It’s a Wednesday night in La Jolla, and I’m in the Comedy Store, not far from the Ferrari dealership. But the folks onstage aren’t in the market for prancing stallions; hell, they’re not even being paid to elicit laughs. Before he lets me in, the smallish doorman — no off-duty bodybuilders here — announces in a flat tone, “No cell phones or heckling.”
“It’s a pretty good crowd tonight,” says Austin Train, a local comic whose day-job happens to be at the Comedy Store.
Optimism must run high among San Diego’s aspiring comedians, because I count perhaps 25 people at most.
“Good crowd?” Austin’s being charitable, because there’s a lot of sitting on hands except for one table of 30ish patrons who are drunk enough to laugh at anything.
916 Pearl Street, La Jolla
There are no intermissions, and the club (perhaps in recognition of material limitations and audience attention spans) sends up one comic after another, around a dozen with about eight minutes each. I’ve come to see Train’s act, and he’s probably the most polished of the group. The two distaffers aren’t bad, and a couple of others have some good moments, but there’s a lot of awkward silence punctuated by attempts to engage the audience. In fact, I’m starting to feel sorry for a few of these comedians as they finally hit confessional notes about “bombing.” Every now and then, during random moments of various comics’ sets, a queer chortle emanates from the back of the room, and I picture an older woman drunk on over-priced white wine. Turns out to be a regular patron, a tiny old gentleman who resembles a cross between Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi and “Bubbles” of Trailer Park Boys.
It hardly qualifies as even a micro-epiphany that the world of the comedian isn’t very funny, at least as observed through the lens of the rest of us. But who among us hasn’t, at least for a moment, daydreamed about being onstage, reducing strangers to howls, even tears, of laughter?
You’re out drinking with your buddies or sitting in a plush chair at your psychologist’s office. Maybe you’re at the checkout counter at the grocery store. Could even be in a cubicle at work or sitting in a classroom. You crack a joke, a one-liner if there isn’t much time, or maybe something longer with a set-up if there is one. Might not be a joke at all, just an observation or a comment, a pun, play on words, or witty retort. Somebody laughs, perhaps loudly. Says you’re funny, and if it’s a good day, proclaims seriously, “Hey, you should try stand-up.”
I ask Austin Train, “How do locals get started — and is there any money in it?” “For me,” recalls Train, “it was January 25, 2011, an open-mic night.” When it comes to remuneration, he compares comedy to sports. “So many people are amateur athletes but very few make money from it. The ones who do make money at the top rungs can make a lot, but so many of us are doing it part-time as a hobby. You can make decent money as a road comic, playing random clubs across the country, but it’s tough if you’re going to stay in one place unless it’s New York, L.A., or Chicago. San Diego has a nice little scene but there’s not a huge movie or entertainment industry here.” Weekends are better, but hardly a road to riches. Train says that at local clubs, the regulars who ply venues like the Comedy Store, the Comedy Palace in Kearny Mesa, and downtown’s Madhouse, typically earn about $100 opening for a headliner; so at two shows per night, they’ll make up to $200 if they’re fortunate.
Local comics will tell you, though, that ascending even to the modest rewards available to openers is a long haul through the open-mic shows and the weekday graveyards.
Erik Knowles, a Marine Corps veteran originally from Texas, says the trek from open-mic work to paid gigs took him about ten years. “It was an evolution. I did it just because I liked to do it and maybe there was nothing else going on that night. It’s been a lot of poverty since I quit my job as a helicopter mechanic in 2005. Right now I make enough money to pay my bills — just not all at the same time.” He adds, “If you go to a comedy club in San Diego during the week, all the comics are performing for free; sometimes you get free or discounted drinks.”
On one hand, Knowles asserts, “I make the same amount of money that a hard-working, middle-class construction worker makes.” But he also laments.
