HEY, did you hear the one about stand-up comedy in L.A.?
Of course not, because stand-up died a horrible death somewhere around the time everyone started loving Raymond. Doesn't every comic here just want to get on TV anyway?
Well, believe it or not, no. Though there are still plenty of comics dreaming of that miracle sitcom gig and searching for the perfect head shot, stand-up comedy is enjoying a renaissance in Southern California. And it's happening far from the storied walls of the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store and the Improv.
Inspired by unconventional outlets such as the Fairfax nightclub Largo and Beth Lapides' Un-Cabaret, a new generation is taking a DIY approach to the craft, and comedy fans are going right along. Seemingly every week brings a new night of performances in restaurants, bars and theater spaces, and with none of the rules and restrictions of the major clubs, competing for stage time has been replaced by a sense of community. As a result, the worlds of sketch, improv and stand-up are mingling like never before.
In fact, you can take in comedy any night of the week without ever setting foot in a comedy club. And that's what we did. Seven nights. No two-drink minimums or bloated cover charges. Just anything for a laugh.
Saturday: Up all night
With its midnight start time, "The Tomorrow Show" is not for the typical comedy consumer -- or the early riser. Even so, the variety show's mix of music, comedy and the unexpected has been drawing packed houses at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood since its beginning a little more than a year ago.
"Stuff gets funny after 11. Stuff gets weird, and people lose their will to leave," co-host Brendon Small explains with a smirk. "They giggle because they've been kept too long in one place. You're too tired to know what's good for you."
Already an L.A. anomaly for providing a free parking lot, "The Tomorrow Show" offers a unique mix of acts every week, stretching well into the wee hours. One night the crunchy, nunchuck-bearing post-rock of Ninja Academy kicks things off before Small comes onstage with co-hosts Craig Anton and Ron Lynch. The veteran comics introduce each act and trade barbs and observations, like three friends hanging out in their living room.
The comics and characters include a baggy-panted clown (Chad Fogland) performing an impressively prolonged strip tease, a young sketch duo that captures the anarchic spirit of the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall and, surprisingly, a straight-faced slideshow of co-host Ron Lynch's Death Valley vacation. Bathed in an eerie yellow glow in the corner of the aisle, a bust of Steve Allen looks on, smiling in placid approval.
Though the night's eclecticism -- and its BYOB policy -- makes the late hour less of an issue, it inevitably takes its toll on some. At a quarter to 2, Maria Holland drifts through the lobby.
"I'm kind of sleepy; it gets hard to pay attention," she says. "I mean, it's funny but...." Her voice trails off as the show continues, boldly indifferent to the hour.
Sunday: Lounge act
It's just half an hour into Josh Fadem's show at 1160 Bar & Lounge when the host gets an important phone call onstage.
"Hello, Josh?" asks a booming voice over the club's sound system. "It's the King of Hollywood. I'm very concerned about tonight's show."
Though the voice belongs to the 26-year-old comic's friend and frequent collaborator Fogland on a microphone in the back, Fadem promises the King -- and the crowded, Reno-styled room -- that the show will bounce back. The first comedians, two inexperienced and possibly quite drunk friends, didn't bring much to the table, and things didn't get any better when one stripped down to his skivvies.
But such are the risks at "The Acid Reflux Hour." Booked by Fadem for the last year and a half in the basement of the Ramada Hollywood Hotel, the show features an unpredictable blend of successful and developing comics and sketch performers, culminating on some nights with a pie-eating contest. But Fadem takes his night and its occasional missteps very seriously.
"If [someone's set] goes badly, then maybe I can do something to get the energy up," Fadem says, possessed with the manic air of someone who'd rather be performing. "Which maybe I'll do right now."
