“Hey buddy, you waitin’ for the doors to open, too?”
I turn around and see a man in his early 40s wearing cargo pants and a graphic t-shirt showing The Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight and the phrase “Why so serious?” We’re both standing outside Madhouse Comedy Club in the Gaslamp District. I ask how he’s doing. His face does something between a squint and a smile.
“Ahh...Okay. It’s been a rough day. A rough year in fact.”
Research indicates that regular laughter brings several benefits to mental and physical health. Psychology Today reported that frequent laughter can reduce stress (and related health issues) while promoting memory/learning, emotional regulation skills, good cholesterol, immune functioning, and improved relationships. We may not need laughter to survive, but we need it to thrive.
Maybe this accounts for San Diego’s vibrant comedy scene. Shows and open mics are offered as special events or weekly features at venues such as North Park’s Tiger! Tiger! and Point Loma’s Goodbar, among others. But the places local comedians and comedy fans alike refer to as the collective heart of San Diego’s stand-up scene are Madhouse Comedy Club and American Comedy Co. in the Gaslamp Quarter, The Comedy Palace in Kearny Mesa, and The Comedy Store in La Jolla. I set out to visit all four.
“No sane person would do this”
Madhouse Comedy Club sits at its new location at the intersection of 4th Avenue and F Street since moving from Horton Plaza in November. Black and white photos of iconic comedians in their prime line the windows. They’re unlabeled, but comedy-savvy patrons will recognize the likes of Lenny Bruce, Lucille Ball, and Eddie Murphy. These laugh luminaries belie the Madhouse’s mission: to foster a homegrown comedy scene.
“I just love comedy, and I want this to be where young comics really come into their own.” Owner Robert Lariviere slouches slightly in a stool across from me. “A lot of comedians don’t have the opportunity to find their thing, because they don’t get the chance to do crazy stuff and have some crazy shows. We’re the place to have those unpredictable shows.”
He gushes about his favorite comedians, particularly the work of Brian Regan, and his famous “I walked on the moon” bit, in which Regan expresses vexations by boors who inflict self-important anecdotes on innocent dinner-party participants. For all the talk of comedy, the first time Robert really laughs is when I bring up finances.
“We’ve never made money,” he guffaws. “No sane person would do this!” He smiles while slowly shaking his head. Stained-glass windows framing the ceiling bear the name of former tavern “Golden Lion,” acting as both an epitaph to the closed establishment and a memento mori for the current one.
Laviere, who started the club in 2009 in the back of a Chinese restaurant, says, “We’re really the mom-and-pop comedy club around here,” before self-correcting, “No wait, maybe not mom-and-pop club... more like independent rebel club!”
The juxtaposition of the punk-rock and the homey is an apt description of Madhouse, which mixes young and hungry up-and-comers with a warm and inviting service staff. The crowd mixes demographics to an extent rare in any establishment more exalted than a gas station. The chatter dims along with the lights as the rules of the club are broadcast to patrons: “no heckling, no phones used for video or photography.”
Madhouse doorman and sometime comedian Matt Byrd takes the stage to serve as emcee for the night. He playfully ribs audience members, jokes that psoriasis gives him a head start on cremation, and exhibits the frequent mix of faux-misanthropy and gregariousness often found in comedians. He describes himself as “someone who doesn’t like people” and jokes that the best part of his past work as an EMT was the ability to sedate “annoying people.” Yet, his smile works like a laugh meter, growing as the audience laughs. When the jokes don’t land, his smile fades and he rubs the back of his neck absentmindedly, employing the filler phrase, as though to himself, “You guys are fun... yeah, you guys are fun” while collecting himself. Despite some bumps, Byrd’s vulnerable likability and good humor win out, and the audience receives the lulls with a smiling silence.
The first comic in tonight’s lineup is Austin Train, originally from San Diego, now working at the fabled Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Dressed mostly in black with a full brown beard, he rails against life’s frustrations with vigor and an undercurrent of rage.
