Just For La La Laughs: Los Angeles is Comedy's New Top Dog
Los Angeles is the comedy capital of the universe.
There, I said it.
I know conventional thinking says that, surely, that title is reserved for New York City; the Big Apple certainly holds a key place in comedy history. The list of its greats is a roll call of twentieth-century icons; Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin, Fran Drescher, Don Adams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chevy Chase... and that’s just scratching the surface.
Then there are the venues. Take in a show at Dangerfield’s on First Avenue or the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, or check out legends like Louis CK playing to sell-out crowds at Madison Square Garden. If you’re lucky -like I was late last year- you can even see absurdities like the Oh Hello show on Broadway.
How can LA possibly top all this?
Well, in this humble writer’s opinion it does so thanks to three of its greatest assets; the high-quality TV series shot in the city, the fantastic live venues that reel in the crowds night after night, and the comedy schools that continue to pop up and fuel the Angeleno appetite for humour.
So many of the great TV comedies of the last two decades are inextricably linked with their setting, to the point that the location almost becomes another character. Think Seinfeld and Manhattan, Frasier and a rainy Seattle, Parks and Recreation and the town of Pawnee, Indiana. How could you watch Freaks and Geeks and separate it from the Michigan burbs that feel like home? How do you chuckle at Brooklyn Nine-Nine without wondering if the borough’s cops are really that stupid?
Every single one of these shows was shot in LA.
Them too. All of these series and plenty more were shot on the sunny backlots of studios across the city, meaning all the great comics you see in them either live in Los Angeles or spend considerable parts of the year here for work. This is just as well because all the comedy venues in this unique city need talented performers to bring in the punters.
Great clubs such as the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard showcase up-and-coming talent but also have plenty of established stars who perform; think Dave Chappelle, Tim Allen and Kevin Nealon from SNL and Weeds. At the Hollywood Improv -part of a chain of Improv clubs- you can catch Iliza Shlesinger and Kevin Smith. Plus there are plenty of newer venues like the Nerdist Showroom, and the Upright Citizens Brigade, two excellent venues on Sunset Boulevard and Franklin Avenue.
The charmingly-musty jewel in the crown -my personal favourite here in LA- is the Largo at the Coronet. The club began as a cabaret and poetry venue back in the late 1980s, but became famous for comedy and music before a move to its current location in West Hollywood in 2008. It holds just 280 people which makes it very intimate.
The line-up at the Largo is routinely exceptional. Last year I paid $30 to see a show billed as ‘Jeff Garlin and friends’ -these friends ended up including Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow and Bob Odenkirk aka Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman.
The relaxed atmosphere gives comics the chance to work through new material, often improvising or testing out jokes on a receptive crowd. Part of what gives the comics freedom is the ‘no cell phones’ policy –calls, texts, photos and tweets are not allowed once the show starts, and this is made very clear at the start of each event.
One night when Sarah Silverman was headlining, a young man in the front row pulled out his phone as Silverman delivered her opening line. Big mistake.
“Are you looking at your cell phone?” she demanded.
“Sorry, I just wanted to check a text message,” he replied.
“Why? Why would you do that?” she asked. “I’m standing right in front of you. Would you do that in the middle of a conversation with someone?”
“Ahhhh,” he stuttered.
“What is that accent? Are you a foreigner?”
This was starting to get very awkward – but very entertaining.
“I’m from Texas, Sarah. But I’m Jewish like you.”
“Ah, Shalom Y’all. Yeah I read that book. And I don’t care that you’re Jewish. You’re just rude.”
This went back and forth for minutes on end, with the gentleman eventually apologising, but Silverman returned to him again and again as a punchline for the new material she was working on. It was truly brutal, and I was impressed to see the poor guy stick around for the whole gig. Maybe he could have returned fire if he had taken a comedy class like so many of the locals do.
Improv classes are certainly a ‘thing’ in LA. With so many young comics, not to mention ubiquitous out-of-work actors, it’s no surprise there are options aplenty for those wanting to undertake a formal education in the dark art of humour. Hell, I have no aspiration to be a comic and even I took an improv course.
Second City and ImprovOlympic from Chicago have set up theatres here and run all sorts of classes covering improv, sketch and TV writing. The Upright Citizens Brigade, better known as the UCB, expanded to Los Angeles in 2005 after opening their first theatre in New York in 1999. They now have two theatres in the city as well as the impressive UCB Training Center. The recent talent that has poured out of the UCB system is phenomenal and includes Jason Mantzoukas, Kate McKinnon, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Kroll and Aziz Ansari.
And how could any discussion of comedy classes in LA not mention the Groundlings? The troupe formed in LA in 1974 and has pumped heavy hitter after heavy hitter onto the world stage. Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman and Melissa McCarthy are just some of the biggest names to come through the school.
Completing the Groundlings curriculum is notoriously difficult, with an audition required before you can begin the course proper, as well as the distinct possibility you will be told to retake a level before you can progress to the next one. It can take years to complete the course, but those that do have not only bragging rights but are either most likely on their way to comedy stardom, or have at least shared the stage with some hot new SNL prospect. That’s pretty damn cool. And it means another hilarious comic based in SoCal.
So New York invented stand-up, and Chicago invented improv. But the killer combo of TV, clubs and comedy schools forms the unholy trinity making Los Angeles the epicentre of funny. You better believe it. And next time you're in LA, don't miss the comedy.