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

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.

At five o’clock on a Sunday, the first night of my sit-in at Marty’s, Foster greeted me with a box of trash bags in his hand. I followed him from can to can as he told me about the club. “I like to think of Marty’s as a comedy gym, where people can come in and practice their material,” he said. We walked past the Bunker, a closed room that held a second stage, and stepped onto an empty patio where plastic deck chairs surrounded a few concrete pavers that constituted a third stage. The Bunker and the patio allowed comics to perform several times a night without having to wait to be called back to the main stage. Unlike open mics at other clubs, which might give comics five minutes, Marty’s usually offered at least ten. “One guy went for an hour and fifteen,” Foster said. “There was no one else waiting to go.”

Foster is sixty years old. He started doing comedy in the fall of 2008, after he sat in on a friend’s stand-up class. He began hitting the open-mic circuit in L.A., often performing several nights a week, and landed his first hosting gig in 2009, at the Ha Ha Cafe in North Hollywood. He lost the job five months later, after he introduced Jack Assadourian, the club’s owner, as “Jack Ass.” “I was spoiled,” Foster said. “Up five nights a week at the club, bringing up maybe twenty to twenty-five people, being able to do my one-liners between each one. I couldn’t now go chasing around town to do three minutes.”

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike SlackBefore Marty’s, Foster had spent his days managing the Apex Mobile Legal Copy Document Production & X-Ray Duplicating Service, a company he founded in 1976. (He came up with the name to optimize his yellow-pages placement.) In the Nineties, Foster had seventeen employees. By 2010, he had two: one guy who prepared subpoenas and another who served them. He began thinking about opening his own comedy club. “I looked around and saw lots of empty desks,” he said. He pulled up Apex’s carpet, cleared out the office supplies, and used the metal shelving to build the main stage. Foster opened the club on Valentine’s Day of 2010. He got upstart comics to host by waiving their entrance fee. By the time I visited, Foster had mostly taken over the club’s hosting duties. “Rather than me running around all over town trying to be seen,” he told me, “I think of my club as the right place for when the right time comes along.”

When I’d arrived at the club, there had been just one other person waiting for the show. Now three more comics had dropped in. I took a seat near the door. A man named Joe, in track pants and a mismatched jacket, launched into his set. “War!” he shouted. “What it is? North Korea. South Korea.” Joe then delivered twenty minutes of confusion about women that drew laughs only from himself.

“I blame the Boston bombings on the hairy nipples of the gay and lesbian, overweight, black, and Jewish midget pornographers of Islam,” said a guy with stringy hair who was dressed all in black. “Because I’m a racist, sizeist, sexist, erotophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, misanthropic, religiously bigoted homophobe.” The guy told the joke again, this time explaining why it was funny. No one laughed. Then he plugged in his iPod. Country music filled the room. He stepped back to the mic and began singing the joke in a shaky voice. Most of us stared into our laps. His set ended when the song did.

In the nearly forty hours I spent at Marty’s that week, the main room never held more than twelve people. The audience was almost exclusively comedians, many of whom fiddled with their phones or tablets during one another’s sets. It’s not easy to bring such a crowd to laughter. Even so, the comics seemed unwilling or possibly unable to tell jokes in the standard setup–punch line format. Their sets often sounded less like comedy than like the stories of everyday tragedy a person might hear in an A.A. meeting. One man talked about serving time in prison and barely avoiding being raped by a cellmate. Another described being flamed on a Facebook page for stand-ups in Orange County. Incredulity often took the place of punch lines. “I saw a guy, he took a fucking typewriter to a coffee shop,” shouted one young comic. “Who the fuck does this?” Other comics got so particular that I wasn’t sure how to react. “I found a snail in my shower,” a sleepy-eyed stoner yelled at us late one night. “Like, what the fuck? How? How did it penetrate?”

Foster, for his part, told real jokes. (“I was feeling a little randy earlier, and then he told his parents.”) So did a short strawberry-blond woman named Mae Victoria. When she went up, around ten-thirty on my first night, I recognized her from one of the portraits that hung above Foster’s easy chair at the front of the room. In the photo, she is standing behind the mic topless. “A couple of years ago, when the recession hit, a lot of people got a second job, or they went back to school, or they moved back in with their parents,” Mae Victoria said. “Well, I did pornographic movies. I’ve had sex with so many men, my bed is now a legitimate tax deduction. I’ve had more wangs inside me than a casino during a pai gow tournament.” Her set was full of one-liners, but she got no better or worse reception than the ranters she followed. I began to wonder whether Marty’s was immune to laughter. How did people know when they’d succeeded? Or failed? Nobody was booed all night; instead of heckling, the audience often chatted back to the comedians.

