You know, for all my talk about how much I love comedy, I've never been to a real stand-up show. I have a feeling that's common among people just coming into their adult lives. I don't know why. I imagine it's the same reason I didn't see a concert until Bright Eyes at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in 2005. It just never occurred to me that the people I like seeing on the hollowed tube of my television, I could also see in 3D. You hear about tour dates and visits, you see posters, but you never actually envision yourself there, lining up, sitting with other fans, and enjoying the live presence of a famous funny person. The difference is that most people come to accept concerts as part of their lives and possibilities for the night. Not enough of us realize the value and availability of solid jokes in every major city.
That, at last, changed a couple of nights ago when I was in Pasadena with Jimmy and Ray -- You know Jimmy and Ray -- with nothing to do. On a fluke, we stumbled upon a listing for Comedy Death Ray, a weekly night of high quality stand-up at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater that I had always heard about but never investigated. Much like all stand-up. I looked at the flier and recognized names worth the $5 and more.
It was a quick, dark, drive. The theater itself is inconspicuous. A small lightbox with the theater's name hangs above its tiny, tiny segment of the block. It doesn't help that the glass doors have a sticker - "This is a residential area; keep noise level down" - across it. That sticker actually stopped me dead in my tracks and made me reconsider that I wasn't about to walk into an apartment lobby. That may be the intention, though; to stop dumb fucks who come too late to see the line.
Because we were late. Once we paid our tiny fee, we were given standing room at the edge of the seating area, pretty much the only standing room left. I didn't mind; I was used to standing for just as long, if not longer, for every music concert I had ever been to. It was smaller than the Bootleg in Silverlake, which I found hard to believe. It would have been spacious as a living room.
I like small venues because you deal with less people, the atmosphere is more intimate, and it really helps break the wall between the performer and the audience. We have been so conditioned to watching things with a layer of glass between us that sometimes it's hard to reinforce that you are seeing this all the way live and this guy that used to be made up of pixels is now ten feet away and hilarious and italic text.
The host was the curiously spelled Myq (Mike) Kaplan, whose warm-up set I missed, but was a pro in-between the sets. It's got to be a rough job, introducing these guys with increasingly funnier intros, coming up with quick riffs based on what the other comedians have said. The guy did a bang-up job, and also loves comic books, so I will buy his DVD if he ever makes one.
The first act was the Stone Brothers. They've been on Last Comic Standing and, without knowing that, I would have simply thought they were vaguely familiar. I couldn't help but think that these two guys were the quintessential Jewish comedians. It's probably not fair, but got-damn, they hit the archetype hard and fast, everything from their style of jokes (This is something about Jewish people!) to their style of dress (Like stepping out of a 90s Seinfeld episode.) Their team style was interesting, with purposely awkward, loose, fast exchange between the two, often speaking over each other. It's a clever deflection tactic - whether or not the audience laughs, the train keeps moving and the next bit fills in any potential void. I have to say that they were the least funny of the night, but they weren't bad at all, everyone else was just inducing deep belly-laughs.
Jessi Klein came out next, I think. It was her or Kumail Nanjiani, but I'm going to write about her first. I was floored by how good she was, because she was the one I knew the least. Everyone else on the card was floating in my subconscious brain space somewhere and pulling on some strings of familiarity. She was so good I didn't understand why I hadn't ever run into her work before. I don't want to pigeonhole her into this "female comedian" category, but one of the things that stood out is that she is way better than some of the top female stand-ups today. I don't want to shit on Sarah Silverman or Wanda Sykes or Whitney Cummings, but Jessi Klein should have a show over any of them. I know, it's weird to pit them against each other as if we should only have so many people in the role of "female comedian," but that's how network execs seem to see it, and if we're working within their rules, Jessi Klein > all.
