The Art of Being Funny in Los Angeles

Lately we’ve been immersing ourselves in stand-up comedy and feeling altogether good about it. You can be addicted to a lot worse things than endorphins.

Much of the past year in Los Angeles has been spent closely observing comedians doing their thing: ranting, rambling, telling jokes, riffing, raving, singing songs, reading from a script, making it up on the spot, playing it safe, taking risks. Being funny. Being very funny. Or not. But always trying to find the magic, searching for that moment or that thing that connects us all – most of us, anyway; the ones who get it – in a sense of real delight and shared understanding, similar to the way we communally react to live music or to a brilliant actor telling the truth.

Los Angeles is home to an enormous number of funny people, a minority of who works in the entertainment industry. Like United States Marines and professional athletes, many aspire; few may serve. But whether or not Universal or ABC ever comes a callin’, these hordes of funny people require an outlet for their talent – an outlet being anywhere there’s a microphone and an audience. You can enjoy low-priced, high-quality comedy in Los Angeles seven nights a week. Some of the consistently excellent shows are free.

The best stuff happens in venues other than comedy clubs, where the noxious mixture of (overpriced) two-drink minimums and lowest common denominator humor tends to produce more anxiety than laughs. Although many of the most successful comics in L.A. perform at tourist favorites like The Comedy Store, The Improv, and The Laugh Factory, they’re at their freest and most effective at alternative spaces, like a sex toy shop, or a Mexican restaurant, or a comic book store. Local audiences know this, and these “underground” shows are usually well-attended. And funny.

Super funny. We’ve laughed more in the past year than in the previous five combined.

What we’ve seen is an astonishing variety of approaches to the art of making strangers happy. There’s no correct way to do comedy; either it works or it doesn’t. Yet, though there might be an infinite number of ways to get laughs, almost all the really funny people in Los Angeles – the impossibly funny people — have one trait in common: they’re blazingly intelligent.

They’re imaginative, creative, fearless, and all that important stuff. But they’re also spectacularly smart. They seem to have larger ambitions than making a ha-ha. They’re questing, yearning for something larger and possibly more important than giggles. They’re on a journey. We get to go with them.

Watch Sarah Silverman. Watch Eddie Pepitone. Watch Greg Proops. Watch Maria Bamford and Dana Gould and Ron Lynch. These folks are so smart they can name their Podcast “The Smartest Man in the World,” as Greg Proops has, and only be exaggerating a little.

Another thing the great ones have in common is that they have nothing in common with other performers. The great ones aren’t doing a style of comedy. They’re defining a style. They’re Duke Ellington’s favorite superlative: beyond category. Whether blazing trails that sometimes straddle the murky line between stand-up and performance art (Lynch; Bamford; Pepitone) or writing material that explores ideas and connections that no one seems to have thought about previously (Gould; Silverman; Proops), the comedy masters always seem to be doing their own thing, without any regard to how it’s “supposed to” be done. Their only rule is that they must always be themselves. Marc Maron, TJ Miller, Brody Stevens, James Adomian, – if anyone else were foolish enough to construct his act as a diluted imitation version of these peculiar and easily identifiable comic geniuses, the results would be the opposite of hilarious.

Like serious jazz musicians, serious comedians concern themselves with content and form. Cats like Reggie Watts (who isn’t LA-based, unfortunately) and the Walsh Brothers (who are) often make audiences wonder what exactly it is they’re witnessing. Is it joke telling? Is it stream-of-consciousness gestalt therapy? Satire? A prank? Uninhibited weirdness? Yes and no and all those things and maybe none of them. That’s when comedy is exhilarating: when you’re not sure what’s coming next and you can’t wait to find out.

We don’t mean to suggest that the best comedians are the humorous equivalent of Coltrane or McFerrin. But they seem to be coming from the same spiritual place, where possibilities are endless and the fear of failure never overpowers the impulse to create something out of nothing.

The most electrifying comedians in Los Angeles are capable of doing prepared material, yet they seem to shine brightest when they’re improvising “off book,” reacting to the present. The term of art is living in the moment. The now. Comedians with powerful improvisational skills hear and see and smell whatever is happening in the atmosphere and find ways to glean the funny out of it.  What might seem at first to be distractions or irrelevancies in less capable hands turns to gold in the grasp of performing alchemists.