Next up is north city Vista native David Dorward. With a gangly form and soft, cherubic features that rarely yield a smile, he brings a relaxed cheekiness to the stage as he brags about minor traffic infractions and questions the legitimacy of bicycle cops. When I told him after the show that his act brings to mind the wry sarcasm of Todd Barry, Dorward laughed and clapped his hands. “That’s perfect. I love Todd Barry!”
The main pit area is full, as are the tables in the back on an elevated plane, where I perch to get a good view. The middle-aged man at the table adjacent to mine exemplifies some of the more risible audience members, laughing steadily throughout the night and compulsively repeating the last three words of every punchline as if to relive the moment. Most laugh intermittently, and a man with a plush white beard, thick snowy hair, and a Tommy Bahama shirt stares at the stage and smiles but never laughs.
Ryan Hicks bounces up the stairs to the stage. He’s wearing jeans and a jet-black shirt that matches his floppy hair. When asking about local up-and-comers, in particular, the best local comedian who hasn’t yet relocated to a hotter show-biz city (most commonly Los Angeles), I heard Hicks’s name quite a bit. His demeanor is pleasant and spritely, with a breezy delivery of observational humor and a penchant for extended metaphors that are reminiscent of a young and not-quite-so-cranky Jerry Seinfeld.
“It’s tricky when you start out, because you just have to be bad at it for a while... I’ve been at it for six years now.” Hicks told me before the show. “Being funny and being good at stand-up are different things. I know a lot of people who have one without the other.”
The headliner of the night is Sean Grant of Miami, Florida. He flashes his best headliner smile as he leaps on stage, barely grazing two of the four steps up. His eyelids provide a punctuation system all their own, growing wide with exclamations and squinting in confusion at questions. He eases between the various accents and mannerisms of the characters that populate his anecdotes. Offstage, he is natural and friendly, draping his arm around his girlfriend Thalia, frequently turning the conversation toward me, and telling self-deprecating stories about bombing at the legendary Apollo theater.
“When all those people are booing at you, at the place where Pryor played, it’s kind of freeing, actually. It’s like, ‘Well, that went as badly as it could have gone. It was awful, and I’m fine.’”
When Sean wraps up his set, the lights come on and the crowd rustles while belongings are gathered and tabs are paid.
“We really just came for a laugh. We’re open-minded about what to expect, and just want to see good content by funny people who care about what they do,” 23-year-old Melanie and her friend Sydney told me before the show. Post-show verdict: “It was really fun... I could definitely see myself coming back here.”
“I come here every few weeks or so, and I always have a good time,” says the man in the Tommy Bahama shirt, who prefers to remain anonymous. “I come to laugh, but also to expand my horizons. They have a wide range, a real variety of performers here. No women tonight, but they usually have female comics.” When asked about tonight’s lineup in particular, he nods his head and smiles. “They were good.”
Several chose Madhouse due to the convenient downtown location; some are regulars drawn to the roster of young and largely local up-and-coming comics; and in the case of 23-year-old local James Oliver “I just want to laugh without that ‘two drink-minimum’ bullshit! As long as they don’t have mimes or clowns, I’m good.”
Staff assured me they do not feature mimes or clowns.
Madhouse has two showtimes for this particular lineup, one at 7:30 and the next at 9:45. I decide to stick around for the second showing. It was interesting to see how specifically the vocal tics and mannerisms had been practiced by the comics to meticulously cultivate the impression of spontaneity. Outside of a slight uptick in profanity, the only difference between the 7:30 and 9:45 showings were in the rowdiness and participation level of the audience. Many jokes were punctuated with exclamations of “Oh shit!” and “You got that right!” from audience members. Some comics appreciate the participation more than others.
“So I’m not currently dating…” says Austin Train, setting up a joke featured in the last show.
“Why not?” yells a backwards-hat-sporting audience member who appears to be in his mid-20’s.
“What the fuck do you care man? You wanna buy me a drink and take me home? 'Cause I’m not exactly excited to see your tank-top collection.”
