Out of the Tarpit: The Rebirth of the LA Comedy Club Scene

La Comedy Club Scene

A few years ago, anyone paying attention to the stand-up scene in Los Angeles would have been within their rights to think that the clubs were aging dinosaurs, sinking slowly to their death in a tar pit they’d never be able to escape. The Big Three (The Comedy Store, the Improv and the Laugh Factory) were not having their better days and it seemed like everything they did to get unstuck just made them sink deeper and deeper. But today, business is booming, with the clubs drawing stronger audiences to watch a broader range of comedians and really reasserting their relevance in comedy and pop culture.

The Decline of the LA Comedy Club Scene

By 2010, the -era Comedy boom had gone bust, and the club showcase was no longer the gatekeeper or guarantee of stardom.

By 2010, the Seinfeld-era comedy boom had gone bust, Carson was retired and people could get their laughs from the comfort of their couches with YouTube crotchshots and shorts on sites like FunnyOrDie and MyDamnChannel. For comedians, the club showcase was no longer the gatekeeper or guarantee of stardom. So clubs turned to outside producers to help fill the rooms and keep the doors open. Some were hustlers, pounding the pavement and working their email lists to fill the room for a good lineup, but most were the dreaded Bringer Show, a format where the producer offers very green comedians stage time in exchange for selling between five and twenty tickets to their friends and family.

Even as the current comedy boom began to re-boot in earnest, the expensive parking, two-drink minimums and repetitive lineups of the same small group of comedians at the clubs were not drawing in new fans.  They were more used to free shows with free beer and a broad range of talent that was being overlooked by set-in-their ways club bookers.

By 2012, when the Hollywood Improv shut down the Improv Lab, things were looking even more grim.

By 2012, when The Hollywood Improv shut down the Improv Lab, things were looking even more grim. The Lab had been a space to incubate free and cheap shows that were a little different from what was happening in the Main Room. One notable success story is ’s storyteller, This Is Not Happening, which grew out of the Lab into the Main Room, then on to festivals, a Comedy Central Digital Series and will soon be filming for broadcast on the network. But the Improv had to shut down The Lab so they could renovate and add a restaurant that would be open for lunch & dinner to make sure the space remained profitable.

Certain franchise shows like Comedy Juice at The Improv, Trippin on Tuesdays at The Comedy Store and Fresh Faces at The Laugh Factory continued strong showings.   The Laugh Factory, with its relentless marketing machine, also still had lines of Hollywood douches out the door every night. But the other clubs would often see anemic crowds of hostile or bored tourists on off nights and early shows. Even the smaller Club, with its prime foot traffic spot at Universal CityWalk, was being run into the ground by mismanagement and a roster of terrible bringer shows. In stark contrast, independents like The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, Performance Anxiety, Holy Fuck! and Venice Underground were regularly at capacity, full of enthusiastic fans and building loyal, repeat visitors.

The LA Comedy Club Scene Turnaround

Then, somehow, it all started to turnaround. After a disastrous management change at the Improv, returned to the helm and the heartbeat of the club. Artistic Director worked with the successful independent shows like Loud Village and Comedy Living Room to bring their brands and their crowds into the club. They simultaneously started bringing in a broader range of headliners like , and James Adomian, worked in new formats like Comedy Rap Battle, Skinny Sundays and Van Jam, and even provided nights to showcase younger talent.

Everything is cyclical, even comedy, and that wheel is turning in an upward direction right now.

The Comedy Store also went through a bit of a shakeup, making a number of changes to become a little more corporate and reorganizing the management. Many of them were terrible [Author’s Note: Full disclosure, I lost my job at The Comedy Store as a result of those changes], but the injection of outside perspective in this insular organization has improved the marketing and opened up the programming to the point where they could pack the Original Room on a Wednesday and even scrapped their Sunday night free Potluck show in favor of a standard Headliner show. They also began to take back the Belly Room, the Store’s small 80 seater that had been host to mainly bringer shows for years. Beginning with the Monday collaboration with Deathsquad, producer introduced the live podcast #KILLTONY with Tony Hinchcliffe and brought The Comedy Store’s longest running show, The Ding Dong Show, to the network. And Tuesday night became host to Penthouse Comedy, a show that features many of the alt comedy darlings who have been ignored by the Store and LA’s current It Show, Roast Battle.

The Laugh Factory dabbled in bringing in the alt scene with Dot Comedy, but eventually decided to play to their strong suit with high profile shows like New Material Night with Kevin Nealon and Breaking Balls with . Lovitz retooled a few times, first putting more focus on their podcast network, then bringing in LA Comedy Mama, Dee Burdett, who has worked to sweep away the bringers, book hot talent that may not be getting play at other clubs, and form strategic media partnerships.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 11.29.37 PMThere are even new clubs sprouting up. and , the duo behind the long-running Trippin on Tuesdays show at The Comedy Store, moved on and founded Inside Jokes last summer, which seems to still be experimenting with exactly who it wants to be, but already has high-powered supporters like Russell Simmons and Russell Peters and a lot of loyalty from LA comedians.

There was a little good luck in there, too. Club staples like , , , and all became household names on TV. Comedians like , , Ari Shaffir, Jay Larson, , and amassed vast and fiercely loyal fan bases via their podcasts. And @midnight began providing one of the best platforms for television exposure to transition fans from seeing you on TV to coming to see your stand-up.

Everything is cyclical, even comedy, and luckily for LA clubs, that wheel is turning in an upward direction right now.

Amy E Hawthorne is a New York by-way-of LA comedy journalist and founder of ComedyGroupie.com.  She’s also produced numerous stand-up shows, got a paycheck and a drinking problem from The Comedy Store and is convinced that the Big Avocado lobby are the ones who really pull the strings in this country.

 

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Amy E Hawthorne is a New York by way of LA comedy journalist and founder of ComedyGroupie.com. She's also a produced numerous stand-up shows, got a paycheck and a drinking problem from The Comedy Store and is convinced that the Big Avocado lobby are the ones who really pull the strings in this country.
Amy Hawthorne
Amy Hawthorne
Amy E Hawthorne is a New York by way of LA comedy journalist and founder of ComedyGroupie.com. She's also a produced numerous stand-up shows, got a paycheck and a drinking problem from The Comedy Store and is convinced that the Big Avocado lobby are the ones who really pull the strings in this country.