Sometime in late August, 2011 I contacted Shayne Michael about open mics in the Long Beach area, and he got back to me with a list that included The Library Coffeehouse. A few weeks ago, I included Shayne’s mic at It’s a Grind downtown among my favorite sets I did over the course of what constituted a rapid-fire succession of shows to close out my time in California. No matter who came and went within comedy for me over the past two years, Shayne’s indomitable work ethic and commitment to jokesmithing were two of the constants.
Let me back up a bit and explain my own comedy situation. Considering how I moved out from DC for school and not for comedy, my personal and professional place was not ideal for making the most of 24 months in the top comedy market in Earth. I’ve told this to many people and it bears repeating here: grad school is comedy (or any artistic pursuit) poison. I would never say I regret earning my master’s, but the last few weeks spent bouncing around L.A. opened a window into a world that I’d ultimately denied myself for justifiable reasons. Being in school and/or a committed academic handicaps your ability to do comedy at a clip that most comics wouldn’t really understand; this is tantamount to how doing comedy handicaps your ability to relate to people in ways that non-comics (aka most of society) doesn’t understand either. Whenever I hear some comic opining that people who aren’t “serious enough” about comedy to step aside from stagetime, it isn’t a mystery why it pisses me off.
Another constant in my “life” in comedy has been the indelible influence of not the comics with television deals and millions of twitter followers, but the comics who I’ve actually had the privilege of interacting with on a weekly basis, workshopping jokes, style, and technique with, and as a result forging friendships that normal people (or “normies” as one my good friends calls them, half-joking) wouldn’t be able to understand either. Just as I felt during my six years in DC, the comics who actually made an impression on me (and gave me the impression that comedy itself was still the greatest thing ever) were the ones focused on actually taking risks, engaging in the increasingly radical practice of discussing things that matter to THEM instead of perfunctorily writing jokes about things they think they NEED to (audiences do have an ability to pick up on this…well, some audiences), and just being interesting.
If I were to list every single comic who influenced me either artistically or personally, I wouldn’t ever finish writing this. So, I’ve decided to pick six comics (and put them in alphabetical order, of course ranking them would be impossible…sorry, internet) who not only I think are fantastic, but I have stories that explain why they’re worth your time and skeptical enthusiasm. None of these guys are making a living doing standup (yet), but I’ve enjoyed watching them just as much as any of your Kumail Nanjianis, Patton Oswalts, and (soon) Hampton Younts.
On the day that Ahmed’s online sketch trio Dead Kevin landed a great deal with Comedy Central’s website, Ahmed and a pair of other comics with Rhode Island backgrounds drove down to San Pedro to perform in what would turn out to be an abortive second installment of the Jesus & Tequila Comedy Hour. I didn’t find out about the Dead Kevin deal until after the “show” had already happened, but regardless, Ahmed was incredibly cool about it and went up first to a virtually empty room, making every single person that had showed up laugh regardless. I got to do another show with Ahmed fairly recently at Keith Carey’s tattoo parlor showcase in Orange, and he crushed it.
Whenever I hear certain comics (often times assholes themselves) say that “nice guys” aren’t funny (usually through the wuss-shield that is facebook), it really bums me out. Who the hell is so sheltered that they legitimately believe that? Even in a blistering community like Los Angeles, you get to see people like Ahmed and the next five people succeed on their own merits without being a dick about their talent, even…
Sometime last fall, Scott and I were two of about 74 comics booked on a show for a crowd of injured veterans at the Long Beach VA hospital. Considering how much time he, I, and most of the other comics on the show spent performing for each other and whatever other young, generally progressive audiences found their way to our shows and open mics, we did not really know if this un-ironically patriotic (imagine that) crowd would take kindly to our humor. The MC had us all sign commemorative 11×17 posters of the event (for some reason), Scott signed one of them “Scoot Blocks” and when his time came to perform, Scott (or Scoot) unleashed a torrent of fearless, 110% self-aware pandering to the troops and the amorphous idea of “America” that made the crowd smile and laugh appreciatively and us comics practically fall out of our chairs.
I can’t count the number of times Scott would intentionally derail his set only to find an even funnier, most creative rail to throw it onto. Also, he never let on when he thought a joke wouldn’t work; he just plowed through that shit like a ginger Silas Marner because if you didn’t like it…eh, he’d have another one coming soon enough. Bonus points for his merciless skewering of the arrogantly unfunny and the unfunnily arrogant both in person and online.
I met Keith before he was a year into comedy, and it downright pissed me off how natural he was onstage, a point I didn’t feel like I’d reached more than six years in. Unlike most of the people I came up in stand-up with, Keith has led a legitimately rough life, and he has no fear about making light of these topics (incredibly well) onstage. Given how many shitty curveballs life has thrown at him (including in the time I’ve known him), it’s amazing how good-natured and constantly-smiling this dude always was, even at the most depressing of open mics. I can’t even imagine my time as a comic in Long Beach without Keef around to both encourage me and remind me how important it was to keep writing jokes that were important to me. I’m having serious trouble thinking of one particular story that really stands out about Keith, which is a moot point. It’s always a joke-party with him. He started an exceptional show at a Tattoo parlor in Orange of all places, and (surprise, surprise) it rocked face. At any rate, Keith is having good things happen to him now, and they’ll keep coming, unless he did some horrible thing I’m completely unaware of and karma reverses his fortunes.