The audience laughs, but Train is clearly annoyed, “Well, screw that joke.” A few minutes later, a couple near the front starts talking to each other. “Do I even need to be here? Do you wanna take over?” The couple clam up, and the audience collectively shift in their seats as a certain amount of tension creeps into the atmosphere before being drowned in laughter at Train’s impersonation of an angry old man swearing, his body vibrating with rage before erupting into profanity that plays like an animal’s cry of anguish.
“I get that people feel like you’re talking to them, and they want to talk back, but they just don’t understand the etiquette involved,” Train tells me in the back room after the show as we sit at a cheap blond-wood table, facing a couch and a stray guitar replete with stickers bearing obscure band names.
“It’s supposed to be a one-way street. We talk, the audience listens. I think about bringing people in, but I hesitate. ‘Cause they don’t know when to stop. It’s like asking someone to dance when they don’t know how to dance.”
Train is eating a sandwich and fries (courtesy of the house) between questions, and his furrowed brow and pensive chewing convey a quiet intensity. He is thoughtful and forthright with his answers, pausing a few seconds to mull over a question before responding in steady, unbroken sentences. He makes little eye contact and stares at the wall, as though the perfect answer were right behind it if only he could see through.
“I’m not that good at talking to people, and I wasn’t that talkative growing up.” says Train, who credits his two older brothers with helping him develop his sense of humor. “Sometimes, it’s just easier for me to communicate when the roles are clearly defined. I know what I’m going to say. It’s a set thing.”
I heard variations on this theme a few times in the course of writing this story. Byrd would later tell me “I’m kind of an awkward person with a lot of social anxiety. When I do stand-up, there’s a focused expectation that gives a structure to the interaction. In some ways, stand-up is easier for me than small talk.”
Train started in San Diego, working as a doorman for the Comedy Club in La Jolla for five years before moving to his current doorman position at the L.A. location, where he’s been for the last two years. Most young comics take doorman positions at various comedy clubs, serving a sort of apprenticeship.
“We do it ‘cause the perks really make the job” says Train, citing more stage time, occasional emcee duties, and exposure to other working comics as the main perks. “Clubs like to hire comics for doorman positions because they know we’ll put up with more shit.”
He identifies low pay and “dealing with a lot of drunk people” as low points of the position.
When asked if he has any advice for beginning comedians, he answers, “Don’t do it! There are too many comics right now. We need more of... literally anything else!” Then he adds, “But really, if you’re going to do comedy, you’re not going to care what anyone says. You’re just going to do it.”
David Dorward walks in. Reared in Vista, David works as a doorman at the L.A. Comedy Store with Train. He does occasional work as a production assistant on That’s Nathan For You and Agents of Shield, but strengthening his stand-up skills is his main focus.
“It’s really important to me to give people their money’s worth. I mean, some of these people have kids, they got a babysitter. They deserve to fucking laugh.”
When asked if he has any words for aspiring comics, he doesn’t skip a beat. “Don’t do it. There are too many comedians, and I’m sick of it.” I told him that Austin had just told me the same thing. “Heh, yeah, well, if you’re really going to do comedy, you’re not going to care about anyone telling you not to.”
I searched for every conceivable variation on this expression to see if they were quoting a common source. Didn’t find anything.
“No, but really,” Dorward continues, “I’d tell them, ‘Nobody knows what makes you funny better than you do. Follow your thing.’”
As seen on Comedy Central
A few blocks away on 5th Avenue, the line outside the American Comedy Co. leading to the rope-and-podium box stretches the better part of a block. Comedians smile from the smorgasbord of headshots — Wayons brothers, Michelle Wolf, Nikki Glaser, T.J. Miller, and Bobby Lee. The old-fashioned marquee announces “Jeff Dye: As Seen on Comedy Central” next to the company logo: a rather humorless looking eagle, apparently in mid-swoop, clutching an American flag in its beak and and an unfurled scroll reading “American Comedy Co.” in its talons.
As was the case at most of the shows I attended, nobody I talked to came to see the featured comedian specifically.
“We honestly just want to laugh, and see a comedy show in general,” says Chalsea Varga, 36, who made the trip from Carlsbad with her husband Austin, 38. “We have kids and stuff, so we don’t get to go out that much, and we haven’t been to a comedy show in forever. Years and years!” Chelsea is visibly excited, employing a broad smile and nodding her head emphatically every time she says “years.”