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike Slack“When you ask a lady her definition of ‘mature’ she’s all, ‘You know, having a house and getting married and having kids,’ ” said a comedian named Chuck on Sunday night. “How the fuck is that mature?”

Jill, our host for the evening, interrupted him. “Well, it’s supposed to be mature.” She was a thin, raspy-voiced woman and wore silver lamé shorts. “You’re supposed to pay your bills on time. You’re supposed to not have your water turned off.”

Chuck, derailed, looked at her helplessly. “It’s a sore subject,” she said.

Between sets at Marty’s the comics stood around and talked shop. On Monday evening a college-aged kid named Alex asked the room for advice about a joke. “I wrote this bit a year and a half ago, about how I take the bus,” he said. “Like, the one thing I never understood is, why do homeless people beg for money on the bus? Isn’t everyone who rides a bus almost as broke as they are? Anytime I’m sitting on a bus and a homeless guy comes up and says, ‘Can I have a dollar?’ I say, ‘Dude, I’m like one dollar away from being you.’ ” But earlier that day he’d come across a similar joke in a comedy special by Willie Barcena, which he played for us on his phone:

I hate when bums come up to me: “Hey, you got change? You got change?” Yeah, fuck, I got change. It’s mine. You know what keeps me from being you? It’s my change.

“I might have to just cut it,” Alex said of his version, but he was reluctant. He had an audition coming up for which he needed a clean five minutes, and it was one of his few clean jokes. “I feel like I’m safe, but I don’t ever want to be accused — Marty, you know me. I would never steal someone’s joke.”

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike Slack“You have it in a different setting,” Foster said. “I think it’s fine.”

I took advantage of the lull and approached the stage. I’d persuaded Foster to let me hang around his club and pester his clientele for a week by making a deal with him. “I will work with you on this article,” he’d emailed me, “on the condition that you take your turn each night on stage.” Perhaps he wanted to ensure I’d give the club fair and sincere coverage, or maybe he was after my five-dollar fee. In the end, I haggled him down to two nights — and allowed for the possibility of a third. The thought of performing terrified me. I liked to think that I could be funny among friends or in front of a classroom, but I didn’t know the first thing about entertaining a group of strangers who were expecting comedy. For weeks I’d started each day writing jokes, which I attempted to tailor to my audience of would-be comics. Eventually I built my set up to six minutes.

“I’d ask how everyone’s doing tonight, but I already know: you’re all bombing,” I said. Foster snickered, but no one else made a sound. “I haven’t been subjected to this much bad stand-up since my down-low fling with Carlos Mencia.” Nothing. I warned the three people in the audience that Foster had encouraged me to fill five minutes. “Lucky for you, it’s all dick jokes,” I said. No reaction. My only real laugh came from a joke about how, back in Alabama, sex toys were illegal: “You can vote a dildo into office but you can’t buy one for the bedroom.” I was so thrown by the positive response that I messed up the ending: “Of course as they say, uh. Anytime — or, uh . . . how does that one go?” My crowd listened patiently. “Oh: Whenever dildos are outlawed, only outlaws will have dildos.” Nobody laughed.

I knew enough to save for the end of my set what I could only with the greatest generosity call my killer material, but each time I got to my final punch lines I heard nothing. Onstage, speaking the lines I’d memorized, I could picture myself pacing around my hotel room, pausing for laughs at each kicker. Writing and honing that material had taken me two weeks. My set lasted six minutes and ten seconds. I read somewhere that no joke is funny until it gets a laugh in front of an audience. By that standard, I spent two weeks writing a single funny dildo joke.