And with that he darts to the stage, taking a seat in front of a second microphone as a young woman in a sweater performs. With long black hair and a Cheshire Cat grin, Fadem sits in like a veteran musician, occasionally interjecting his thoughts with a free-associative energy that keeps some sets from going off the rails. Though some comics are more appreciative than others, Fadem's genial nature and otherworldly quickness on his feet more often than not yield the comedic equivalent of a mash-up track.
"This room is so perfect for him," says fellow comic Fogland, who is a fixture at many comedy events around town. "Josh is a comedy genius."
Monday: Garage work
"No, I actually don't want to be on 'Saturday Night Live,' " Jen Kirkland gently explains from the stage at El Cid, recounting an exchange with someone from her hometown who questioned her goals.
Though part of a raw but ultimately very funny monologue midway through Monday's "Garage Comedy" show, Kirkland's sentiments could just as easily apply to the spirit of the entire evening, a night when traditional comedy and its typical career trajectory need not apply.
Under wrought-iron chandeliers in a subterranean corner of the Silver Lake flamenco fixture, "Garage Comedy's" unhinged mix of sketch and character-driven comedy started two years ago under the direction of Kulap Vilaysack and Val Myers, two graduates of the Second City improv program looking to carve out a space of their own. Their rules were simple: No stand-up, no repeated material and, above all, nothing resembling a night at the Comedy Store.
"They've got their thing and we've got ours," Vilaysack says diplomatically, though she admits their rules toward stand-up have relaxed in recent months. "It's just not our sense of humor."
In the past that sense of humor has included "Julyoween" and other theme parties, but tonight's show is fairly straightforward. Well, at least as straightforward as an evening featuring a macho, faux-Latino cowboy troupe dubbed "Mexstacy" line-dancing to "The Charming Man" by the Smiths can be. Later, a wispy-voiced young woman leads a triangle-driven karaoke singalong before another comic enthusiastically introduces a video documenting his recent purchase of an enormous church bus. Not every act works for everyone, but that's precisely the point.
"We're the weird kids," Vilaysack says of her show. "If it gets stale, then it's the Comedy Store, and that's the antithesis of what 'Garage Comedy' is about."
Tuesday: Aiming to kill
It's 45 minutes before show time outside the UCB Theater, and a line of young comedy connoisseurs in hoodies and stocking hats stretches down Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Located at what's been called the nerve center of L.A.'s rising comedy community, "Comedy Death Ray's" mix of known and newer performers from around the city is a tough ticket.
Tonight's show costs the usual -- only $5 -- but its mix of local favorites such as Zach Galifianakis, Andy Kindler and the Upright Citizen's Brigade's Matt Besser would cost well beyond that if it were in a two-drink-minimum club. That is, if any of those acts would perform there at all.
"I was at the Laugh Factory last year, and I couldn't believe how loud it was," says Scott Aukerman, referring to the sound of clinking glasses and conversation at typical comedy shows. Aukerman began "Comedy Death Ray" almost five years ago with fellow "Mr. Show" alum B.J. Porter. "People here are getting it; I can hear the art form," Aukerman adds.
Indeed, though drinks from the nearby Mayfair Market are liberally passed around, the audience stays in rapt attention throughout the night, which culminates in a set from cult hero Galifianakis. Though he claims to be in no mood to perform, the bearded comic ad-libs his way through 20 minutes of surrealist one-liners, puns and crowd interviews that make him part bizarro-world Oprah Winfrey, part Dadaist comedy savant.
"Andy Kindler called me 'the thinking-man's Pauly Shore,' " Galifianakis says, giggling after one particularly zonked-out observation. The crowd laughs along with him. "It's so true," he adds sheepishly.
Wednesday: Thank you
A newcomer on the scene, "You're Welcome," at the Meta Theatre on Melrose, began earlier this month under the guidance of comic Nadia Bacon and stand-up fan Sean Ingram. The latter is better known as "Jouster," a moderator on the increasingly prominent site A Special Thing (www.aspecialthing.com), dedicated to shining a light on underground and alternative comedy. A Special Thing's name is in the air at many of the week's shows, but "You're Welcome" is the 24-year-old Ingram's first venture into production.