“Hey! Who y’all waitin’ to see?” calls out a passing pedestrian with two friends.
“Jeff Dye. As Seen on Comedy Central.” says a short man with a grey goatee, helpfully pointing toward the marquee.
“Is he good?”
“Hopefully. We’ll see.”
Once in the door, patrons walk down a tunnel-like hallway while mounted speakers play stand-up bits from disembodied comedians, in this case a Norm Macdonald bit about the inherent savagery of a heart that would attack and kill its own body. Reaching a cardboard cut-out of Uncle Sam at the end of the hallway, patrons descend a flight of stairs to the subterranean main room.
The vibe is edgy and stylish, with walls of deep burgundy on the left and rugged brick on the right, meeting at the stage in the corner. The young are dressed casually, while older patrons prefer bright button-downs for men and blouses and black pants for women. Black chairs are lined across one side of rows of wooden tables, which are placed in rows like church pews facing the stage. Lights are low, illumination emanating from low-setting overhead lights and candles in mason jars posted around the tables. Soundman Scott Greenwood has chosen The Strokes as the music for the night. He plays several of their songs in a row. Their laid-back propulsion and vintage guitar amps provide a fitting companion to the overall sense of downtown cool.
Irish comedian Shane Todd is opening act, and as an established professional, he exhibits a confidence not found in most of the local up-and-comers. Not all the jokes land, but Todd’s ease on stage preserves the lighthearted, affable mood of the room leading up to the main act.
“Are you guys ready for your headliner?”
“Can you prove it?”
(Louder) “I said, San Diego, can you show it?”
“Okay...Please welcome to the stage, Jeff Dye!”
The laughs are strong and consistent for Dye, who lands nearly every joke with a good-natured smirk. Audiences applaud gratefully at his anecdotes, and the 36-year-old Washington native returns the affection.
“You guys are so great here in San Diego. You have a pride about living here, because you know how good it is. Most cities aren’t this happy.” Dye is a little drunk (as he’d admit later in the show), but it’s the kind of buzz that engenders a sly smile in the corner of the mouth, rather than a sloppy performance.
Comedians have issues
The Comedy Palace sits inconspicuously off the side of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in an unassuming, one-story brown building. A sign that reads “Greek Palace” hangs beside the smaller “Comedy Palace” sign over the doorway.
The Comedy Palace has easily the most formal atmosphere of the four major clubs. Red napkins contrast sharply with black tablecloths draped over rounded tops, matching the red-cushioned chairs with golden-trim legs. Being inside a restaurant endows the Palace with a more robust menu than other comedy clubs. Chicken masala, ribeye steaks, and hummus baskets are offered alongside the more standard quesadillas, burgers, and chicken tenders. In the middle of the red curtain-framed stage stands a single brown stool. The nostalgic, almost cruise-ship atmosphere makes the Palace the only comedy venue in San Diego where I can imagine the late Don Rickles feeling at home.
The walls bear mock portraits of comic legends in Victorian-era military garb. Tim Allen, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Dennis Miller and others smile into the distance. Who knew Bill Murray would cut such a heroic figure in the uniform of a 19th-century British general?
The patrons skew slightly older here, with more gray/balding heads, ties, and dresses then the other venues. For those who want to have a drink and conversation, the Palace offers a sound-proof bar area adjacent to the main showroom.
Tonight’s show is emceed by Bijan Mostafavi, whose interstitial musings between the acts are worth the price of admission. After nine years in comedy, Mostafavi is one of the few full-time local comics not drawn by L.A.’s gravitational pull. He supplies supplies big laughs between the succinct understatement of Steven Ghabbour, the so-bitter-they’re-funny appraisals of Alan Henderson, the friendly self-deprecation of David Zafra, Brandon Young, and headliner Gordon Downs, whose writing has been featured on Comedy Central’s Roast Battle.
“Anyone got tattoos here?” Downs asks. No response. “Man, this is a conservative crowd” he says aloud to himself, as though finally believing something he was told earlier. He pauses to figure out his next move before calling on a small group of thirty-somethings.