The stand-up open mic dates to the 1960s, when Greenwich Village nightclubs held “hootenanny nights” at which attendees could tell a few jokes or sing a song or two. Bob Dylan was a regular at Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street, along with Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Jimmy Walker and Gilbert Gottfried were early performers at the Bitter End, on Bleecker Street. By the 1970s, other clubs around the city — most famously the Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star — had begun devoting time to comedy. In Comedy at the Edge, an exhaustive history of 1970s New York stand-up, Richard Zoglin writes that the comedian David Brenner was sitting in one afternoon while Rick Newman, Catch’s founder, auditioned new acts. After enduring a “parade of bad singers and amateurish comedians,” Zoglin says, Brenner suggested that Newman move the auditions to a slow night and charge admission. Eventually, Catch’s open mic, on Monday nights, became its second-busiest event of the week.

In 1972, Johnny Carson relocated The Tonight Show from Manhattan to Burbank, California, which sparked an exodus of New York comedians to the West Coast. Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store, in West Hollywood, opened that year, and Budd Friedman, the founder of the Improv, opened a club on Melrose Avenue in 1975. David Letterman did a set at the Comedy Store’s open mic on his first Monday night in Los Angeles, and he became an instant regular.

Photographs from Marty’s by Mike SlackThese days, the stakes are much lower: open mics rarely attract star performers, and the material is usually very rough. One of the only remaining L.A. open mics that still draws a robust crowd of tourists and civilians can be found at the Laugh Factory, a venue that looks more like a cinema palace than a comedy warehouse, with Art Deco features, wood paneling, and a thrust stage. It’s not uncommon for the club to hire regular performers from its weekly open mic. On Tuesday evening, I played hooky from Marty’s and headed down Sunset Boulevard to watch the show with Jamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory. Though many of the comics got big laughs from the audience, Masada, who sat in the back of the room, looking boyish in a jacket and jeans, rarely broke his close-lipped smile. “I just moved to West Hollywood,” said a seventeen-year-old blond guy who calls himself the Justin Bieber of comedy, “and I wasn’t ready for all the differences. This is the gayest place on earth. I even saw a gay stop sign, it had like ten o’s.” The audience roared.

Door charge for the show was twenty bucks, and the Laugh Factory enforced its two-drink minimum, which might help explain why everyone was killing. “I recently tried this little local place,” the last guy of the night said. “Tiny little hole in the wall. Not sure if you guys have heard of it — it’s called McDonald’s?” Even this got more laughs than anything I’d heard at Marty’s. The club’s restrictions also probably helped. No swearing was allowed, and sets were limited to three minutes. When a comedian had thirty seconds left, Masada would flip a switch on the wall above his head to activate a red warning light. I saw twenty comics that night. Not all of them were funny, but each told actual jokes. The hour flew by.

Just before eight, Harvey Dunn, the club’s venerable emcee, invited the show’s comics to a VIP lounge upstairs to discuss their sets with Masada. This was what everyone was waiting for — many had stood in line for several hours to get their name on the list, then waited several days to perform. Most open mics let comics take the stage within an hour; the Laugh Factory makes performers wait a week. It’s great advertising for the club — comics stand outside all day, snaking their way down the block, for a chance at the sign-up sheet. One guy I talked to had taken the day off work.

I asked Masada what he looked for in a performer. He wanted someone with good timing and material, he told me, who was also “huggable.” Comics should have confidence, he added. They should tell a story. They should give details. He told a kid named Patryck to practice his set forty more times around town before returning for another try at the Laugh Factory.

Every performer was hoping for a showcase: a six-to-ten-minute, cuss-all-you-want set at the end of the open mic that was the first step to becoming a paid regular. “Damon Wayans, Dane Cook, they all came in to the open mic,” Masada told me. At the end of the night, he gave out five showcases, three of which went to comics who’d been signed up by the club’s management. Ringers, in other words, who got on the bill not by waiting outside but because of their reputations. It would take those five comics several months before they got their showcases. These days, a Letterman who kills his first night can’t expect to start booking shows the following week. Los Angeles is filled with Lettermans. And the Internet has given national exposure to plenty of comics who are not particularly huggable and don’t tell stories onstage — comedians such as Maria Bamford, James Adomian, and Hari Kondabolu, who have found audiences through podcasts, Twitter, and YouTube, independent of any club’s endorsement. Gatekeepers like the Laugh Factory have dropped in status everywhere, and yet each week there’s no shortage of fresh faces waiting their turn to hear what Jamie Masada thinks.

