Fresh from Their Last Engagement (Grade School) Come the Next Generation's Wild and Crazy Guys

updated 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Waking up from his nap backstage at the San Diego Improv, comic Max Messier is bleary. He just blew into town yesterday and got to bed late. In a few minutes he has to go onstage. He shivers, and a waitress wraps a jacket around him. "Come on and snap out of it, Max," barks the club manager. "You've got a show to do."

It could be a scene in a Jo Jo Dancer-esque film about a comic's downhill slide, but Max is not in such dire straits. He is only 10 years old. True, he stayed up three and a half hours past his bedtime last night, but only to watch The Tonight Show; and the club manager is no hard-bitten Svengali but his father and coach, Paul Messier.

A few minutes after 8 p.m. Max and his 6-year-old brother, Ross, looking like pint-size, punked-up Smothers Brothers, step into the spotlight.

Max confronts a towering mike stand and gives a Jack Benny shrug, then he grasps the stand, walks backward until the mike hovers over him and removes the mike. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he begins. "We're gonna tell you some jokes tonight. We had an invitation to be on Sesame Street, but they wanted us to follow a bird. I said we don't work with birds."

"That was a stupid bird," Ross chimes in. "It doesn't even got a name. I said, 'What's your name?' He said, 'Big Bird. What's your name?' I said, 'Small Kid.' "

"Don't you just hate it when your parents send you to bed and you're not even tired?" asks Max. "Boy, next thing you know they'll put a lock box on the Playboy channel."

Ten minutes after they start, the boys hop down off the stage to warm applause. They are greeted by their father and lanky comedienne Pam Stone, who writes much of their material and helps them hone their timing. Ross, who forgot a joke, paces furiously, muttering, "I messed up, I messed up!" He pounds his fist in his palm. "Darn it!" he exclaims, explaining to a visitor, "I can't say the 'F' word. I'm just a kid."

Max and Ross are still getting the art of stand-up down—they've done just 20 shows so far. But they are learning fast, as one would expect of kids who were virtually baby-sat by Billy Crystal and Howie Mandel. Their father owned a comedy club in Bakersfield, Calif., and when the comedians played there they found two grinning tots eager to climb into their laps and listen to jokes. When Max was 8 he begged his father to put him and his little brother onstage. Messier, who had been divorced from the boys' mother since shortly after Ross was born, gladly obliged. A former minor-league pitcher who had sold insurance before launching a disco and later the club, Messier wrote some gags to flesh out the tykes' riddle-ridden repertoire. After the club folded last year, Messier moved to San Diego to manage the Improv. One or two weekends a month the boys fly down from Bakersfield, where they live with mom Sharon, a nurse, and clamber back into the spotlight.

Messier, 34, is a demanding coach. After repeatedly blowing the Sesame Street punch line in rehearsal, Max walked off the stage, protesting, "That's the best I can do, Dad."

"It's not," Messier replied. "You've done better. Now, what are you going to do?"

"I'll do better," Max said.

"No, you don't 'do better.' You practice. You're not going to do it tonight if you don't do it now." Heaving a sigh, Max returned to the stage.

Sharon Messier, 33, has her doubts about this funny business. Admitting she might be "a typical overprotective parent," she says, "I've had some problems with some of the material." Case in point, this line Paul wrote for Ross: "It's embarrassing taking a girl home the first time and having her see your Smurf sheets." Sharon prevailed on her ex to drop the joke from the act.

A more serious obstacle cropped up recently when the San Diego Vice Squad prevented the minors from performing at the Improv, which is a cabaret. Paul has begun to take his sons to the Improv in Hollywood, which is a restaurant and not subject to the same restrictions. It's all the same to Max and Ross. "I just like to make people laugh," says Max. Ross puts it another way. Sidling up to a visitor, he slowly peels off his sunglasses and whispers, "Hey, buddy, wanna hear a riddle?"

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