“You guys wanna smoke a blunt after the show?”
Two women smile and giggle to each other for a moment, “We’re gonna have to pass.”
“I thought it was great! I loved the mix of comedians. Even if you don’t like a comedian, just wait ten minutes,” says patron Wade Wilden, 47, out with his wife Angela.
“I was laughing the whole time” says Santee resident Eric Starcher, 44. “[The Comedy Palace] is great. The location isn’t as congested as downtown, it’s a smaller local place with local comedians, and the drink prices are good... Places that might have more big names, like the Comedy Store, it can be real expensive to get in there.”
Owner-brothers Tony and George Salek knew they needed some form of entertainment when they opened the Palace (their fourth restaurant) in 1989, but hadn’t yet settled on comedy as the main theme. Live bands, hypnosis, magic, and jazz shows were all featured on a weekly basis at one time or another. According to George, it was when comedy enthusiast Sean Kelly left a position at the San Diego Reader to serve as marketing director for the Saleks circa 1997, that the establishment became highly focused on comedy, making the Palace the second oldest comedy club in the San Diego area.
“I just love comedy, it’s in my blood” George tells me on the patio area outside the bar. With wavy grey hair and tan skin, he looks uncannily like a Mediterranean Philip Glass. “I’m kind of the clown of the family. My wife tells me, ‘I married you because you’re funny, not because you’re good-looking.’” He laughs an open-chested laugh, and then another when I ask if he’s ever performed himself. “Aw, no. I just make people laugh at their tables or at events.”
He speaks jovially about acting as a mentor to young comics, nurturing promising talent, and telling the aforementioned Sean Kelly that he had to “shave it all off, shave your whole head” long before Kelly landed his gig as presenter for the television series Storage Hunters (most recently broadcast in the UK). Suddenly, his laughing stops and his face becomes very serious. He leans in as though about to tell me a secret as his soft voice gets softer.
“Comedians have issues. Some are very troubled. Sometimes, they are different people offstage, not so confident. Onstage is where they vent. That’s basically where their therapy is. I know this, which is why I’ve always tried to offer support and be of help. Then, Robin Williams died…” He pauses, as though taking a moment of silence. “That did something to me.”
Salek goes inside for a moment and returns with a bracelet and a keychain, both bearing a Live2Laugh logo.
“This... This is my passion now.” The organization was started by Salek to organize fundraisers with other non-profits in an effort to support comedians in need — “When they are broke, homeless, or sick” — and contribute to community resources. Most recently, the organization partnered with Sharp Hospital to raise $10,000 for the American Heart Association.
At this point, a dark-haired woman comes to the patio and motions Salek inside. He returns a few minutes later with a sleeping toddler resting on his chest in a polka-dotted blanket.
“We’ve got to give back to humanity,” he resumes. “For me, comedy’s the way to do that.”
The Comedy Palace offers comedy classes, generally taught by people who have had some success in the field, including Mostafavi.
“Comedy does something for people.” Salek continues. “It can make you more confident, more social…[In the classes] some people are really dedicated and want to be comedians, some just want to get it off their bucket list, and others do it to enhance their public speaking skills.”
Letterman delivered the inaugural set
If you like your comedy venues with a dash of historical significance and pedigree, La Jolla’s Comedy Store is your place. It’s an offshoot of the famous club of the same name in West Hollywood, started in 1972 by Sammy Shore, Rudy De Luca, and Mitzi Shore (who became sole owner by 1973) as a training ground and showcase for young comedians. Since then, the Los Angeles location has become one of the most significant hotbeds for comedic talent and networking in the country. When the La Jolla location opened its doors in 1977, David Letterman delivered the inaugural set, and it has been the most prestigious comedy venue in the San Diego area ever since.