Then there's Kumail Nanjiani, who was the only comedian I was a big fan of before the show. I didn't know he was performing, so when he came out, it was something of an awesome surprise, like accidentally finding the Batcave in your afternoon hike. Nanjiani told all-new (to me) jokes, as opposed to the ones I had been watching on YouTube. His humor is relatable, observant, story-based and classic all at once. He also, coincidentally, is exemplary of racial humor done well. He doesn't use it as a crutch (Carlos Mencia), doesn't do tired impersonations of his parents and their accents (Dat Phan), and doesn't wallow in the racial stereotype abyss (Russel Peters). He can joke about being Pakistani in Call of Duty 4 or drug habits of Midwesterners and it's all reflective of his personality, which is multifaceted and informed by so many, many things.
Andy Kindler was one of those images from TV made real. I knew him mostly from Everybody Love's Raymond, but have seen him on Letterman, and you immediately understand that this is a talented, veteran comedian. There is something pure about accomplished, longtime comedians that are still doing stand-up. Sometimes, with veteran performers of any art, or even old athletes, their late career is a sign of failed dreams or glass ceilings or not knowing what to do with themselves but perform. Anyone who's seen Ric Flair wrestle or an 80's one hit wonder do a Vegas residency knows what I mean.
But here, it feels like pure, unfiltered basic love of the craft. Kindler was manic right from the start, and as a result, had the audience whipped into a frenzy immediately. Most comedians have to build up to get the people up to this critical mass of laughter, but Andy Kindler delivered us there immediately, 0 to 60. He also seemed to be a master of recovery - he takes risks, goes on riffs, makes uneven jokes, but always catches it before it falls off the rails with a quick, loud deflection and acknowledgement about how insane or bizarre that last attempt was.
Brian Posehn was the other comedian I knew, but never bothered to follow much, which was a mistake. I think he and Zach Galifinakis get some of their initial attention from the first impression of their appearance. Posehn is a monstrously tall, bearded, balding dude in heavy metal T-shirts. It's not a conscious choice to catch the eye like that, I'm sure, but it distinguishes him. It's also good that his jokes keep us engaged. He was probably the darkest comedian of the night, taking the standard dick jokes to their horrifying conclusion. Even when talking about his baby, which he thinks is an awesome baby, his work is still far on the edge. The best part is that it's not shock humor, you aren't laughing because "oh my god he said a thing that is bad to say!" They are legitimately funny quips and observations that just so happened to wrapped in bodily fluids.
Marc Maron was the last act and I didn't know what to expect. Clearly, an older, well-kept gentleman, wore a sports coat, cares about hygiene. He comes across as the classic stand-up comedian because he appears to be a master of talking. He situates himself on a stool, free of nerovus tics, and just talks to us as an audience. You get a sense that he doesn't even need to prepare any material, just tell some stories about what happened yesterday and have you rolling the whole time. Whether it's actually prepared or not doesn't matter as much as how it comes off. It's easy and natural.
You leave wishing you had his powers of observation, his story telling ability, or his sense of having something to say about the tiniest events of everyday life. The things that happen to him - almost hitting some kid crossing the street, running on a treadmill at the gym next to a smelly guy - these are pedestrian wastes of time if you and I were to tell our friends about them. But thtat's because so few of us possess the ability to relay these events with psychology and wit. Whereas we would have said, "This guy smelled awful at the gym," Marc Maron will talk about the history of his acrid scents, his inexplicable internal racism, and the white guilt that comes after such assessments. Then he'll tell you about his bondage queen girlfriend, or warn the 14 year old in the front row about the harrowing road ahead.
Because while you may wish you had his talent and speaking ability, you probably don't want to have his life. He didn't give us newbies any explicit details, but the way he implies his life, coupled with his dark, reckless humor, brings to life an image of a man (or maybe more accurately, a character) that has been through a lot of shit and fights it with jokes.
Which is what stand-up comedy is great for. For the weird, or the insecure, or those seeking attention they didn't get, or victims looking to own their tragedy. Defense against the universe, said Mel Brooks. I know he was talking about the creators of comedy, those who use it as an outlet for their creativity and frustrations. But it's about us, too, and how we feel leaving a club after a night of well-armed comedy.