Reeta Piazza is busy. Her BlackBerry is blowing up, her office phone won't stop ringing and her e-mail inbox keeps chiming. "Call Michael at Happy Madison" is scribbled on a things-to-do pad on her desk and members of her staff keep popping in to ask her questions.
Still, the director of special events for the Improv in Hollywood has invited me into the treehouse-like office upstairs on Melrose Avenue for an interview. I'm there to ask her how she feels about open mikes, the organized congregation of comedians in clubs, coffee shops and the occasional bowling alley across L.A. where aspiring comics go to scrimmage for free.
There are dozens of these jester-fests every night -- still a robust industry amid our troubled economy. I know people who'll do a 6:30 in the Valley, race down to Sunset for an 8, then wrap up the night with a 10:30 in Santa Monica. I guess the next generation of comedians has to come from somewhere. It may as well be a bagel place in Westwood.
Now, the Improv's open mike has relaunched as a regular gig on Tuesdays, and Piazza is excited.
"I do a great open mike now," she says, beaming as she explains how and why it's been streamlined since the days of chatty hosts and overzealous audio guys. Now, there is no host -- the comedians are brought up over the PA, which is also how they do it at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood on Tuesday nights, and Piazza tries to watch every set. For comedians, that's huge, because there are basically two reasons we do open mikes: (1) for practice, or (2) so important people see us. The UnUrban Coffee House in Santa Monica is a great place to practice Thursday nights. But if you want to catch the right eye, the Improv is where you should be.
Although the open mike there has changed, it's still a lottery system. That is, comedians write their names on small slips of paper about 45 minutes before the show and put them in-to a hat. Then a staff member disappears for 20 minutes or so and compiles a list of that week's chosen ones. Not everyone is picked. The exclusivity of it all helps us forget that we're doing pro bono work. Tom Sawyer would applaud. But Shirley Jackson would wag her finger at us. (There are various ways open mikes choose their participants, but there's always a list involved. And there's usually a limit. The Laugh Factory takes only 15 comics, for instance. Seriously, if they let anyone in, how special could it be?)
If you moved to Los Angeles to make a living doing stand-up, first you're going to have to get your nails dirty in the trenches doing open mikes. There's no shame in it. Think of it as starting out in the minors, maybe on the Dodgers' farm team, working on your swing and developing your rhythm. Create a buzz. Get noticed. L.A. is full of important people.
Which brings me back to Piazza. There are several ways to get on the stage for one of the Improv's shows.
1) You can befriend one of the comedians who might be putting a show together. (Theme shows run rampant. Apparently audiences are more comfortable if the jesters are grouped according to religion, race or sex. "I love comedy and I am Jewish. Bring me Jewish comedians!" "I am female but I also enjoy comedy. Bring me female comedians." Watch for clever wordplay like "The Shebrews of Stand-Up" or "Baby Got Black" -- not real names, but where there's a theme show, there's a goofy pun.)
2) You can book your own show, which basically means the Improv will let you use its stage for a show of comedians you choose (see above) if you can persuade it that you can fill the place with people it can then charge for drinks.
3) You can do the Improv open mike and do well. Piazza puts a separate show together now made up of the open mike's most impressive, and if you're picked, you can bring people to watch you who won't be charged to get in. That might not sound like much, but such is the reward system for performers in Los Angeles.
In some places in the world it's possible to make a living doing stand-up, but in L.A., where the Holy Grail is getting discovered, stand-up becomes a means to an end. It's all or nothing -- get discovered or continue working free. Even if you do the open mike a few times at the Laugh Factory and are given a showcase (a chance to do a longer set that founder Jamie Masada might watch), the payoff -- being made a "paid regular" -- won't cover the rent. It's about bragging rights, which pays less.
There's an "If you build it, they will come" element of open mikes in L.A. Put a microphone and a light pretty much anywhere and the humorous unknown will find it. Sure, it might be an empty pizzeria in front of a crowd of only other comedians. And, yes, you might have to lift your voice over the blender when it abruptly erupts. And OK, there might not be a microphone. But this is how we choose to spend our nights, be it for practice, camaraderie or so we can call ourselves entertainers. Some people bowl. Some people drink. We gather in poorly lighted rooms and do bits.