The walls and curtains are inky black, and the majority of light and color come from the stained-glass ceiling panels and a circular red neon sign depicting the Comedy Store emblem behind the stage. It’s the oldest comedy venue in the area, and the laugh heroes depicted on its walls are similarly vintage. A black-and-white photo of Abbott and Costello is flanked on each side by neon caricatures of Laurel and Hardy rendered in bright white and yellow. Two stylized, stencil-like portraits rest on the wall: Charlie Chaplin and another that neither myself nor staff (including servers, doormen and management) could identify.
A long-haired young man wearing a jean jacket sings warm-up songs and plays a clean-amp guitar as patrons fill the seats. He seems to have stepped out of the 1970s for tonight’s show. I recognize several doormen from open mic nights around town, including rising talent Cameron Frost.
“We generally pick our door guys from open mics,” says assistant manager, media relations pointman and comic Mike Vinn, 38. “There’s a word-of-mouth about who wants to work here. We’re pretty high-demand for comics wanting to work here because of our name recognition and reputation for top-notch comics. A ton will start out here, then maybe they’ll get transferred to the Hollywood location.”
Frost, 25, has plans to transfer to L.A. in the next six months. “The scene in San Diego is really strong. There’s a lot of great stage time and some cool clubs, but there’s definitely a glass ceiling for a comedy career around here, especially compared to L.A.”
Frost worked as doorman at American Comedy Co. for two years before working The Comedy Store for the last year and a half. “It’s just time to make a change.”
Local comics get to run the show at the Store for the Wednesday open mics, but tonight the stage belongs to Greg Fitzsimmons, whose credits include writing for The Ellen Degeneres Show, Lucky Louie. and The Greg Fitzsimmons Show. Fitzsimmons guides the show with a steady hand, earning steady laughs. When I step outside, a man in a red t-shirt distinguishes himself from the other thirty-somethings in his group by raising both fists in the air like a victory pose and yelling, “Yeah Fitz-dog! Woo!”
I am told that some perform stand-up as a side hobby. Others hope the connections and skills they cultivate on the stand-up circuit will lead to success in other areas of show-biz, such as writing for TV shows (or potentially acquiring their own), or finding work as a production assistant. Still others, such as local comic Jordan Coburn, have already found success in other mediums, and are looking to broaden their talents to include humor writing and touring as stand-up acts.
“[Stand-up comedy] is definitely a love-hate thing,” says Coburn, 26, who co-hosts the successful, left-leaning news podcast Mueller She Wrote. “When you’re having a good set, it’s just so much fun to be onstage, it’s awesome. When you’re bombing, you just feel like this totally unfunny person and think ‘Why am I here?’ That can definitely put you in a rut.”
Coburn also has to navigate being one of the few women in a male-dominated scene.“There is a certain level of camaraderie you miss out on, a lack of feminine energy. On the other hand, if you’re a funny woman, you’ll get booked more. Plus, all the guys are really cool.”
“Yeah, there’s probably, like, 12 female comics in the area,” reports 28-year-old comic Allyson Vastiano, “and of those 12, there are probably only like 5 that really take the time to do it seriously.”
After speaking with several comedians from the area, I gather that the main trajectory for those who want to take it seriously appears to be as follows:
1) Attend an open mic night and realize most beginners aren’t very good.
2) Put together some jokes or anecdotes, and perform at an open mic.
3) Don’t be too discouraged if you bomb.
4) Perform at open mic events frequently without the expectation of payment. Most comics I spoke with go on stage one to three times a night, five to six nights a week, and made between $0 and $1000 a year in the first three years.
5) (Optional) Acquire a doorman position at a local comedy club.
Remember: “It’s tough, but there’s a certain romanticism in paying your dues,” says Brandon Lewis, 32. You’ve just got to be willing to bomb sometimes and stick with it.”
When I ask Matt Byrd how his first stand-up set went, he looks off wistfully into the distance.
“Not good. Not good at all.” He chuckles. “But you know what, I just love comedy, and I want to give that to people. They paid for some entertainment in their miserable lives.”
After the show, I catch up with the man in the Joker t-shirt to ask how he liked it. He ‘s still smiling.
“Man, that last guy was funny as shit!” His eyes are wider, and the tension in his brow seems more relaxed. He walks away waving to me.
“See ya later, buddy!”