I ask Knowles, “Then what allowed you to stop working your ‘regular’ job? “Sheer will,” he replies. “I shouldn’t have quit my day-job that early. I live in a travel trailer with my wife, my three step-kids, and my own son. It’s a 27-foot bunkhouse we tow behind our Ford Expedition. We’d been staying at all of San Diego’s campgrounds, but you can only stay a few weeks at a time, so it’s a hassle and still fairly expensive; like, $800-$900 a month. We’re at a friend’s house in Imperial Beach right now.”
Knowles says he does better than the bulk of local stand-ups, so I ask, “How much do most aspiring San Diego comics make in a night at a typical local comedy club?” “Nothing, usually,” he admits. And when I query, “Do they at least get laid?” Knowles laughs, “Well, some people do. But I’ve never understood how to turn comedy into romance; you might meet a drunk hooker that smells like wine and cigarettes.”
If fame and fortune are remote — if not impossible — prospects for local comics, why do they do it? Austin Train says, “Comedy is one of the few things in my life that I’ve really found rewarding.” As for Erik Knowles, he confesses, “For me, it’s been a life-saving thing. Literally. I went through a depression period. I was suicidal, but then I found my voice. Comedy can do that to you. The ‘tears of a clown’ thing is not just an old saying.”
For some, it seems to be destiny. Knowles reminisces, “I was probably five years old the first time I heard the word ‘comedian.’ A teacher or some adult was waggin’ a finger in my face and saying, ‘You’re a little comedian,’ and I just thought it meant I was a jerk or something. It was a word I learned early on, and I was interested in what it meant. In school, I was called the ‘class clown.’ I was diagnosed with ADD, put on Ritalin. It wasn’t really until I was in my 20s, when I was in the Marines, where I was always in trouble, that I got into comedy. The Marines are full of comedians, but the difference between good Marines and me was that they could turn it off. Marines are very professional, with snap-to professionalism. I could never stop; I’d say one more funny thing when we were in formation and make everybody laugh. The first time I did stand-up was in the Marines: I was ordered to do it as a punishment, in lieu of being busted down again or sent to see ‘the man.’ My sergeant said, ‘I’m not gonna write you up if you’ll do this squadron Christmas party talent show.’ That was in December, 1999.”
Knowles didn’t perform again until 2005.
“I’d gotten a job repairing helicopters at North Island. My coworkers there were the ones who pushed for it. They were always telling me to do it. I was really coming into my own, looking forward to lunchtime and making people laugh. It was kinda, like, my daily show. I don’t even remember what I’d talk about, but everybody would crowd around. Somebody found an advertisement for a stand-up comedy workshop and encouraged me to go to it.”
Mike Vinn, another military transplant, describes his comic epiphany:
“When I was eight or nine years old, I snuck downstairs and turned on the TV and saw the Howie Mandel Watusi Tour. Thought it was the funniest thing on the face of the planet, and said to myself, I can do that. I’m not like Howie, but that influenced me to get on the stage. I ended up in boot camp at Pendleton in ’98. I don’t like winter, I don’t like snow, and San Diego has none of that, so I stayed. I found out that Erik Knowles and I were both in the Marines together in WestPac. He was in the air wing, I was in the infantry, and we ended up on the same ship at the same time.”
Why the Marine Corps connection? “There’s a lot of down time in the Marines, so I used to write parody songs and sing them. Comedy just came naturally. It seems like anytime you go someplace where some people are extreme in one way, there are people who are extreme in the other way; there’s going to be comic relief somewhere.”
Inevitably, discussions of comedy lead to the topic of controversial material. Austin Train says, “I have a dark sense of humor, but it’s a dilemma; you have to find a meeting point between your sense of humor and the audience’s. I don’t think anything’s offensive if it’s funny, but the problem is that a lot of comics are just offensive and not funny; they do it for the shock value to get a reaction....
“People are especially sensitive about racial stuff in today’s climate. There’s always going to be a little bit of controversy, but as long as you handle it in an empathetic way and bring yourself into it [not just making fun of the differences between people], you can get away with making fun of people as long as you’re not coming from a condescending angle.”