A few hours later, I was back at Marty’s, listening to the rantings of a blue-eyed cherub in a fedora. “You know, in America, we can’t get over the sex thing. It’s like, if people would just fuck what they want to fuck, except I dunno — kids maybe? That would be a problem. I guess with the parents. But not the kids. I didn’t complain. People are like, ‘Oh, I was molested.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I was too. It didn’t hurt!’ They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so awful.’ No, it’s not! You know what’s awful? Feeling sorry for yourself, that’s what’s fucking awful. What the fuck? Who died and gave us all a fucking excuse to have a god-damned disability? Who the fuck did this? George Bush? Yes. George fucking Bush gave us the excuse to have Americans with disabilities. To be an American you’ve got to have a disability. And guess what: it’s an act.”

Foster announced my next attempt at Marty’s as the second set I’d ever done. This got me some applause. But it also upended the foundation of my third joke. “This is, yeah, my second time doing stand-up,” I said, ten seconds in. “So this whole week I — that’s the thing: this next joke is about the first time. Forget it: this is my first time doing stand-up. If it’s anything like, uh . . . like my last first time, you’re all pregnant.”

No laughs.

The flaw in this joke, Foster told me later, was that it was premised on something the audience knew to be false. “Also, insulting your audience as your first line is not a good idea.” He was referring to my “you’re all bombing” opener, which had been doubly bad because, out of fear, I’d gone up so early that nobody had had the chance to bomb. Foster believed that comedy was born of a series of “blown images” — a joke’s setup prepared an image that the punch line either inverted or subverted. He presented an alternative opener: “Tonight I have a wonderful audience of some very fine comics. I’ve seen you perform tonight; I guess it’s an off night.” This created an image, acknowledging a shared experience, then blew it up.

Foster was giving me license to scrap my material, which I appreciated, because I hated my material. In everyday life, I mumble and I talk too fast. I often struggle to make myself understood and have always looked to writing as a refuge. But under the pressure to be funny I’d turned to topics I didn’t really care about. Foster told me that a successful performance depended on revealing a relatable personality. My jokes had revealed nothing.

Most of the other comedians at Marty’s revealed everything. “I’m six foot six, three hundred and ten pounds, never lost a fight I was in,” said a comic named Liam one night on the patio, a stage, I’d discovered, that was more relaxed and often populated by smokers and stoners. “But I’m terrified of women. Women don’t understand, I can do here,” he said, pulling his bear arms in close around his chest. “I can hug you. But you want me to know how to text.”

This got a few chuckles from the audience, but then again, half of these people were visibly high. Liam continued his bit until a guy named Paul interrupted from the corner. “You know when you go ‘I can do here?’ ” Paul said. “You should then say, ‘But you want me to know you over there.’ ” He held his arms outward, blowing Liam’s image of a tight embrace.

Liam backed up and tried the joke again. “Women don’t understand, I’m genetically coded to know you here. If you let me hug you, you’ll realize how nice I am. But you want me to deal with you there. Just out of reach. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t get to where you want me to be. And then, in between us, there’s a minefield of texts that I have to get exactly right.”

“I think you can even cut out the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thing,” Paul said. “The simpler, the better.”

“Yeah. I can deal with you here, when you’re in my arms hugging me. But I can’t deal with you when you’re over there, and there’s a minefield of texts between us.”

“That’s fucking hilarious,” Paul said, nodding solemnly.

Scenes like this happened nearly every night. Marty’s was a place where people didn’t deliver material so much as find it, usually by riffing on a topic until they got an impromptu laugh, or, if that didn’t happen, hitting the subject from another angle. Often the audience responded with workshop critique. “Mics like this one, they don’t welcome material,” a comic named Rishi Arya told me. “It’s not spontaneous.” Earlier in the night I’d seen Arya run two sets within an hour, and both were so relaxed and natural I’d felt almost voyeuristic watching him. There’d been no jokes, no material, but I remembered laughing, the way I remember laughing during a night of beers with friends. “You’re uncomfortable when you’re riffing,” Arya said. “That’s why a lot of comics don’t do it. They have their jokes to protect them.”