"I go to a lot of shows and always thought the talent was here, but the shows sometimes weren't good, like maybe they were poorly attended or had poor acoustics," Ingram explains. With Bacon's contacts, putting on a show of their own was the next natural step.
Though mostly promoted through A Special Thing and MySpace, "You're Welcome's" debut fills up quickly with vintage-clad twentysomethings, so many that an extra row of seats has to be added at the front of the stage. The promise of free beer can't have hurt, but the reverent audience is serious about its comedy.
Though younger acts such as guerrilla sketch troupe Hendershaw give the crowd plenty to laugh about, it's Largo vets Jimmy Pardo and Paul F. Tompkins who steal the show. Acting as the night's host, Pardo pulls much of his material from the audience, lecturing a woman in the front for text-messaging during his set one minute, ardently appreciating a nearby man's sweater vest the next. By the time headliner Tompkins takes the stage, the crowd is ready to follow anywhere he leads.
At the start of Tompkins' set, he and Pardo pause to interview each other on the stage's well-worn couch, goofing off and comparing notes, seemingly oblivious to the hysterical crowd. After a few minutes, Tompkins finally catches himself: "Does this interest anyone?" he asks. The entire room erupts with applause.
Thursday: Tough crowd
It's a rough night for "No Name Comics" at Room 5, atop Amalfi Ristorante on La Brea Avenue. The lineup of club- and festival-tested comedians is facing the toughest of audiences: other comics.
"You hear that? That long pause after a joke followed by a really loud laugh?" comic Claude Stuart asks from the stage. "That's another comic. Comics love seeing other comics do a joke where they expect to get a laugh but don't. It's like seeing a cop in your rearview mirror but someone else gets pulled over."
As bitter as Stuart sounds, he and the rest of the performers seem energized, as if working a tough crowd is a test of will. It's one thing to perform when the crowd is on and the jokes are flowing, but what do you do when nothing works? One comic takes to talking with some empty chairs, while a few others happily consider pitching themselves through a nearby window. Despite the conditions, the night earns its share of laughs, from comedians and civilians alike.
Self-professed comedy geek Brad Stewart started "No Name Comics" as an antidote to the politics of the major clubs, where a comic can perform on "Late Night With David Letterman" but still have trouble getting booked if he or she can't draw a crowd. Many clubs have a policy, loathed by most comics, in which performers must bring in a certain number of people to earn stage time.
"I'm not going to book people just because they can bring 11 people," Stewart says. "I book people I think are funny."
Friday: Latte laughs
With most bar and theater owners unwilling to take a chance on a fledgling weekend comedy show, venues for the so-called alternative scene are scarce on Friday nights. As a result, comics fan out across the city to log stage time at the old performance standby: the open mike.
Always guaranteed to reinstate feelings of both confidence and humility, most open-mike nights leave performers competing with anything from drunken hecklers to outright indifference. But Long Beach's Coffee Haven lives up to its name with a familial atmosphere and, even better, a hushed audience eager to watch comics from as far away as Riverside. The fact that most of them are also performers is beside the point.
As a result, the packed, high-ceilinged coffeehouse can be tough to enter once the show begins (the "stage" is right in front of the door), but those who stake out a space on the back steps or in one of the shop's weathered chairs see comics of all levels working on their chops.
The quality varies, but the audience is always ready to offer its support. Even if a joke bombs -- and many do -- another will be along shortly. And hey, door prizes!
Jesse Cash has been making the drive from Glendale for three years, and although he's toured clubs around the country, he always comes back.
"There's such a strong sense of community here," he says after an energetic set. "Plus it's such a mixed crowd. If you go to other open mikes and just perform for comics, most comics don't tend to laugh."
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Off the beaten track
A sampling of "alternative" comedy nights.
