If he weren't such a bad driver, Richard Karn probably wouldn't be a star on network TV right now. Karn, who plays Al, the burly carpenter on ABC's monster hit Home Improvement, rolled through a stop sign in West Hollywood two years ago, and the quirky result is that his career has been on a roll ever since. To keep the infraction off his record, Karn opted, as do many Angelenos, to attend traffic school, a $25, eight-hour crash course on the rules of the road. This being L.A., the classes aren't entirely punitive, however: Individual entrepreneurs can set up schools geared to any interest as long as the courses cover the basics of driving etiquette and law. There are classes for singles, for chocolate and pizza fanciers, for comedy and magic fans, for gays, and even for wine lovers (who aren't encouraged to pursue their passion when they drive).
Karn, 37, chose one of the comedy classes. He sat next to another offender who was an agent. As they were chatting, she mentioned a role on a brand-new comedy show called Home Improvement and said she thought Karn would be perfect for it. He had an audition three days later and won the part the next month. Says Karn of his profitable penal stint: ''L.A. is not like New York. You don't just run into people, because it's so spread out. In a business sense, traffic school is just one more way to network.''
Since the closing of the fabled Schwab's drugstore where, contrary to Hollywood lore, Lana Turner wasn't really discovered in the early '80s, star wannabes have gone to great lengths to find new ways to meet the right people. Some of the best come out of the blue. Susan Dey, for example, was considered for a part on L.A. Law because her daughter attended elementary school with the son of cocreator Steven Bochco. Knots Landing costar Lorenzo Caccialanza got his big break as one of the villains in Die Hard because he shared a dentist with producer Joel Silver.
But nowhere is there more unusual Hollywood bonding than in Los Angeles County's 224 traffic schools. ''We've had everyone from major legends to rock stars to local news anchors,'' says Donn Dabney, 29, a rock musician and owner of the AAA Comic Relief Traffic School, a 29-outlet chain.
Karn says that he didn't have any ulterior motives when he decided on attending a comedy class. ''My main priority was to get the offense off my record; I wasn't looking for a job. But I do think you create the luck you have.''
You don't have to attend school to get lucky you can teach it (for anywhere from $80 to $140 per class). Jeff Meyer, 26, who plays a student on Evening Shade, has spent much of his career downtime working the Hollywood branch of Dabney's school. ''I've had directors, producers, stars. David Cassidy was in about a year ago he was probably pulled over for driving that multicolored bus. And celebrities, whether they admit it or not, want to be recognized in the class. I tend to abuse them, and they seem to enjoy that.
''What have I gotten from teaching at traffic school? You name it! A fiancée, two agents, a couple of producers who've approached me about writing, a number of friends; I even found a mechanic who will fix my car for free.'' Meyer says his motivation to teach the class was strictly a no-brainer: ''To be perfectly honest about it, I didn't want a real job, and I figured horsing around for eight hours seemed like the fun and right thing to do.''
Comedian Ant it's his legal name now, though he was born Anthony Kalloniatis was an unhappy flight attendant when he discovered traffic school. A natural ham who is openly gay, he was trying the uncertain world of stand-up comedy and needed a more profitable day gig. ''I opened the L.A. Yellow Pages and said I would call the first place the book came to. I saw the heading traffic schools, and I thought, 'Great, I'll teach that.' Then I found a gay traffic school, and I thought, 'Perfect.' I went in; they thought I was funny, and they hired me. Who knew that you could make money from being the class clown?''
At first, Ant says, he looked on the class as ''just a way to hone material,'' but it has become a career path for him, too. (''I call myself a promo-sexual,'' he jokes.) Through his teaching, Ant has gotten an agent and lots of auditions. His career has flourished, with shows at L.A.'s Improv, Comedy Store, Laugh Factory, Rose Tattoo, and Revolver (a popular gay club in West Hollywood), and appearances across the United States. Largely because of the exposure he has gotten in traffic school, he has become one of the most sought-after comics on the Hollywood benefit circuit. ''I'll go to any benefit, any time,'' he says. But the real benefits from performing come from the high-profile elbows that he has gotten to rub in school.
''There've been very famous TV executives in my class, many casting people, and they all know me,'' he says. ''How else would I have gotten a chance to meet them?''
Ant's classes are made up of equal parts instruction, stand-up shtick, and group therapy. ''I want the class to be uninhibited,'' he insists. ''No one wants to sit there for eight hours without having any fun. As long as I can get the traffic material across, the school is fine with it.''
In one recent class, he threatened the students with a gory accident film complete with decapitated bodies (''...and I'll show it after lunch!'') if they chose not to freely participate in a discussion about road safety. They did. He gave them highlights from his stand-up act ''as a reward.'' The class also rose to the occasion. Students owned up to the traffic sins they had committed (''I knew I wasn't supposed to make that left, but I did it anyway,'' confessed a budding singer), and, at Ant's urging, they shared ''something about yourself no one would guess from looking at you.'' One TV producer related to oohs and aahs from the class that he had bought his boyfriend a horse for the holidays. And after the class was over, as in most traffic schools, business cards and telephone numbers were traded by the students with wild abandon.
But Ant still has more networking left to do. ''In your article,'' he asks, ''can you mention that I want to appear on Arsenio's show?''
Hey, Arsenio. How's your driving?