Two of the most consistently killing comics on the scene, Pete Holmes (the voice of the E-Trade babies) and Nick Turner (a recent import from NYC who recalls the volcanic charm of Jackie Gleason), are masters of living in the moment. They don’t pretend things aren’t happening when they are: a woman with crossed arms and a sour face in the second row; the clatter of dishes from the kitchen; the audible gasp of a room that might not be quite onboard with their bit about bestiality. Audiences sense that anything could (and will) happen. And that it’s going to slay.

Watch enough comedy in Los Angeles and you’ll encounter stellar writing (Myq Kaplan, Jimmy Dore, Jamie Lee), flawless delivery (all hail the Sklar Brothers, whose negotiation of space with twinned timing appears to be telepathic), and instantly likeable stage personae (Doug Benson, Jim Hamilton, Melissa Villasenor). If you’re lucky, you’ll get it all in one consistently wonderful act (Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Peretti, Rory Scovel). The truth is, not everyone in Los Angeles is reaching for the stars, poking at the edges of the comedy universe. Many, many comedians here – and everywhere else, but especially here, where the casting offices are located – have modest ambitions. They do observational comedy or tell jokes about the latest Spiderman movie or share a cute story about their family, and it’s all very pleasant and charming. You sense their goal isn’t to be an artist but to land a Taco Bell commercial.

That’s cool. But we feel about these comedians – and there are hundreds of them performing regularly in and around Hollywood – as we do about smooth jazz musicians. They have the chops and technical facility of their arty brethren, and they sound OK noodling over a groove, but the stories they tell are expertly constructed nursery rhymes, not epic novels. They aim for the middle and almost always hit their target. The visionary folks we’ve been digging the most don’t do Spiderman jokes; they help us understand why movies like Spiderman are symptomatic of a society and popular culture that’s rotting like a sunbaked fish carcass.

An alternative paper here recently published one of those weirdly talismanic Top-10 Lists that matter deeply to some people. We noticed that two shows we attend regularly were mentioned. What’s Up Tiger Lily? – understand that comedy shows are never called “The Sunset Boulevard Comedy Show,” they must be named obscurely and ironically – is our favorite show in town. The ethos is strongly alt. Plenty of mainstream club comedians doing their mainstream material perform here, as well as numerous talents you’ve seen on Comedy Central and every place else. But the audience at Tiger Lily rewards the Bamfords and Pepitones and the Lynches – the out-there-on-the-edge performers – with their most enthusiastic applause and deepest laughs. At another show we see a lot because it’s around the corner, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which is held in the rear of Meltdown Comics, in a space dubbed the Nerdmelt Theater (as in Chris “The Nerdist”-podcast Hardwick), the ethos is strongly comic book. The amiable hosts and guests tap into the audience’s communal experience thumbing through their favorite Iron Man or standing in line to see the second Harry Potter movie, or going to their first Al Yankovic concert, and everyone has a good time. As a sub-species of nerd ourselves, we appreciate the inclusive attitude. Yet we seldom leave this show feeling transported or touched, or that anything consistently subversive or intellectually dangerous has occurred. The Meltdown rarely seeks transcendence; most of the time the show is justifiably content with merely being funny.

Is that enough? For most comedy consumers it surely is. Most of us see live comedy because we want to laugh, to feel good – or at least a little better than when we’re at work or fighting with the boyfriend.

Some of us want all that and a little more. We want to be astonished and amazed and thrilled and powerfully glad to be alive, as we are at the best jazz concerts or art exhibits. For connoisseurs and careful listeners, the danger of being a comic who’s aiming for somewhere around the middle is that when you miss you end up too low to be interesting.

Pop-culture-obsessed comedians — the kind of comics who open their act with thesis statements like, “People who don’t watch TV are either pretentious or poor,” the kind of comics who construct their act around how hot and sweaty Darth Vader (or Batman, or whatever) must have been underneath his black cloak — these pedestrian quipsters seem oblivious to the possibility that there’s a big, complicated, maddeningly unknowable and vexing world out there beyond the screens we stare into. Attempting to make sense of the mystery of consciousness, and doing it honestly and openly, might be what stand-up is actually all about.

In the vibrant Los Angeles comedy scene, we’ve learned that one not need to be a “political” comedian to be engaged with the realm of ideas. One only needs to have something to say. And know how to say it funny. Or be willing to die trying to figure it out.

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1 Response

  1. G says:

    What a great article Michael! It’s a wonderful exploration of the mind blowing scene here in LA and will be helpful in explaining to my friends why I spend most of my free time consuming comedy. THANKS!