LA Freefall For All
So, earnest and likable Tommy James, a.k.a. the current
"Big Move" writer for beloved Sheckymag, finds me
at the Hollywood Improv. And before he speaks, I can see it
in his eyes. I know what's going to happen before he gets
within five feet of me and my pint of freshly poured Bass
from the tap of Eddie the ever-present bartender.
"Dan," he says. "Hey, can I ask you
something?""Sure, Tommy," I say, though I don't
really need him to ask, since I know what he's going to say, and
I know exactly how he will react to my response. I know all of
this even though I barely know Tommy. I am a shaman in this one
particular thing in life.
"What's the deal with doing this 'conversational' style of
comedy in LA?" he says, his earnest eyes scanning my face
for clues, his earnest ears pricked and ready for what I will
say. "Do you think you have to do your comedy like that?"
I take a drink of my beer, because I like beer. And because I
have to consider for a moment whether to tell him the truth. I
hesitate only because I know it will be futile to tell him the
truth, because he is not ready to hear it, his mind has not yet
LA mutated to where he will be able to accept what I tell him.
If I try to explain things, his eyes will start to glaze over,
and after a minute or so he'll be overloaded and wander away to
ask someone else the same question, wanting/needing a simpler
answer. He'll repeat this process for a few weeks, and then he'll
stop asking, and every night he'll go home to his wife and tell her
how weird this town is, and that he can't seem to get a straight
answer out of anyone, so all he does now is hang out and shoot
the shit instead of desperately asking everyone he sees for help,
which is what he really wants to do every time he steps outside of
his Hollywood apartment and into the unmapped illusion that is Los
Angeles.Because Tommy James, you see, is in LA freefall.
* * * * * * * * *
LA freefall is a very common phenomenon out here. It happens to
everyone. It happened to me. If you move here, it will happen to you.
For standups, the freefall typically goes like this:
A comic --sometimes a headliner, sometimes a middle, sometimes an
opener, sometimes a rank amateur with delusions of grandeur
--moves to Los Angeles from Indianapolis. Or Tampa. Or Boston.
The first thing he does is call all the other standups he knows
from the road, the pseudo-buddies he bonded with during that week
in Des Moines where they drank every night and went to that strip
club where the chicks were always cool to the comics, especially
when the comics have money. He goes to the LA comedy clubs and
sees more guys he knew from the road that he didn't even know lived
in LA, and man, it's like a big reunion out here, that is so cool.
He asks where he should live, how to get some stage time. Soon
enough he's living in downtown Hollywood. He's hanging at the
Comedy Store, the Laff Factory, or the Improv. He goes up
semi-regularly at a couple of coffee shops booked by someone he
Then things start to click. Maybe some lower-level management
people say they're interested in him, they can get him this, they
can do him that. Some other comics tell him they've got this thing
they're working on, they can see him doing this or that. Maybe he
gets into a festival, goes and drinks a lot and feels like he's in
the groove tube. Things have some spark, he starts to hear people
talking about "deals," and even though he doesn't know
what that means, it sounds like money, and that's what he's here
LA is a town built around nothing. It's a city where a few people are
incredibly busy, and the vast majority of people are doing absolutely
nothing. Even people who work a lot and make a lot of money often
find they are spending a lot of their lives doing absolutely nothing.
It's a city that moves incredibly fast, and then incredibly, incredibly
slow. It's a city of downtime and slow development and things falling
apart and things coming quickly together and then finishing quickly
and then downtime comes swooping in again.
It is a city that operates on a model that is especially
soul-crunching to comics. Standups are entertainers who are
used to writing a joke, trying it that night, getting laughs,
and moving on to the next new creation. For comics, LA slowdown
is mind-numbing. Life-defeating. Discouraging. Despairing.
Unless you understand what you're really getting into when you move
* * * * * * * * *
What you're really getting into is a whole new industry that has
absolutely nothing to do with standup comedy. You're getting into
the media, which sees standup only as place to go and find people
who might become actors or writers. Who might become actors and
writers. If they can stop being standups and learn some new stuff.
So when you come to LA, get ready for a dead stop. Nothing will
happen for you. Nothing that is even remotely real will happen
for you. Because you're not ready. No one comes to LA ready for
LA. It doesn't work that way.
For standups, they first realize they aren't ready when they see
that what they learned on the road doesn't work in Los Angeles.
LA audiences are a strange cultural mix of Latinos, Jews, Asians,
East Coasters, desperate, pretty youth, and "the industry."
These people laugh differently, at different things, and they've
seen so much performance that they like a different --possibly
more sophisticated, but definitely different --style than what
works in the Midwest.
So the first thing a new comic in the city experiences is real
failure. Maybe for the first time since he was an open miker
at his first bar gig. These LA people aren't laughing at your
jokes. People laughed everywhere else. They applaud these bits
everywhere else. What's going on?
