The comic space is crucial. Stand-up comedy grew up in establishments of almost uncomfortable intimacy, and on a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was reminded of just how close together the Hollywood comedy establishments are.
A. Largo has been at its current La Cienega Boulevard location since 2008 and hosts both musicians and comedians in an intimate 280-seat theater. It’s an insider establishment – the kind of venue where Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez will go for a date night. I was there to see Sarah Silverman & Friends perform on a Thursday night, and after a full ninety minutes, Silverman introduced her “surprise guest from across the Atlantic” – Russell Brand. It’s all very Hollywood.
B. The Hollywood Improv. The original Improv was founded in New York by Budd Friedman, in 1963. This Los Angeles location was the second to open, in 1974, and is well-known by those who remember the long-running A&E series An Evening at the Improv (1982-96). By now, their website lists 23 different Improvs, from San Jose to Miami. The shows at these clubs often open with a video introduction for the Improv chain itself, which still carries itself as if it were in the middle of the 1980s comedy boom.
C. The Groundlings is not technically a stand-up site, in that the famed theater and school revolves around sketch and improv. I include it for completeness. Plus, several of its alumni practice stand-up – think Kathy Griffin and Jon Lovitz – and former Groundling Conan O’Brien regularly hosts stand-up comedians on his television shows. Even smaller than Largo, the Phil Hartman Theater seats 99.
D. The Upright Citizens Brigade is another improvisational comedy group, but their theater regularly hosts stand-up comedians, most prominently with tapings of Doug Benson’s podcast Doug Loves Movies. Admission is free, so all one has to do is to stand in line in order to spend an hour or so with performers such as TJ Miller and Pete Holmes in a 92-seat space.
E. The Laugh Factory is the most typical stand-up space of the group, in that it’s the most similar to other comedy clubs one finds from San Francisco to New York. It’s a place for headliners and tourists, which can actually cause problems. Michael Richards’ unplanned descent into racist comedy in 2006? That was at the Laugh Factory. Daniel Tosh’s apology for his rape references? That was for an appearance at the Laugh Factory. Without excusing the comedians for their own material, I suspect that these incidents rile up patrons at the Laugh Factory because they are less used to the comedy scene and the stand-up performers explorations of the offensive. Sarah Silverman made several rape jokes during her performance at Largo that were never going to make the news because the crowd was specifically interested in seeing exactly how far over the line she would go.
F. The Comedy Store has a storied legacy. Richard Pryor would drop in and perform there, whether it was during his heyday in the 1970s or later, when multiple sclerosis was ravaging his body. The famed comedy strike of 1979 took place against the Comedy Store and owner Mitzi Shore. Superstars Andrew Dice Clay and Roseanne both blew up big at the Comedy Store. Stand-up and podcaster Marc Maron, who used to work there as a doorman, speaks of the ominous energy of the club. Hey, it was even featured as haunted on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
If you go to Hollywood, it’s difficult to see movies getting made, but you can easily have a front row seat to witness the top stand-up comedians in the game. It’s about a ten mile drive to make the full circuit of these clubs and theaters. And yes, you’ll have to drive – it is Los Angeles, after all.
Matthew Daube (Ph.D., Theater and Performance Studies, Stanford University, 2010) has taught in half a dozen different departments at Stanford, including a year as a teaching fellow at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. His dissertation, “Laughter in Revolt: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Construction of Stand-up Comedy” argues for the recognition of stand-up comedy as a distinct performance mode that emerged in the United States following World War II, linked to issues of race and focused on the performance of self. He is particularly interested in the intersections between humor and the performance of identity, and has published articles on the use of ethnic stereotype by the Marx Brothers and the role of the audience in stand-up comedy.