While I was in Los Angeles last week, I caught up with several friends, including my old college pal Phil, who joined me for dinner at a place on Sunset Boulevard. Afterwards, we walked over to The Comedy Store, a venue I hadn’t been to for some thirty years.
That night, The Comedy Store’s main room was hosting 16 comedians in a “showcase” format, in which there’s no single headliner. Instead, it’s one comic after another, each getting 15 minutes, then introducing the next act. They started around 9pm and kept going until 1am. When you buy tickets ahead of time for a showcase night, as I did, you have no idea who you’ll see. The lineup depends on who’s in town and who wants stage time. The performers are only paid something like $15 for their 15 minutes, but they do it so they can hone their material. That means you get to witness acts in progress, something they hope will land them a standup special on cable or Netflix. Or, for the lesser-knowns, a corporate gig or a spot on a late-night TV show or anywhere else they can get exposure through a camera lens.
As I said, I didn’t know who would be performing that night, but we lucked into an evening with some fairly big names. By “big,” I don’t mean Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld or Ellen DeGeneres. I mean comedians who have done a Netflix special or two, or are known from movies or TV. Not superstars, but well-known enough.
The first of those (after a couple of warm-up acts) was Whitney Cummings, about whom I wrote this back in August:
I’ve never watched either of the dumb-looking sitcoms Whitney Cummings created and ran (“Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls”), but her Netflix special “Can I Touch It” is pretty damned good. At the end, when she rolls out a sex robot made to look just like her, she takes it to another level. Really clever.
Cummings was even more impressive in person — really funny and full of material I hadn’t heard before. She’s clearly a confident comedy veteran who knows how to command attention from the room and get a lot of laughs.
Next up was Marc Maron, who I have been a fan of for many years (with his WTF podcast and his acting work on “Glow” and other shows). Martha and I really enjoyed his full set at a club here in St. Louis a few months ago, and I was glad to see that he only repeated one small bit from that set at The Comedy Store. He’s a wonderful, thoughtful storyteller who knows how to take the smallest observations about life and turn them into killer routines. It’s also clear that Maron, like Cummings, works hard to make the phrasing and timing of his act precise, because every word, syllable, and pause matters. Like her, he killed.
As I said earlier, with no emcee to do the job, each comic had to introduce the next, usually referring to them as “a good friend and the funniest person I’ve ever known” or some such hyperbole. But when Maron introduced Ali Wong, he predicted she would come up and say some nasty things about middle-aged white standups. Sure enough, she did.
Wong’s popularity exploded in the last few years thanks to two Netflix specials she recorded while very pregnant. I kinda liked pieces of those, but was knocked out by her work in the movie “Always Be My Maybe” (my review is here). Unfortunately, Wong’s material that night was filled with bitterness instead of jokes. It was a shame because she can be so much better — but that’s the risk in seeing someone working out on stage.
She was followed by Erik Griffin from “I’m Dying Up Here,” a Showtime series about a bunch of comedians working in the 1970s at Goldie’s, a club modeled on The Comedy Store, right down to Melissa Leo’s terrific performance as the woman who ran the place a la Mitzi Shore (my review is here). Griffin is quite good on the series, and his 15 minutes on stage last week were relatable and amusing.
The next comic was Jerrod Carmichael, who had his own network sitcom for a couple of years and has appeared in a few movies. Yet, like Wong, he had a chip on his shoulder that must have been blocking the actual jokes from getting to his mouth. Many of those revolved around the fact that, despite being more successful than his brother, their mother loves them both the same. Not exactly the most fertile topic for comedy, or if it is, Carmichael didn’t know how to mine it.
Fortunately, he was succeeded by Brad Williams, who did one of the raunchiest sets of the night and got some of the biggest laughs. I won’t even attempt to relate his sex-related bits but, amidst all of that, it was intriguing to see him work in some personal stuff about the baby he and his wife are expecting in January. Tender, yet hysterical.
After that, the quality of comedians dropped off quite a bit. We had never intended to stay all the way through to 1am, but by 11pm, after seeing two hours of comics, we were ready to hit the road. As I mentioned, evenings like that can be very hit or miss, not just because of who takes the stage, but whether the material they do is fully crowd-ready.
Speaking of the crowd, I must add a word about the other attendees, who were not what I’d call the most discerning comedy consumers. Sure, they were having a good time, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but a lot of them were in hysterics over pretty much anything a comic said, amped up either by the very experience of being at The Comedy Store or the alcohol in their two-drink minimums — or both. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Having seen so many standups over the years, from the greats to the never-heard-from-agains, I simply have a different sense of what qualifies as really funny.
Or perhaps it’s a generational thing, where they’re taught by the over-hype of everything they see that their reactions must always be big. Just look at late-night TV, for example, where Jimmy Fallon and James Corden practically shout their way through introductions to excite an audience that leaps to its feet and gives every guest a standing ovation — every single one. When you learn, by viewing, that’s how you’re supposed to react, it becomes natural for you to laugh loudly and applaud even when the punchlines aren’t that good. I’ll bet they don’t act that way while watching something at home, but when they’re out with friends, they don’t want to be the one who doesn’t appreciate the show as emphatically as everyone else.