Funny Boy

Even a 14-year-old can appreciate a swank dressing room: fruit basket, vase of flowers, even his own shower. Not to mention the sumptuous buffet in the "green room," where guests cool their heels. Corbin Corona and his parents, Gary and Detta Corona, attacked it with gusto.

"They treated us like Corbin was a star," says Detta. But what else would you expect backstage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?

Though his father's stomach was churning, Corbin wasn't nervous. That morning, the producer had sent a limo to pick up Corbin and his mother at the Oakwood Apartments, home to hundreds of child actors hoping to break into Hollywood. By law, child actors must receive four hours of schoolwork each day on set, monitored by a tutor/social worker. So Corbin spent the morning of October 15, 2002, studying instead of preparing for his big break--a break any adult stand-up comedian would stand naked on Sunset Boulevard to seize. Never mind that Corbin had yet to enter puberty and had never appeared on television.

There was no rehearsal beyond Corbin holding up his "collection"--dried cow patties in unusual shapes, such as a Cheshire cat and a shar-pei--to get the right camera angle. About 30 minutes before show time, Leno, wearing blue jeans, jutted his famous jaw into the dressing room for a few minutes to meet Corbin.

"Just remember, this isn't school," Leno said. "There aren't any grades here. Just have a good time."

Detta, Gary and brother Adam sat in the audience so Corbin couldn't see them. At 4:30 p.m., when Leno bounded onstage to do his monologue, Corbin listened from his dressing room to Leno's practiced patter and finally felt a tickle of fear.

He and his parents had talked about the risks. If he screwed up, or worse, if he wasn't funny, casting directors would remember Corbin as the kid who blew it on network television. But Corbin hadn't begged his parents to let him move from Highland Park to Hollywood a year earlier to wuss out now.

After actor David Arquette's spot, the assistant director walked Corbin to the stage. "Now don't worry," he said, "only 15 million people are watching." Suddenly, Corbin heard the music come up and Leno's voice booming: "My next guest has a very unusual hobby for a 14-year-old kid--well, for anybody. He collects cow patties. Please welcome from Dallas, Texas, Corbin Corona!"

And suddenly his fear evaporated. Corbin stepped confidently from behind the curtain, waving at the audience like it was his 10th appearance instead of his first. He plopped himself in the chair between Leno and Arquette. And, for the next eight-and-a-half minutes, Corbin made them laugh. Pulling the two men into the silliness of seeing portraits in poop--Arquette picked up two patties, put them on his ears and said, "Princess Leia!"--the straight-faced Corbin had Leno and the audience laughing with enthusiasm, not courtesy.

How a Highland Park teenager ended up on The Tonight Show holding up dried cow crap only weeks before being cast in the film Seabiscuit is the story of a family throwing itself--and its money--behind a son's dream.

Corbin wants to be a star.

"He definitely has a future in stand-up," says Colette Craan, who runs a comedy program for kids in L.A. called Standing Tall. "Definitely, definitely, definitely. It's just a matter of time. Corbin has a style about him. He's so hip. And being on The Tonight Show--people just don't get on The Tonight Show like that."

Every year thousands of kids stream to Los Angeles, hoping to become the next Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) or Hilary Duff (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Lizzie Maguire Movie). But for every Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle, Agent Cody Banks) who finds fame on TV and in films, for every Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar for her performance at 13 in The Piano, there are hundreds who return home in frustration. Others, like The Beav, lose their cutes and disappear from sight.

The Coronas are determined that won't happen to their son, now 15. They have a plan to make sure Corbin's dream comes true, despite braces, growth spurts and competition from 23-year-old actors who play 16, the ideal teenagers in casting directors' weird math.

And if it takes raising a few million dollars to produce a film co-starring Corbin Corona, well, Gary and Detta Corona think that might be kinda fun. After all, how hard can it be?

"Speaking of my older brothers, I have two, and I can assure you we have been quite a handful for my mom and dad. I know we especially had a gift for driving my mom crazy when Dad was at the office. I can remember one summer when we were really making her nuts, as boys can do, and by the time July rolled around, my mom was so tired of us that when my dad came home from work and asked her what time it was, she said, 'Half past summer!'" --From Corbin Corona's stand-up act