* "The Tomorrow Show," a variety show that goes into the small hours. Steve Allen Theater, Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 595-4TIX, www.steveallentheater.com/tomorrow.html. Midnight. $5.
* "Classy-Ass Stand-Up Show" offers stand-up with an opening short film. Westside Eclectic, 1323-A Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (310) 451-0850, www.westsideeclectic.com. 8 p.m. $10.
* "Asssscat" delivers improv madness from comedy veterans. UCB Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. (323) 908-8702, www.ucbtheatre.com/la. 8 p.m. $8. Also 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Free.
* Un-Cabaret, an "alternative" comedy trailblazer, appears on varying Saturdays, continuing on Feb. 24. M-Bar, 1253 Vine St., Hollywood. (323) 856-0036, uncabaret.com/calendar.html. 8 p.m. $15.
* "The Acid Reflux Hour" thrives on unpredictability and the odd pie-eating contest. 1160 Bar & Lounge, Ramada Hollywood Hotel, 1160 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood. (323) 660-1788. 9:30 p.m. Free.
* "Cheap Date Comedy" features longer sets and karaoke afterward. Backstage Cafe, 9433 Brighton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 777-0252, myspace.com/backstagecomedy. 8 p.m. Free.
* "Garage Comedy" offers sketch and character-driven comedy. El Cid, 4212 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 668-0318, myspace.com/garagecomedy. 9 p.m. Free.
* "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" overcomes difficult acoustics, led by hosts Maria Bamford, Melinda Hill and Natasha Leggero. Tiger Lily, 1745 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 661-5900. 8 p.m. Free.
* "Saloon Comedy" is a rare downtown stand-up venue, the first Monday of every month. Bar 107, 107 W. 4th St., L.A. (213)625-7382. 8:30 p.m. Free.
* "Largo Comedy Show" is a weekly institution. Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 852-1073, www.largo-la.com. 9 p.m. Cover varies.
* "Comedy Death Ray" mixes known and newer performers to popular effect. UCB Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. (323) 908-8702, myspace.com/comedydeathray. 8:30 p.m. $5.
* "D+D's Joke Center" attracts the most iron-willed of comics, up to face the room's hecklers. Big Fish Bar & Grill, 5230 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 244-6442, www.myspace.com/jokecenter. 9 p.m. Free.
* "You're Welcome!" started on the right foot this month -- and offers free beer. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 445-6632, myspace.com/yourewelcomecomedy. 9 p.m. $5.
* "Name of Show" attracts an unusual and devoted roster to its intimate space. Westwood Brewing Co., 1097 Glendon Ave., Westwood. (310) 209-2739, myspace.com/nameofshow. 10 p.m. Free.
* "Chief Cornfoot's Comedy Hour" mixes indie comedy with an indie record shop. And free beer. Sea Level Records, 1716 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (213) 989-0146, myspace.com/chiefcornfoot. 9 p.m. Free.
* "Punk House" offers young comics from around the country, and yet more free beer. Westside Eclectic, 1323-A Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (310) 451-0850, myspace.com/thepunkhouse. 9 p.m. $8.
* "No Name Comics" fills the room with comedians, on stage and off. Room 5, Almalfi Ristorante, 143 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 938-2504, myspace.com/nonamecomics. 10:30 p.m. Free.
* "Organic Comedy" is a parking challenge, but features provocative material from experienced comics. Karma Coffee, 1544 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood. (323) 460-
4188, karmacoffeehouse.com. 9 p.m. Free.
* Coffee Haven's open-mike nights draw all comers. 1708 E. Broadway, Long Beach. (562) 437-3785. 8 p.m. Free.
* "The Fake Show" delivers adventurous comedy hosted by two comics on giant black-and-white TV monitors. Alternating with the "Two Minute Sketch" show starting this Friday. Fake Gallery, 4319 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 661-0786, fakedotcom.com. 9 p.m. Cover varies.
-- Chris Barton