Once, Keith, Evan and I were at Harbor House Café enjoying a typical 2am meal. I really wish I’d written his actual quote down, but from what I remember, we were teasing him about a cute waitress he had a crush on, and he jokingly implied he was going to “clobber itttt,” before he frantically speared his Tabasco-covered french fries (anything other food would have killed him) and shoveled them into his mouth. It was at that moment that I realized just how crazy Evan Cassidy truly is, and damned if I wouldn’t constantly enjoy doing comedy and hanging with this ginger (another one!).
I remember getting into light arguments with a friend in DC about whether volume of stage time made you funny. I understood her point that people can be funny without getting onstage every night, but I disagreed with the idea that it didn’t have a major impact. See: Exhibit (Ginger) A(le), Mr. Evan Cassidy. I don’t think I’ve known anyone in California with as much of a die-hard stage-hopping spirit as Evan, nor do I know anyone who’s worked harder to foster a vibrant comedy community in Orange County, even drawing various comics down who were sick of LA’s bullshit and wanted a breath of fresh air. As much as I had difficulty getting down there most weeks, I can’t imagine my time in SoCal without Anchor Bar and La Cave. I may be wrong, but I think that at one point, Evan ran a show every night for a goddamn week.
Comedically, Evan has grown by leaps and bounds since I met him at Tickles Comedy Room sometime in fall 2011. His characters Barry and Sketchy Eddie blow Orange County stereotypes out of the water, so respect for being able to pull that off.
I could name nobody in California less recognized for their comedic talent and fearlessness than this dude. Unfortunately, his work situation kept him from getting to a lot of mics in time, so where many comics got onstage at the times integral to them building politically within the scene, Paul usually wound up being that guy going on around 11:30pm at Anchor bar to a pair of depressed comics, a trio of barely attentive bros, and a bartender who had grown tired of our collective shit.
I also couldn’t name anybody more difficult to predict when they get onstage than Paul. Will he spontaneously jump into his Dan Rather impression? Will he flail his limbs while openly begging for ironic acceptance? Will he drop a reference to Weezer’s “Sweater Song” while explaining why people in LA are terrible? He would probably make you feel dumb for assuming you could anticipate where his fevered brain would take his mouth and body, no matter who he was performing for.
One of these times at Anchor Bar, a very intolerant ex-Marine did a set (in cargo shorts, which was almost as bad as his bundle of misogyny, homophobia, and racism). Paul got called up a few sets after this, and instead of jumping into material, he called out this douchebag on everything (unfortunately, dude had already gone home, but it still made an impression), continuing the Paul Lao tradition of saying what most comics are really thinking but are too squeamish and/or logical to exude. Give Paul a chance, America!
My first set in Hollywood came at the Melrose Improv’s round-robin open mic night a month after I moved to Long Beach. I drove up to LA, nervously wandered into a theater full of hungry young comics, and somewhat surprisingly, Peter Banachowski drew my name (I have the world’s shittest, SHITTIEST luck getting drawn at lottery-style mics). I had three minutes to introduce myself to Los Angeles. I was nervous. I took my Nats cap off and placed it on the piano (for some reason- maybe I was nervous people would remember me as “Nats hat douche comic” or something). I did a few newer jokes that I was confident enough in to separate me from “the pack” so to speak. The set itself wasn’t career-defining, but it wasn’t a disaster. The one tipping-point, for me, came in the form of laughter from one goofy-looking blonde kid sitting down in the front. I did meet Jeremiah a couple of times and have great conversations with him over the following year or two, but I never told him how big that was for me at the time, and still is.
Anyway, after that “breakthrough” (whatever) set at the Improv, I was going to step outside to call my girlfriend, but I saw that Jeremiah was picked to go up on-deck, so I decided to wait to make sure I watched and supported him, too. And, holy shit. Each of the handful of times I got to see him perform was radically different and quite fearless. That first time he spent almost his entire set sprawled out onstage, akin to a beast shot with tranquilizer darts, climbing up the stool and committing to a joke at a level greater than I’ve been capable of in almost a decade of making them. He’s already started appearing in commercials and I would be really surprised if this dude didn’t start showing up everywhere over the next few years. Keep your eyes peeled; he’s hard to miss.
ALSO A LOT OF OTHER COMICS WHO ARE HILARIOUS, INCLUDING PROBABLY YOU IF YOU ARE READING THIS.
So, there you have it. Six comics worth your time and attention, Southern California. For now, I’ll sporadically update this from the comfy cradle of Knoxville’s burgeoning comedy scene. I’m not going to lie and say I regret moving here from SoCal, but it would be a lie to say that I don’t miss those snap-snap open-mics at Shillelegh (saw it got moved to Tuesday nights…bummer), the nights comedy-ing then sports-watching and drinking with Tim Palmer and Jerry Brandt (two wonderful comics in their own right and great friends), and (believe it or not) dealing with 2 of the 49 “yes”es from facebook actually showing up for the show you worked your ass off promoting because it drizzled a bit, it cost a whole 5-10 dollars(or, 2 beers, you cheap bastards), or some other LA reason because you got to give those two people who cared enough to come out the show they wanted. Not that I’m bitter, I wouldn’t trade any of these past two years.
Talk to you all soon.