LOLs on Wheels: How Jam in the Van’s mobile music hub became a comedy heavy-hitter
When the COVID-19 pandemic all but shut down live events, Jam in the Van co-founders Jake Cotler and David Bell panicked. Not only did they work in live events but their entire business model revolved around, well, booking acts to play and record in vans. “Our bread and butter was going places, putting people in a tight space and filming bands,” Cotler recalls. “And that wasn’t a thing that you could do for a minute there.”
Founded in 2011 with investor Louis Peek, Jam in the Van had transformed from a grass-roots backyard project to a fully functional content studio where artists from around the country would play in a hippie-ish mobile recording studio. (Think: NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series but more music festival drum circle vibes.) Since its founding, JITV has welcomed more than 1,000 bands and even planned “Van” events at South by Southwest, Coachella, Bonnaroo, Americanafest, Life Is Beautiful and Telluride Blues & Brews.
However, that all came to a crashing halt in early 2020. Like other live music outlets, JITV quickly pivoted to livestreams and charity fundraisers. “We kept ourselves relevant for, like, six to eight months,” Cotler says. They held socially distanced concerts in the backyard of their Los Angeles headquarters on Pico Boulevard. Though some musicians like Suzanne Santo and Guapdad4000 were up for in-person performing, Jam in the Van found an unlikely savior in comedy.
The shift in programming started innocuously when Cotler noticed YouTube personality Andrew Callaghan asking his social-media followers for help with turning an RV into a studio. Cotler and Bell had done that exact thing in 2011: Their very first JITV RV was a Craigslist junker-turned-recording studio that Cotler parked in his Venice backyard. “I was like, ‘Yo, why are you disrespecting us? We’re the guys!’” Cotler laughs, recalling how he invited Callaghan to the next outdoor Jam in the Van night. Not only did he attend but Callaghan brought along local comedian Ali Macofsky. “While I’m talking about studios, I was like, ‘Ali, do you want to do a stand-up show here?’ And she put on a comedy show,” Cotler says.
After Macofsky’s stand-up set, Cotler and Bell realized they might be on to something. With most comedians being unable to tour, L.A. was teeming with out-of-work comics hungry for stage time. “I just started DMing people like Neal Brennan and Iliza [Shlesinger],” Cotler says. “Comics were all about it. They have this sickness where they need to be onstage. They need to perform. Musicians were really more shook by the pandemic. Our music shows cooled down, [and] it was a lot tougher to get musicians to come out and play these socially distant shows.”
Bell also points out how unusually pleasant it was to connect with and book comedians. “With musicians, we were dealing with their agents. With comedians, we’re dealing directly with them. They were so much more appreciative. So much less hassle. It opened our eyes to a more pleasurable world to deal with, to be honest with you.”
Cotler and Bell have come a long way from the early days when all they wanted was a van to pack into for their annual pilgrimage to Bonnaroo, which they’d been attending since college. “Dave and I started running RVs with our group of friends,” Cotler says. “We’d fly to my parents’ house in North Carolina and drive the RV from there, go to Bonnaroo, and have a big party in the RV. We did that for a couple years.”
The pair eventually landed in California, where Cotler attended law school and Bell worked at a production company. While chatting online, they talked about renting versus buying an RV for their next Bonnaroo trip. “Renting an RV isn’t cheap, but Dave started googling ‘s— RVs’ on Craigslist. He was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this. Let’s bring the festival to us.’”
At first, they primarily found inspiration in “The Black Cab Sessions,” a U.K.-based franchise where musicians perform and record songs in the back of a taxicab. After procuring a used 1983 RV (with faulty brakes), Cotler and Bell refashioned the interior to be a fully functional studio and welcomed musicians to record there. It remained parked in the backyard of Cotler’s place in Venice, though he eventually managed to drive it to local venues like the Satellite and ultimately to South by Southwest in Austin. (It died on the return trip.)
Over nearly 10 years and multiple vans, Jam in the Van has hosted musical performances by countless acts, from the up-and-coming to marquee names: Wyclef Jean, Milo Greene, Gary Clark Jr., Lukas Nelson, the Revivalists, Deer Tick and Cherry Glazerr, just to name a few. As their live-music vehicle grew in local popularity, Cotler and Bell secured sponsorships with alcoholic beverage and marijuana companies and launched a YouTube channel, which now has nearly half a million subscribers.
From the beginning, Bell and Cotler wanted Jam in the Van to be not only an offbeat venue for bands to play but also a source of music discovery for audiences: “We knew what we wanted, but more importantly, we knew what we didn’t want to go after when we were starting,” Bell says. “We booked Mt. Joy when nobody knew who Mt. Joy was, and now they’re selling out stadiums. … I think we’ve done about four or five sessions with Marcus King — we’ve even joked that he’s our house band.”
Cotler and Bell also envisioned bringing comedy to the Van from the start, though it didn’t take off at first. “We always had this idea to have comedy be a part of this, back when it was just the backyard sessions in my backyard. In 2011, we invited out Mo Mandel, Erik Griffin and Theo Von. This was before [Griffin] was famous for ‘Workaholics.’ We did a comedy roundtable in the van.” Cut to 2020, and Cotler and Bell began calling up comedians in earnest and were shocked by how quickly they had to expand their space. “We were the only place to see live comedy in the world during that winter,” Bell says.
As the pandemic wore on, “That little bungalow lot became too small,” Cotler continues. “I remember we had a Neal Brennan show one night, and these kids had rented the property next door. They decided they’re gonna throw a party on the night of Neal Brennan’s show. He had Ali Wong out, and Blake Griffin was there, and James Blake. And these kids were making so much noise. So the next day, we called their landlord and we’re like, ‘Yo, what are the odds you want to kick those kids out and let us rent that property?’ So we took over that other space, and we ripped down the fence and we doubled the size of our lot. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. Then we moved to the space we’re at today because we got a good handful of noise complaints.”
The founders also lured comedians in with a top-notch green room, which came stocked with a substantial amount of pot, a full bar, ping-pong, foosball and video game machines. “We really went out of our way to make sure that the green room was very hospitable and had a lot of amenities for the comics to enjoy,” Cotler says. “That was always how we endeared ourselves to bands even when it was in the back parking lot in Venice in 2011. I had my buddy cooking pizza rolls, making sure that the cooler was full of beer.”
Today, live music has picked back up, and Jam in the Van hosts weekly events in Austin and Los Angeles; eventually, the founders want to book events in Nashville. They’ve also hybridized Jam in the Van programming to be a mixture of music and comedy. Coming up, Skyler Stone and Sarah Silverman are doing back-to-back sets on July 29 at 7 and 9 p.m. Later, on Aug. 27, Jam in the Van has organized “Comedy for a Cause” with Shlesinger; ticket proceeds go toward the National Abortion Access Fund.
Sometimes, Cotler and Bell encourage comedians to explore their musical sides. “We just started a podcast with Pauly Shore where he interviews musicians — he just had Jesse [Hughes] from Eagles of Death Metal and Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit in,” Cotler says. “Pauly, in fact, just did a session with his band the Crustys, which is Pauly fronting a bunch of senior-citizen guys on instruments. It’s a whole routine, and it’s fantastic. We’re up for all of it.”
In a major comedy marketplace like L.A., Bell and Cotler ultimately want to highlight the singular nature of their venue. “It’s its own unique experience,” Cotler says. “Craig Robinson will come in and just play songs all night with our sound guy and do karaoke with him. We’re not trying to be the Comedy Store. We’re trying to be Jam in the Van. And we’ve figured out pretty good what Jam in the Van is.”
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