeds humor, this weekend's lineup should be side-splitting. The headliner, Pablo Francisco, and opening comic Ryan Hamilton bring very different styles to the stage, and each defies stereotypes. (Aries Spears and Andy Campbell also perform.)
Francisco is a Latino who barely speaks Spanish, while Hamilton is a Mormon who keeps mum on his faith. "The comedy clubs are really conscious of the entire show as a package," Hamilton says. "They try to get acts that will complement each other."
Though his family is Latino, Francisco's Arizona household spoke only English, and what little Spanish he employs onstage is in sendups of telenovelas and Mexican music. He says that as a child, his dad told him: "You are American. I don't want you to speak Spanish in the house."
Now an L.A. resident, Francisco is on the road five days a week, with two days at home to do voice-over work, perform at local comedy clubs and record segments for TV shows. He was a cast member of Fox's "Mad TV" from 1996 to '97, has appeared on "The Showbiz Show With David Spade" and "The Mind of Mencia" on Comedy Central, and hosts "Latino Laugh Festival" on SiTV, a cable channel whose philosophy, Francisco says, is "Latinos should live Latin but speak English," something he clearly believes, too. Much of his humor is borne of this clash of cultures: In Francisco's mind, much Mexican music sounds like polka, and Arnold Schwarzenegger could well be the hero of an action film called "Little Tortilla Boy."
Hamilton specializes in fish-out-of-water observations, including bits about his minuscule Seattle apartment, the perils of Internet dating and the awkwardness of job interviews. Some of his material comes from a routine he used to win the Next Great Comic contest last spring, the first installment of a promotional comedy contest sponsored by Sierra Mist. Hamilton won over judges in local and regional competitions and then received the most votes from the public on the Sierra Mist Web site. His prize: 23 weeks of gigs at Improv theaters across the country.
"It's been kind of a whirlwind for me," he says. "I've never done anything like this. . . . I was just starting to get into the club work." Since summer, however, he has been performing nonstop.
Hamilton says he became a stand-up comic almost by accident. When he was younger, he says, "I went to some open mikes, but, honestly, I never thought I would be a full-time comedian. But then I lost my job, got laid off during the dot-com bust. I started looking for another job in PR, something that would employ my writing, and [then] I got offered some comedy jobs." Although Hamilton has jokes about his childhood in a small Idaho farming town and the two years he spent as a Mormon missionary in North Carolina, "I've really just tried to make my act more universal, more appealing to a broad audience," he says. "There's a lot of humor there when someone's placed in a place they're not familiar with. The juxtaposition is what's funny." After a pause, he adds, almost sheepishly, "I'm sorry; talking about comedy isn't all that funny."
Hamilton's right. And describing a comedian's act, especially one like Pablo Francisco's -- with the voices, the sound effects, the Jim Carrey-like elastic faces -- is an exercise in futility.
On that point, Hamilton and Francisco both say the Internet has been good to them. Hamilton won the Next Great Comic contest thanks to online voting, and Francisco likes the increased exposure his Web site (pablofrancisco.com) brings; it features video clips of his act. "Burn your own compilations!" he says. "I don't care! I'll make more!"
PABLO FRANCISCO -- Featuring Ryan Hamilton, Aries Spears and Andy Campbell. Through Sunday. DC Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-296-7008.