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LAUGHTER AFTER THE PAIN

Out of tragedy, James Vernon has forged a career as a funny man. For 16 years, the Houston comedian was addicted to cocaine and prescription drugs and served jail time on possession charges in Arizona and Wisconsin _ hardly the usual ha-ha material. That is, until one hears Vernon talk about it onstage.

"I'll have eight years off the stuff in November," Vernon said. "Now I think cocaine was invented so stupid people could talk faster. Ever since I quit doing drugs, I've found a lot more sensible things to do with my money, like pay rent."

Preaching to the masses like a living, breathing public service announcement isn't Vernon's plan. He wants audiences to laugh, not convert to his way of thinking.

"A preacher is somebody who stands up and says: "You're going to hell unless you do. . .' I don't do that. I tell you what I did and what happened, and it's funny. You can say: "Hey, that happened to him; maybe I should stop this stuff.' Or you can sit and laugh."

But don't expect the uneasy laughter that some comedians provoke, even with the subjects Vernon may tackle.

"I will not accept nervous laughter," Vernon said in a firm voice. "I want funny laughter from the gut, from the heart. This is funny stuff that happened to me. I come out of a stable (The Comedy Workshop in Houston) with guys like Sam Kinison who have the same brand of comedy, which is reality."

Few subjects are safe from Vernon's satire, from his own drugged days to dateless nights to politics to topics in People magazine. His humor doesn't aim below the belt.

Vernon will celebrate his fifth year as a professional comedian this week in Clearwater. He doesn't have any special plans to celebrate the occasion, but a fishing trip would be the finest party for a man whose former good times turned bad.

"I travel with my own rod and reel," he said. "From time to time I will announce onstage that I love to fish. People will actually come up after the show and say: "I'm going in the morning. Do you want me to pick you up?' ."

This genial joker will appear at the Comedy Scene throughout the week and will be joined by Georgia comedian James Gregory next Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That pairing poses an interesting problem for introductions.

Vernon bills himself as The Funniest Man in Texas, a title he won in a comedy competition in the Lone Star State. Gregory, however, calls himself The Funniest Man in America, which might seem like one-upsmanship to an unsure comedian _ but not a quick wit like Vernon.

"We just let ya'll belong to us," Vernon cracked. "America is the suburb of Texas."

AT A GLANCE

James Vernon at Ron Bennington's Comedy Scene, throughout next week. Showtimes are 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Admission is $5 per person with a two-drink minimum. Next weekend showtimes are at 8:30 and 10:45 p.m. when Vernon will be joined by James Gregory. Weekend admission is $10 with a two-drink minimum. Call 791-4477 for information and reservations.

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