My next arrow is loosed in the dark at the
slouching pretty beast that is L.A. comedy.
Los Angeles is the Marquis de Sade of American cities.
It's torture to live here. It's as if every time you
go out someone shoves another splinter into you that you
can't remove. Like every night you lay down someone cranks
the rack one more quarter turn so that you wake every day in
a higher level of pain, stretched a little farther from who
you were the day you drove into this mythical town that
semi-exists on the very edge of America.
For standup comics, the torture is particularly cruel. Say
you're an experienced, professional comic who knows how
to make people laugh. You've been on stages all around the
country. You can write, you can perform, you can adapt,
you can create, you can assuage, you can put up with assholes,
you can organize a business, you can drive, you can live
the non-normal life. You're skilled, you've got loaded
guns and you know how to shoot them.
And you live in a city that produces and sells comic
media products at a rate and with monetary reward never
before seen in the history of the world. Like some Carl
Sandburg Laugh Butcher To The World, you can feel L.A.
churning away all hours of the day and night, turning
out the ground chuckles that feed the humor starved out
there. Everywhere you turn there's a talent agency, a
production company, a comedy club, an industry billboard,
a major studio, a shoot in-progress, a director, a producer,
a famous actor, a newspaper article on the business, a
trade magazine. All pointed toward creating, producing,
selling comedy to the Great Big Audience In Waiting.
And here you stand, with all your skills.
And no one will let you use them.
The torture of being a standup in L.A. is living at the
fringe of really cool and lucrative things, and not being
Let me tell you my path so far and maybe you'll understand.
I started in standup in 1987. I went through the normal
progress of amateur and opener and feature to headliner,
and toured around the South and east coast doing my thing,
making a little money, plying the craft, tweaking the art,
but always keeping my day job so I wouldn't go insane
trying to make a living in a business where they'll cancel
you a week ahead of time, but they'll never book you again if you
cancel with four months' notice.
I moved to L.A. in February of 2000 after the birth of my
daughter. I couldn't imagine doing the road with her at
home. Sitting in the Atlanta Punchline crack condo while
she was saying "da da" over the phone was
unacceptable to me. I couldn't do it.
But I still wanted to do comedy, to work in comedy.
It's what I do. It's what haunts me, feeds me, calls me
out into the night again and again. I have to be intimately,
deeply, vitally involved in laughter. It's in my soul.
So, go someplace where comedy occurs but doesn't require
travel, thought I. To L.A., thought I.
And so we moved to Claremont, CA, forty miles outside of
L.A., because my employable wife got a job there. I moved
with an 8-month-old daughter, no job for myself, and lots
of credit card debt. I had written a few spec sitcoms,
had written a couple of bad screenplays, had written a ton
of standup for myself and others, so I moved with the
intention of getting a writing job. I moved in February
because I was told that staff writing jobs were filled in
May, and I figured that would give me two months to get my
King of Queens spec script seen and maybe get
some interviews for jobs.
God, was I ignorant.
I immediately called all the comics I knew, about half
of whom didn't return my calls. Weird, I thought. We were
friends elsewhere, why not here? Hmm...
I began driving into L.A. a few nights a week, usually to
hang out at the Improv on Melrose. It has a bar where you
can sit and drink, separately from the show, and there are a
lot of road guys who hang out there so sometimes it feels
like you're in a community of people who know you and actually
respect what you do. I tried going to The Comedy Store,
but if you're not a regular there you get ignored and
there's no place to hang out and watch the shows. I tried
going to The Laugh Factory, but they charge comics to get
in (can you fucking believe that?), so that was out. I
went to a few open mikes at coffeehouses and restaurants,
but they're amateurish and clique-ish, and that's way too
much bullshit for me to deal with after doing 15 years of
So I hung out at the Improv. And I hung. And I hung.
And I hung.
It's a weird scene there at the Improv. You overhear
conversations about managers and agents. About hot new
comics. About commercials gotten and auditions gained.
About showcases for agencies. About writing jobs. About
deals. About shows coming onto the air.
You hear about all sorts of things you would be great
at doing. You hear about stuff that almost makes you
salivate because you know you could absorb, learn, grow
if you had that job. Even beyond the money talk you hear,
what tantalizes you is the opportunity to actually get in
there and learn how it all really works and get good at it.
But there's no way to simply apply for those jobs.
There are only three ways to get those opportunities,
as far as I can tell: (1) have a friend who is already
inside and who is willing, truly willing, to take the
chance at lowering their own status and put up with the
massive resistance it will take to get you in; (2) to get
a super high-powered agent or manager who has already had
huge successes and who believes in you (a lot), and will
push the buttons and make the calls that will get you in;
(3) have so much enormous talent that whatever you create
will surely be instantly and resoundingly successful, and
find some way to force someone in a powerful position to
actually see that this is the case (good luck).
If you don't have one or all of those, you're not
So here you are, a comic/writer in L.A. who has all the
want and all the basic talent, but you can't get in to
learn the skills of media-specific comedy. It's like
being an addicted gambler living in a casino, and not
being allowed to ever make a bet. It's like putting
together a great set, and then standing in the back
of the room while other comics go on stage. It's torture.
It doesn't take long when people move into this
environment for them to start getting weird. They
get desperate. They ask for things in awkward ways.
They get pushy. They try to standout by being
"funny" in a crowd. They get bitter. They get what
I call L.A. cranky (this town complains more than any
place on earth). They start to lie about what they've
got going on, to exaggerate it. They start being evasive,
not returning phone calls, not saying what's really
happening because they want to be perceived as someone
who is in demand.
All of which makes sense. L.A. is webs of thousands
of writers, actors, directors, producers, comedians,
all of whom want badly to work, almost none of whom
has easy and reliable access to that work. It's torture.
So why do it?
What choice do you have if you want to do comedy?
Stay on the road until you're 80? Unless you get into
the media and have a monster hook, you'll never make
that much money and the life is draining and repetitious.
Yes, you can be a comedy existentialist and do it for the
"love," but from what I can tell the road eventually
gets to everyone, and they all develop that seething
hatred for whoever makes gigs even slightly difficult
(a.k.a. hecklers, ignorant owners, other comics, etc.).
Better to stay around L.A., lurking on the edge of
cool stuff, flavored with big money. Keep trying to make
friends with people who will help you, keep trying to
locate and impress the uber-manager, keep trying to improve
your talent so that someone will surely see that they can
make money off what you do. Even if you're just marching
around the castle walls, you see the drawbridge and
occasionally hear about the secret entrances, and the
only way to be there when they open up is to always be
And in the meantime all you have to do is be able to
take the torture.