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.”