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Second stage

Most stand-up comedians start out with their act and then find an audience. Walt Willey started with an audience and then found his act. He first got into comedy in 1989, two years after he landed the role that defined his career and outlasted al...

Walt Willey

Most stand-up comedians start out with their act and then find an audience. Walt Willey started with an audience and then found his act.

He first got into comedy in 1989, two years after he landed the role that defined his career and outlasted all three of his real-life marriages: Jackson Montgomery on the ABC soap opera "All My Children."

His character had just split (for the first time) with Susan Lucci's Erica Kane. Regis Philbin, interviewing Willey on his syndicated morning TV show, asked what was next. Offhand, Willey said he'd fall back on stand-up comedy - something he'd never done but figured had to be a better way to see fans than the shopping mall circuit.

A couple of days later, Willey got a call from what he says is a mob-controlled club in Connecticut. They booked him. A few months later, he was on stage without a scrap of material, a moment he compares to the scene in "Broadcast News" when Albert Brooks' character tries his hand at anchoring and suffers an on-air bout of gushing flop sweat.

"Oh, epic, epic," Willey says of his sweating that night. "Epic, epic, epic."

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It got better. Willey will headline on Friday and Saturday at Courtney's Comedy Club, performing a 60-minute routine he promises is far more honed than his first.

Getting soapy

Soap operas are a sequestered little world, where a role can last a lifetime but doesn't necessarily lead to anything.

How does one end up on one?

For Willey, it started with a cold call to the casting director of "All My Children." That brought 40-some parts on the show as an extra, which lead to a four-month stint with Ving Rhames playing hitmen on "Another World." After a brief run on "Ryan's Hope" and a six-month break, Willey figured he was out for good.

Then he got a call from his agent in which she kept referring to him as Jackson Montgomery, which initially made Willey think he needed more attentive representation. He eventually got what she was saying. "AMC" had written a role specifically for him.

"It's nothing you really argue with. And that was 1987. So I'm what you call a very fortunate guy. It was kind of like being part of the old 1940s, 1950s studio system."

Jokes unlike Jack

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"AMC" fans who are expecting the ruggedly handsome good-guy lawyer Willey plays five days a week may be surprised by his stand-up. He does a punchline-free monologue drawing on his real-life experiences. It runs a bit blue.

"It's not at all what you might expect from Jack Montgomery. Anybody who knows me wouldn't be surprised at all. It's kind of like what (Bob) Saget does," he says, referring to the former "Full House" star whose stand-up act is famously vulgar.

Striking dialogue

His comedy routine isn't the only thing that's been betraying the sanctity of Willey's longtime role. The writer's strike is also to blame.

The show's head writers are back on a limited basis in a deal with the union, Willey says, though they had to give up some benefits to do so. But they are only responsible for the long story, the overarching week-to-week plotline.

"Then it goes to the breakdown writers and the dialogue writers. Who's doing that right now we don't know. I honestly don't know," he says. "Clearly, they're not union members, or if they are, they're scabbing."

"We had a couple of days where you went, 'Wow, you put monkeys in a room with a typewriter. This is horrible! Are you kidding me?' " he says. "You could erase the names above the lines and you wouldn't know who was talking."

With the breakneck schedule of daytime drama, there's no time to labor over a script. Actors adjust on the fly. "Especially at a time like this, sometimes you need to exercise that custodial care."

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Critics and fanatics

Some detractors, no doubt, wouldn't mind if the strike killed off soap operas, which have been steadily losing ratings for decades. The shows, known for over-the-top melodrama and wild plot twists, aren't exactly high art.

These thoughts are not foreign to Willey, but he doesn't linger on them, preferring to ponder the rarity of a nine-to-five steady acting gig. He's 57 and plans to stay as long as they'll have him.

"I wanted to do Shakespeare. I wanted to do Chekhov. I didn't want to do this. But then I've got that Midwestern that kicks in: 'Buddy, you had some place to go today, and it wasn't the unemployment line. Man up and enjoy yourself.'"

Willey says he likes how touring to comedy clubs connects him with "AMC" devotees. He even tells club promoters to run TV commercials during the one-hour soap opera's half-hour break.

Meeting the masses is part of the thrill of stand-up for Willey. He even hangs around after the show to sign photographs for free.

"I think any actor who charges for a picture of himself is just unforgiveable. I've tried to explain this to the guys on 'General Hospital,' but they just don't get it."

If you go

- What: Walt Willey

- When: 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

- Where: Courtney's Comedy Club

- Info: $20; $50 with VIP meet and greet. (218) 287-7100

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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