Starting out small in the LA comedy scene

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Monika Scott, on stage at Rock Paper Coffee

If you’ve ever been dragged by a friend to an open mike at a comedy club, take solace in the knowledge that it could be worse. If a paid comedy gig is the major leagues, and an open mike is the minors, there’s actually little league comedy going on every night in obscure spots all over the city. At this very moment, the next Seinfeld or Louis C.K. could be standing on a tiny stage in the corner of an empty coffee shop telling jokes to no one in particular. If you’ve ever dreamed of starting out in comedy, KCRW’s Matt Holzman went to find out what you’re in for.

I’d worked with Monika Scott at KCRW for more than a year when I found out that she was an aspiring comedian. And I was really amazed when she told she was performing something like 10 to 15 times a week. One night, her car had been impounded for having too many parking tickets – and she’ll kill me for telling you that – I offered to make the rounds with her.

So how many places are we hoping to hit tonight? Three maybe four. One in Hollywood, one in Los Feliz, one in Echo Park and then one in Pasadena. One is like a weird art gallery like in a basement in Echo Park, one’s an upstairs room of a Chinese Restaurant, one’s a coffee shop and one is like the back area of a pool hall. Aren’t you afraid of bombing? Like that seems like an extraordinarily painful experience. Yes, it’s horrible. It’s the worst. I’m nervous today because I like bombed the last few so I’m feeling a little antsy about that but it does it feels awful and if not everything else in your life is going perfectly I mean it can really send you into a horrible downward spiral.

On stage at Rock Paper Coffee 1
On stage at RPC. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

And on that optimistic note, we walk into a sunny little coffee shop called Rock Paper Coffee on Sunset Boulevard. It’s about 5:30. Monika says hi to a couple of comedians she knows and then she signs up on a little yellow pad sitting on the counter. At about six, the barista cuts off the list at 24 names. Then he comes around the counter and sets up a mike on the little stage. With no host, the comedians just light each other – that’s comedy lingo for giving the signal to wrap up. And whoever’s on stage finishes and then introduces the next comedian. Not only is there no host, there’s also no audience – by the time Monika is finished with her three minutes, there are only six or seven people in the – all other comedians waiting to go on.

All right, how’d that go? Eh fine. You know, satisfactory. So what’s the etiquette now? Can we just go? Out the back door. We are slipping out the back door…one of the guys smoking out back asks Monika if she’s going to Meltdown – that’s a really popular open mike hosted by comedian Chris Hardwick at a comic book store right across the street. Meltdown’s about as big as you can get in the comedy little leagues – something like 100 people show up for 30 spots. But it’s not Monika’s scene so we’re headed to Echo Park.

Enjoying the show at Echoes
Enjoying the show at Echoes Under Sunset. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

You can find web sites that list the open mikes everywhere – there are actually something like twelve going on somewhere in the LA area on this particular Monday. Monika said that she wanted to do four tonight, but, like comedy itself, open mikes are all about timing.

A view of the empty seats at Echoes Under Sunset. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So like there’s The Palace and there’s Echos and those are starting around the same times. So normally I can text a bunch of people I know and see who’s going to be at which one and then offer to trade if they sign me up at that one that they’re at then I’ll sign them up at the one I’m at. Is this extreme? Like three maybe four in an evening? Is that what people do? Or are you just like obsessive-compulsive? This is extreme but there’s like a large percentage of people who do this, this extreme version. How many nights a week can you keep up this schedule? 3 or 4 nights a week I can do this many and then other nights maybe one or two. Is this a road to like professional work? It is but no one who’s like booking The Tonight Show is in the audience at an open mike.

Echoes Exterior
Echoes Under Sunset. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Echoes Under Sunset really is under Sunset – right below the overpass at Glendale Boulevard. It looks like it should be under a bridge – it has a kind of rathskeller look, with exposed brick and dim lights and tables with candles on them. This place looks like a club, and as the comics flood in, it starts to feel like one, too. Everyone writes their names on little slips of paper and puts them into a bowl.

Then the emcee starts drawing them at random and announcing the order…for reason unclear to me, he uses a toy megaphone. Monika’s like number 35, so she’s definitely not going to make the open mike at The Palace – that’s the Chinese Restaurant around the bend in Los Feliz. So, how is the evening’s comedy, you ask? Well, about 20% is funny, or at least headed in the direction of funny. Most of the rest of the jokes range from groaners to head-shakers. And then there’s what can only be described as the ramblings of persons with a tenuous grasp on reality. Now, you may have noticed that I’m not playing much of what I heard on stage, including Monika’s sets. Because, what I learned is that open mikes at this level aren’t necessarily funny – they’re part of the process of getting to funny. And even though a montage of cringe-inducing comedy might make delicious radio, it would be terribly unfair to broadcast this comedy-in-progress.

I will say that probably the most moving moment of the evening was when one woman in a kind of funky business suit went up and started with a joke that landed flat, And then there was a pause, and then she said “I don’t want to be here anymore” and stormed off the stage. Having said that, I bet I’d be wrong if I tried to predict who of the 75 comics I saw tonight will be the ones to make it big. It’s like 10:30 when we get in the car and head to Pasadena.

I can’t believe you do this on a regular basis cause I’m exhausted. I am completely exhausted I’m so tired and I have to get up early to go to work but I just want to get this last set in.

The last open mike of the night is in a pool hall underneath a diner in Old Town. The little stage is right next to one of the pool tables. After waiting for about an hour,  Monika gets up and basically goes through the same material she’s been working on all night. By the time she wraps up and we get in the car to head home, it’s past midnight…seven long hours after I picked her up.

Is this how Seinfeld started? Did he go to open mikes at a Chinese restaurant? I think so I guess I don’t know Seinfeld’s story necessarily, but most comedians started this way. Most people started going to open mikes. And I don’t know at what point this will just be a snake eating it’s tail. So I’m just hoping that I’m self aware enough to know when this is…not productive anymore. When this is just insanity.

Monika, outside Jake's in Oldtown Pasadena
Monika, outside Jake’s in Oldtown Pasadena. Photos by Matt Holzman. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)