Letter from Los Angeles — From the July 2015 issue

The Speakeasy

A week of stand-up in Hollywood’s toughest room

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Marty’s comedy club sits at one end of a strip mall on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, above a cleaner’s and a take-out pizzeria. The entrance is up a side street and easy to miss. In the club, color eight-by-tens of past performers line the walls. Many of these photographs suffer from red-eye; some of the faces have penises drawn on them. On a low countertop near the front door, a clipboard holds a sign-up sheet with the heading funny and funny looking. For five dollars, a stand-up hopeful can perform a set in Marty’s main area, which resembles an abandoned factory showroom: bare concrete floor, sparse track lighting, and a dozen or so seats, most of them rolling desk chairs. Though the walls are painted a bright cherry red, the place has little cheer. The headrests of two beige easy chairs, which sit in front of the stage, are stained black from the oily scalps of nervous comics. At one end of the room, the stage rises six inches off the floor, with a haphazard drum kit in one corner, a wheeled wooden throne in the other, a metal stool between them, and a microphone stand in front. A decal on the back wall, with text in Comic Sans, reads marty’s. Next to it is a poster-size sketch of the club’s owner, Marty Foster.

There’s no bar at Marty’s and no kitchen. The club is open six evenings a week, from five to eleven o’clock. The only thing to do there is to watch open-mic stand-up comedy or get onstage and perform it.

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike Slack

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike Slack

I discovered Marty’s while I was visiting Los Angeles in the summer of 2012. I was seeking to understand how stand-up, of which I’d been a lifelong fan, had shifted over the past decade from something to laugh at to something to think and argue about. People I knew who had never seemed interested were suddenly talking about comedy albums and asking whether I watched Louie. Los Angeles was where the best stand-up in the country was happening, thanks to legendary clubs like the Comedy Store and the Improv, as well as newer venues like the UCB Theatre. Back home in Tuscaloosa, I’d often visited the Green Bar, which twice a month let an unvarying cast of drinkers take the stage to tell an unvarying selection of off-color jokes to whatever friends they’d managed to wrangle through Facebook. Though there was something dispiriting about the open mic’s lack of potential — no one’s career was going anywhere unless they left town — I kept returning to the Green Bar in the hope that I might figure out what made stand-up work. In particular, I thought I could learn something by watching people bomb. “Failure is not mere failure,” John Dewey wrote. “It is instructive.”

I went to L.A. to watch comedians fail at a higher level, and, I hoped, to catch a few serious performers trying out new material between gigs. After I arrived, I googled “los angeles open mic comedy” and found a listing for Marty’s. The club was close to where I was staying, and it was open, so around five o’clock that evening I decided to check it out. A bald man, thin and tan with a gray goatee, introduced himself when I entered. This was Marty Foster. He asked my name and told me to put it on the list. I told him that I only wanted to watch, and he said that I still had to pay the five dollars. I took a chair close enough to the door to allow for a quick exit. The show soon started, with Foster playing host, telling jokes between comics, doing his best to warm up the five or six people in the audience. “Got Robbie and Joe over here. You know, Robbie started masturbating when he was in middle school. Joe waited until he got home.” The five comics I saw perform that evening spent most of their time onstage complaining about how hard it was to be single in Los Angeles. None of them told anything that could strictly be considered a joke. Forty-five minutes in, a middle-aged man with wild, curly hair got up and started shouting about politics. That’s when I decided it was time to leave.

For months after my visit to Marty’s, I couldn’t stop thinking about the club. No other comedy venue I knew devoted so much time to open-mic stand-up. Most reserved one or at best two nights a week for comics. Other nights they opted for a band or a DJ — anything that might draw an actual crowd. Marty’s mic is open thirty-six hours a week and rarely, if ever, draws a significant crowd. It was hard to imagine how beginning comics could develop in such a space. In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.

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is the author of The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. His story collection, If You Need Me I’ll Be over There, will be published by Indiana University Press in 2016.

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