"I have a rule of thumb," adds Overton, on why he likes performing at "All Things Comedic," the Sunday night Borders show where comics are paid with a $20 or $30 gift certificate. "Lots of hats--dumb audience. Lots of glasses--smart audience. Borders has lots of glasses. It's an oasis of 'hmm' in a desert of 'huh?' "
Begun by comic Jackie Wollner two years ago, "All Things Comedic" is held on a postage-stamp-sized stage on the third-floor music section at Borders; you half-expect ehe comedian to step aside while a customer checks out the "Titanic" soundtrack. But the show works, Wollner says, for the very fact that it's held in a place where bookworms--not the type to venture out to a comedy club--comprise a large part of the audience.
"[The comics] are grateful for an audience they don't have to pander to," she says.
Like many a fledgling L.A. performer, Wollner was frustrated with the club scene--so many showcases, so little stage time--and took matters into her own hands by starting her own show.
So did Dorothea Coelho, co-founder of "Velveeta Underground," now at Berri's Pizza Cafe; Robin Roberts, who produces "Comedy by the Book" at the Book Grinders; and Mimi Gonzalez, who puts on the "Women With Balls" show at Little Frida's. It's no small coincidence that all four are women; while comics like Roseanne and Ellen DeGeneres are part of the stand-up elite, women still find it's a boys' world out in the clubs.
"The only way I was going to get stage time was to start my own room," says Gonzalez, whose show consists exclusively of female comics, some lesbian and not afraid to banter about it.
"I was used to watching 13 comics get up [on stage], and only one of them was a woman," she says. "You can't afford to grow in the mainstream clubs. You have to be pretty well-sprouted and on your way before a mainstream club will invest in you."
"Free Speech," held at a Unitarian church in Santa Monica, can border on theater of the absurd. Show producer Bill Bronner picks a different topic each week, then assembles 10 or 12 comics, giving each a brief solo set before bringing them all on stage in a free-for-all discussion that plays like ABC's "Politically Incorrect" without a stage manager. Recent themes have included "What's Wrong With Lawyers?" and "I've Made Some Mistakes."
Jeff Garlin, meanwhile, has started up his show, "That Jeff Garlin Thing," again on Thursday nights at 8 at Bang Studio in West Hollywood. Garlin emcees, two comics perform, and then all three come onstage at the end for what Garlin calls "the combo platter," a kind of tag-team improvisational exercise where the comedians trade off of one another's thoughts.
It doesn't always work, but then again, polish doesn't necessarily equal laughs. If stand-up comedy hit critical mass by the end of the 1980s, with cable TV shows killing off a lot of Improvs and Comedy Zones, it also gave the art form a chance to reinvent itself--to clear its head of all those Chicken McNugget jokes and give people a compelling reason to seek out laughter again.
"A lot of people don't even know if they like comedy anymore," says Steve Neal, who produces the show at Lulu's Beehive coffeehouse. "These people who go to coffeehouses with their laptops, to them comedy lost its way in the '80s and early '90s. They don't want to hear, 'You might be a redneck if. . . .' They want insight."
They are people like Patrick Weakland, 31, who works in the publications department at the new Getty Center. Weakland, who took in "Velveeta Underground" at Berri's Pizza on a recent Wednesday, had a succinct answer when asked why he would go to a pizza place for laughs.
"There's not a five-drink minimum," he said. "You can just go there and hang out."