The autographed glossy photographs on the walls of the Comedy Connection of Laurel tell the venue's 10-year history well.

Raj & Barbara, keep the laughs going.-- Tommy Davidson

Thanks 4 the best week of my life. This is the greatest club in D.C. Peace. Thanks for the great food.-- Mark Curry

To Comedy Connection, thanks a lot.-- Chris Rock

Raj Malhotra and his wife, Barbara, have hosted nearly every well-known African American comedian in the business since they founded the club in 1989--first in Greenbelt, then moving four years later to the club's current 475-seat location in historic Laurel.

Wednesday through Sunday evenings, the club is the Laurel Cinema Cafe, showing first-run movies. After the early show Fridays and Saturdays, local or touring comedians frequently perform, starting at 10 p.m.

In the early 1990s, as HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" reached the height of its popularity, the Comedy Connection became part of a network of clubs that featured live performances by black comics.

"We were the pioneers in the area for black entertainment at that time," Malhotra says.

Hungry new comedians, such as MTV personality and actor Bill Bellamy, performed at Malhotra's club to hone their acts while trying to make it in television and movies.

"Bill Bellamy worked for $300 for the whole weekend," Malhotra says, noting that during his 1992 performance, he "had a lot of polishing up to do."

"The Comedy Connection had built a name. It would open up more doors."

Such famous black comedians as Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Griffin and Dave Chappelle, made stops at the club, often after appearing on "Def Comedy Jam."

After a few appearances, Malhotra rarely booked those performers again. "After that, they've gone on to greater things," he says.

Malhotra, now a Kettering resident, was born in India and moved to the United States as a child when his father took a job at the Indian Embassy. He studied engineering at Howard University and the University of Maryland.

While a student, he worked a part-time job at McDonald's. After 13 years with the company and rising to the position of area supervisor, he and his wife, Barbara, opened a pizzeria in Hyattsville. Seven years later, in 1987, the business moved to a 175-seat facility at the Beltway Plaza in Greenbelt.

After getting stiff competition from Domino's Pizza, Malhotra decided to explore other business opportunities. Barbara Malhotra suggested opening a comedy club in the shop in the evenings--selling pizzas during the day and hosting stand-up at night.

"It didn't start out with a big bang, so we were delivering pizzas while the comedy was going on," Malhotra says.

The comedy side of the business took off after former Black Entertainment Television "Mayor of Rap City" and comedian Chris Thomas approached him about playing there Sunday nights. A band would play before Thomas and other area comics took the stage, and the event became popular.

About that time, rap mogul Russell Simmons started "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO, and it seemed audiences couldn't get enough of black comedy.

" 'Def Jam' opened the doors for black comedy, period," Malhotra says. "The local acts really got to be known. Whenever we had an act, no matter who it was, people came out to see them."

In 1993, they moved to the larger Laurel venue and bought the pizza place next door, and they have been booking nationally known and local comedians since.

Now that the heyday of "Def Comedy Jam" has passed, the traditional black comedy circuit is being replaced by multiple-performer package shows such as "Kings of Comedy," which recently played several sold-out nights at MCI Center.

Because of the profusion of massive comedy shows, Malhotra fears that smaller comedy venues like his may go the way of the independent bookstore. Today, he struggles to compete with those large venues to book the country's hottest comedians, he says.

He thinks the comedy experience suffers for it, too. Luxuries that his audiences are offered, such as dinner menus and table service, often aren't available at larger venues.

"They are performing in those bigger venues, so the personal effect that you can get in a place like this is gone. If you see George Wallace at a place like this, it won't be the same as it is in a big venue. It's funnier, more intimate. The nuances of body language, you're not going to see that from a distance."

Comedian Mike Brooks performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Comedy Connection of Laurel, 312 Main St., Laurel. Admission is $12. Call 301-490-1993.

CAPTION: Raj Malhotra, owner of the Comedy Connection of Laurel, has been booking acts in the region for more than a decade.