Because most comics can't answer the question of why their jokes
aren't working in LA, they go into an artistic freefall. They
begin to flail around. A set of questions emerge to keep them
awake at night.
Should I change the way I look? My delivery? Should I talk
about my real life? Should I talk about LA?
Should I do a character? Should I act more? Should I drop
my tampon bit?
How do you come out of the freefall?
Well, you don't. Not for quite awhile. From what I can see the
typical initial LA freefall lasts about two or three years.
It's characterized by constant soul searching, constant
experimentation, constant feelings of "I should have
stayed on the road," constant feelings of "I'm funnier
than all these other people, what's wrong with this city?"
And don't think you will be the one to avoid it. Saying "I'll
just do what I do and those LA fucks can deal with it,"
doesn't work. The LA fucks are the people whose money you want.
They don't give you money unless they like what you do, or unless
you can clearly show you can make them money even if they don't
like what you do. If you can't please the LA fucks, you can't do
anything in LA other than live here. And living here without
being able to get into the industry that is constantly sitting
at the table next to you talking about their project is maddening.
So you have to deal with the LA fucks.
So the freefall continues. One year. Another. Maybe another.
How does it end?
It typically ends when someone ends it for you. A manager or
an agent signs you. And then tells you who to be. And that's
what you do.
If you're very, very lucky, the manager or agent knows a little
bit of something. Their advice is at least not completely off
base. They eliminate much from your act, but at least what they
retain will be seen and liked here in LA. Which means they can
sell you, and get you that deal you believe will make your life
the walk through the candy store that you believe it should have
been all along.
More often what happens is the agent promises a lot, seems to
know what he's talking about, but he really doesn't. They end
up giving you advice that wastes another year of your time.
Now you're three or four years into your LA experience.
Now... you're ready to be an LA comic. You've been seasoned.
You're into your fourth or fifth year. You're ready.
A seasoned LA comic is someone who understands some things
because they have been screwed. They understand the standup
scene in LA is all a big display case for the TV and film industry.
It looks like a normal standup scene, where audiences come to
laugh, but that is not what it is at all. It's not for the comedy;
it's for the exposure of people who might be comics, but who want
to be in TV or film. These are not comedy clubs. They are
A seasoned LA comic understands that representation is Satan,
but that without Satan, you cannot get into heaven. Bad
representation can harm you, being without representation makes
you invisible, and killer representation takes you through the
hidden passageways directly into the treasure vault. The end
game in Hollywood is getting the right representation,
because they know the jobs, they can get you in for the jobs,
and they lock out everyone else from getting that job. They
can pressure deals, they can threaten, they can induce, they
can actually make this town, that so loves to do nothing,
actually turn its gears and produce. And you have to have
them doing that for you.
A seasoned LA comic understands that when Satan's bride gets
you an opportunity, you have to bring an "A" game,
bring it hard, bring it like a wildfire. If it's an audition,
you have to bring your soul to it. If it's a writing job, you
have to bring your blazing brain to it. Because just getting
into the treasure vault isn't the end of the game. When you
get in you suddenly see about twenty other doors open, and you
realize Satan is a polygamist. He has many brides, and they're
all bringing their virgins into the vault. Satan will pick only
one virgin, and if you hesitate, show flaws in your talent, the
other virgins are on you like vampires. You have to have your
acting chops, your writing chops, your skills blazing when you
And finally, a seasoned LA comic knows not to put any ego, or
soul, or faith, or need, into LA. There are too many desperate
people here competing for the exact same things you want.
There are too many weird deals cut behind closed doors that you
never even hear about. There are too many bizarre twists of
business fate that close things down that would have been your
ticket up and out. The media industry is capricious. All you
can do is find killer representation, become excellent at the
areas you want to work, and then keep bringing the goods while
hoping things line up long enough for you to slip into the game
and make your money, and, if you are smart, to get out.
That's where you will be when you are "seasoned."
* * * * * * * * *
So, here we are, back at the Improv. I've had my drink of beer.
Tommy James is waiting, still earnest, still believing he wants
Do you think I should tell him?
* * * * * * * * *
[Final Note direct from Dan's Life to Yours:
Dan is looking for a new job, since his college teaching gig has
come to a close. He has a baby coming into this world in seven
weeks who will surely want to eat. If anyone has an "inside
line" on something here in LA --glamorous or not --email Dan
at SHECKYmagazine.com, and gather karma points that will
see you through many of your reincarnations to come. Next
month Dan will be talking about networking, and if you take
this opportunity to cue him into some possible work, he'll
immortalize you on the golden pages of SHECKYmagazine.com.
And he promises you will get into heaven.]