Irrespective of whether a comedian ventures into edgy territory, heckling is inevitable, as is the act that just doesn’t work. Train isn’t touchy.
“You shouldn’t blame a bad set on the audience every time you eat it. You’re gonna eat it, that’s just a fact of life. I give hecklers enough rope to hang themselves; they’re not used to the attention, being in the spotlight. If they say one funny thing, fine, but if they keep talking, they’re gonna say something stupid. Most of the people in the audience are on your side, and they’re thinking, This [heckler’s] an asshole — he’s trying to hijack it, make the show about him. Guys are easier to shut down. Some of these drunk girls are so oblivious that they don’t know they’re the butt of the joke, and they keep going.”
Mike Vinn confesses, “I get heckled all the time.”
“What kind of people heckle you?”
“Ignorant ones,” replies Vinn. “Some of them don’t understand that comics have the jokes and that they don’t need help. Or they’re just drunk, not paying attention and don’t realize that there are another couple of hundred people around them that are paying attention. There are two different ways you can handle a heckler. The first is to remember that you’re amplified; you time them out by starting to talk again before they can start. Or you can be combative with them. If you do that, you gotta go at them quickly while being nice enough so that the audience doesn’t turn on you. When you go back and forth with a heckler, that’s where things can get tricky, because if he ends up being slightly more clever than you, that’s when you lose all credibility with the audience and the heckler seems like a god.”
Let’s say you have a thick skin, an aversion to quick riches, and the notion that you can mount a stage and say things that will make strangers erupt in laughter. You’ve seen some of the club regulars and aren’t impressed, much less intimidated. Let’s also say you live in San Diego and have some time not devoted to wage slavery. You’re ready to rehearse in front of a mirror and a girlfriend, prepared to down a shot of pre-show vodka with a Xanax chaser. Perhaps you’re even prepared for existential humiliation. What do the jocose journeymen counsel?
Erik Knowles says, “Get on the internet and find out all the open mics in your city. Call around and find out how many minutes you get. It can be five, three. Find the one that’s the lowest, take your confident self and write down what you think is three minutes of material and bring that to the open mic. Or maybe you’ll find out that you don’t have three minutes; you have 45 seconds, and you’ll wonder why it was so different when you were saying it to yourself, in your head. Then, you’ll be down the rabbit hole.”
Austin Train sounds a cautionary note. “Give it a shot, but I’ve seen people in comedy classes go up to the instructor and ask, ‘When am I going to start headlining on the weekend?’ Except for rare circumstances, you’re not going to go from ‘open mic’ to national touring headliner in a matter of months. It’s a long process.”
The comics with whom I spoke agree that San Diego’s comedy scene is, in their words, developmental. According to Mike Vinn, “When you see comics onstage in San Diego, you need to realize that a lot of the ones who are really good have moved on to another city. Supporting your local comedy scene is like supporting local bands and musicians, except we don’t get to practice in a garage and get good before we do a show. The only way for a comic to get good is get onstage in front of people. It would be like if Jimi Hendrix had practiced in front of audience members in live shows.”
As far as open-mic nights go, Austin Train laments, “Some nights it’s really bad — just you and other comics and you’re all tuned out because you’ve seen each other’s acts so many times. Some guys just really eat it. You do have a lot of crazy people, random wackos just going crazy. But you also have a lot of people who are funny but are just working on it; you can see glimpses. I’ll think to myself, I can see where he’s going with that joke, but it’s still a work-in-progress.”
I ask Train, “Open-mic night loons aside, don’t you have to be at least a little unhinged to be a comedian?”
He muses, “There are certain types of bearable crazy. You can look at some people and say, ‘They’re just a little bit neurotic, have a little OCD.’ Then you have people with full-on, Don Quixote kind of delusions of grandeur being on an open mic, yelling at the audience for not liking their jokes. ‘How dare you not like me!’’’