$10 & a Tank of Gas: Los Angeles Remains the World Capital of Comedy

As I stand outside the Los Angeles Improv on a cold, rainy day, my heart is pounding with nervous dread. I stuff a tattered, crumpled-up piece of paper with my most precious comedic tidbits into my pocket and pull out a cigarette from the pack I just bought to look cool while standing in front of the comedy club. Fifteen minutes and the list will be posted.There are lots of other comics standing around. Some rehearse in anxious whispers to themselves, others lean against the brick wall nonchalantly, seasoned veterans talk to each other. A middle-aged woman with raven hair spots me immediately and descends upon me like a vulture: “First time, huh?” Is it that obvious?To be fair, lady, this isn’t the first time I have performed in a comedy club. The first time I was 11 and in Amarillo, Texas. And yeah, I rocked it.People begin to swell into the bar as the posting of the list approaches. The Improv chooses open-mic comics by lottery—about 20 comics are chosen to perform, with each comic getting just 3 minutes on stage. Raven Lady tells me she’s here every week. She performs half the time. A 20-something guy whizzes through the door and is greeted by most everyone in the place. Photos of the greats line the walls. As if the thought of commanding three minutes of attention with just a spotlight, a microphone, and a crumpled piece of paper weren’t intimidating enough.An Improv employee finally walks out of the office with “The List.” The throng constricts towards the paper, capturing me in the center. The mass dissolves as people quickly scan the list. I worm my way towards the front and read the list for my name. I am not a chosen one.I am simultaneously hit with waves of immense relief and bitter regret. I get a slight twinge of satisfaction when I see that Raven Lady has not made the list either.The show begins a few minutes after the list is posted. They don’t mess around about the three-minute limit. A red lightbulb comes on when a comic is 30 seconds from the end of his set. At exactly three minutes, the emcee interrupts to introduce the next comic. It’s almost as brutal as the cane-with-hook method.The first thing I notice is that most of the comics come very unprepared. Most have index cards, journals, or memos on their cell phones to help them remember their jokes. Also, the idea of a “routine” is entirely non-existent. The comics make little effort to establish a rapport—three minutes is just too short. Instead, they use the open-mic merely as a test audience.One older man simply stood two inches from the mic, pulled out about 100 yellowed index cards, and read one-liners in sequence. Another guy ranted at the audience for his whole set after his first joke was met with stares. Someone else came dressed in full camouflage and delivered an odd philosophical speech.This is raw comedy. Sometimes it’s hilarious, most of the time it’s not, and someone always crosses the line.Interested in flexing your comedic chops? Los Angeles is the world capital of comedy—opportunities abound in this city. Most open-mics (like the one at the Improv) are free, but some comedy clubs require the purchase of two drinks. Likewise, some comedy clubs are only open to those who are 21 and over. That being said, almost all clubs will let you perform, but if you are under 21, you have to leave when your set is over.The three biggest stand-up comedy clubs in Los Angeles are the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store, and of course, The Improv. The Comedy Store hosts an open-mic on Sunday and Monday nights, but it is 21+ and employs the two-drinks rule. The Laugh Factory has one every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and is 18+. The Improv also hosts an 18+ open-mic night every Tuesday at 5 p.m. Sign-ups are usually the day of (except the Laugh Factory, which has sign-ups a week in advance) and begin 45 minutes before the start of the show.Many famous comedians perform regularly in the smaller clubs in Los Angeles. (Sarah Silverman, for example, performs monthly at Club Largo; tickets are usually between $20 and $25.) There are also many clubs that host open-mics for aspiring musicians and poets.

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