There’s nothing cooler than the thought of seeing a young comedian performing at a small, smoke filled cellar club that oozes with the history of drunken guffaws and urine-stained seats from so many pee-your-pants gags. Seeing Lenny Bruce in a small club setting much have been the bees knees. The reality, however, is that live comedy shows terrify me. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that I am an empathetic fellow and watching young comedians do poorly pains me. Physically. I try to be a great audience member and maintain eye contact, smile and snicker more than is deserved to be a willing and encouraging participant. Not everyone is Brian Regan or Jerry Seinfeld. Many comedians who are openers or middles just aren’t that… good. They don’t yet have the structure or delivery or timing to put together a decent set. It’s a craft that must be practiced and it is painful to watch someone bomb. You can see the panic rise in their eyes and body language. Flop sweat is a thing. And I take on some of those feelings. The second reason going to a comedy show terrifies me is that I fear being called out by the person on stage and having jokes be made about me. This is probably some residual desire to be popular or latent feeling of self-doubt, but they are genuine. Seems like confronting this fear is the only way to break free.
List item: Attend a Comedy Show
Full disclosure: I have actually been to a couple comedy performances in my life. The first was when my wife and I saw Kathy Griffith at the Wiltern Theater. She is notorious for riffing her entire show- not working from a set. I have to do presentations for work quite often and all I can say is that I would never have the concentration or memory to do an hour long performance without memorizing a script. She was hysterical. The show was many years ago and I have very little memory of it outside of the fact that the Wiltern is huge (capacity = 1,850). More of a concert venue than comedy club. The second time I attended a comedy performance was at an actual club, the Ice House in Pasadena (which, according to their website is, “the oldest comedy club in the country” at 61 years) a two drink minimum of truly terrible drinks, dark and inexplicably sticky. It was in support of an ex-coworker who had taken a stand-up class and the show was their graduation. That’s right. I watched a show made up of a half-dozen performers who were first timers. Does it sound rough? It was. The positive of the night was that my friend was good. He was actually my favorite of the night, not just because I knew him. Here’s the thing though: I sat way in the back to avoid any chance of being called-out. That fear is real.
My friend, Tahni (who I had also accompanied to a Rolling Stones concert for my 50 Things), is a giant fan of the comedian Gareth Reynolds. She thinks he’s great, but also has a crush on him. I know of him from the podcast, The Dollop, and have watched a few of his audience-less online performances he did during covid lockdown. He’s unbelievably quick-witted and charming. I get her infatuation. She had seen him perform once before and got a great picture with him. When we heard he was on tour and would be performing locally, we decided to go see him. Unfortunately, the two closest shows were Oxnard (an hour+ drive north for me) and Irvine (an hour+ drive south for me) and both on school nights. In basically a flip of a coin, I chose to go to the Oxnard show (she would be attending both).
Because Tahni wanted Gareth to notice her, she asked that we shoot to be there at door open. 6:30pm at Levity Live in Oxnard meant leaving during peak LA traffic. Challenge upon challenge. Surprisingly the drive went fast and we found ourselves there early. This meant we were able to sit at the edge of the stage, just off to stage right. I had to turn my chair backward to see the comedians perform.
After an MC opener (who did tickle my “fake smile and nod” instinct, but thankfully wasn’t on long) and a more-than-decent opening act (Maggie May), Gareth took the stage. He’s fantastic and my face hurt from smiling and laughing the duration of his performance. For a Wednesday night in Oxnard, the club (which was larger than I had anticipated) was only around a quarter full. This guy will be filling a place like this soon. Just needs to find something that breaks him into the mainstream. Attention Netflix: you need to give Gareth a special.
Here’s the thing. Remember how I said that I’m afraid of comedians calling me out? Well, we were in the seats that are almost guaranteed for that. I was in target range and Gareth is supreme at crowd work. It didn’t take long. He spent some time with a guy on the left who is married and has a two year old boy at home. This is his night out with friends and he was making it matter by drinking enough beer to forget it all. He claimed to have had EIGHT beers by the point he was being interviewed, which seemed like an exaggeration until I got a look at his face. He had definitely drank eight beers. Gareth had requested that the audience wear face masks throughout the show and most of us obliged, but a few were showing full face. Eventually, Gareth turned to us. It was like an immediate flashback to being in school and praying the teacher won’t call on you during a session on a topic you neglected to read the material for. He pointed in our direction and it started: “Are you two married?”
The back and forth lasted a few minutes and revealed that A) Tahni and I are not married to each other, just friends. B) We met when we were 12 (in 1984). C) We never dated, but we hang out a lot. D) We’re from Humboldt County (cue pot jokes) E) I am married F) My wife is cool with Tahni and I hanging out. G) I’ve been married 20 year and that apparently explains why she doesn’t care that Tahni and I hang out. He called on me a few other times throughout the night, later determining that I have a 12 year old daughter and that she doesn’t pay attention to anything not on an iPad, a comment that got me sarcastically called “Father of the year”. Plus plenty of questions revolving around weed.
The show was great. Being called on and ribbed was fine. I survived. Talking about it later with Tahni, a big part of that is that we know Gareth seems like a kind person. I never felt like I was going to be made fun of in a cruel way that would test my fragile ego.
Difficulty: Ultimately this is an ‘easy’ one, requiring no preparation or training nor special equipment. Finding a comedy club may be a different story, depending where you live. If you do not have local opportunities, maybe you could do this while on vacation to a larger city with more options. Even living in Los Angeles, I had to leave work early to get through the long drive in time. Luckily, ticket prices for small comedy shows have not fallen under the absurd fees and scams that Ticketmaster does with larger venues.
- Get over yourself – I had avoided comedy shows in large part because the fear that I might be made fun of. At the end of the day, being made fun of is part of the joys of going to comedy shows. When comedians do crowd work, you laugh with and for your fellow audience members. You also think about how you might have responded. You are not there to entertain, but be entertained. I was part of the show and it was fun, not the soul-crushing experience my anxieties had built up.
- Don’t become ‘that guy‘ – Comedy clubs encourage drinking, like most entertainment venues, because fewer inhibitions mean more laughs…? There were people in the audience who had clearly had a few too many. While they offered up their own form of entertainment, it feels like they might not be getting the subtle nuances of the performance. The problem is that sometimes people hear others being funny and think they need to be funny, too. I once went to a traffic school at the Improv Comedy Club in West Hollywood (this was before online traffic school, kids) and it was amazing to see a room full of adults begin to act like children when the teacher started making jokes. In fact, one guy couldn’t stop, even after being asked politely a couple times, and was eventually thrown out. Soak that in. A man was ejected from comedy club traffic school for trying to be funny. Don’t be that guy.