This helped me realize, four days into my open-mic debauch, what had made my sets so disappointing: I hadn’t talked to my audience, I’d recited at them. My jokes certainly weren’t funny, but as jokes they weren’t any worse than anybody else’s. What made them fail was my delivery: I’d made no attempt to connect with the audience. I had generated none of the intimacy, and taken on none of the risk, that I always appreciate when I’m watching comedy. Every good comic walks a tightrope of vulnerability, whereas I had stayed safely on the platform, with my puns and my mock belligerence, wondering at my lack of applause.

To test whether Marty’s really was inhospitable to laughter, I invited a known comedic quantity, Josh Fadem, to try out a set one afternoon at the club. Fadem, who’s been acting and performing stand-up in L.A. for more than a decade (his most notable role was playing Liz Lemon’s pubescent agent on 30 Rock), had never heard of Marty’s. When he took the stage, he opened with an improvised bit about the characters in Django Unchained. He did impressions of Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx that had me, Foster, two regulars, and the night’s devastatingly unfunny host howling. But then Fadem’s set started to go downhill. He told a nearly laughless story about finding a Hustler as a kid. He tried some dick jokes (“So they say I’m a real testicle in the sack”). Then he began flipping through his phone. After a long silence, he did a bit about growing up Jewish in Oklahoma. He canned the bit midway through and tried some one-liners. (“Ever notice every time you drink asparagus pee it makes your breath smell funny?”) He finished the set with older, worked material. Some of this got laughs, some of it didn’t.

“It wasn’t the most awesome performance, but it also wasn’t too foreign to me,” Fadem told me later. “I thought it was strange that there were no chairs,” he added.

He’d never been to a club that looked quite like Marty’s.

“It felt like a dark L.A. sort of thing,” he said, “something you do when you’re new to L.A. You bust your ass in places like that. The photographs on the wall, the bad comedians.” But, he said, “I think that’s the point of an open mic: it’s not supposed to be good.”

A good open mic, like the one at the Laugh Factory, would attract a paying crowd, which would put pressure on the comics to get laughs, thereby undermining the opportunity to improve rough material. The squalor of Marty’s all but guaranteed that the off-the-street, casual comedy fan would stay away. This, paradoxically, made it more valuable to comedians. Most of Marty’s performers were amateurs, but even seasoned comics would occasionally stop by to test out their acts.

“A guy like Louis C.K., his open mic would be a packed show of comics where he could just drop in,” said Sammy Obeid, a professional touring comedian whom I saw perform on two nights at Marty’s. “But what if you don’t have that?” Like Marty, Chris Rock has referred to comedy clubs as gyms, but for greener comics, who have fewer chances to perform in front of an audience, the stakes at a club show are higher. “With Marty’s, it’s so simple,” Obeid said. “Costs five dollars, but I’ve come here before and done like seven sets in one night.” Both nights I saw Obeid perform at Marty’s, he’d run the same tight set. The jokes were punchy, pristine, and delivered with the kind of extemporaneity that makes good stand-up a wonder to watch. “I’m Palestinian but my roommate is Jewish, so we always fight over where his room starts and mine ends,” he said. “He pays more rent, but I’ve been there longer.”

Fadem told me that he had hosted a weekly seven-comedian show at a Ramada in Los Angeles. On his anniversary show, he took all seven slots for himself, running the same set seven times in a row. Sometimes he repeated himself joke for joke, or mixed one joke’s setup with another’s punch line, or even told the jokes as different characters. “For the rest of the week I was so sharp,” Fadem said. “There’s something about running yourself through the ringer for seven different shows, because if you do it that many times, you’re likely to encounter and be ready for every single problem you can experience during a stand-up set.”

Marty’s has also provided a humble start for the children of several famous comedians — aspiring comics who knew they weren’t yet ready for the clubs that booked their parents. Damon Wayans Jr. is a regular, Foster told me. He and his uncle Marlon were the first to perform in the bunker when it opened in 2011, and Marlon’s portrait was one of the many hung up in the vestibule. The wooden throne on the main stage was donated by Lucas Dick, son of Andy, who won it at an open-mic night held at a now-defunct restaurant called Sushi Kingz. “I don’t know of any famous person that can tell an audience to laugh at their son,” Albert Brooks — son of a radio comedian — once said. So here was Marty’s, open seven days a week, for the children of stars to see whether they could generate laughs on their own. “It’s gratifying to me,” Foster said about his regulars. “It makes me feel good to see that people do take it seriously. They come regularly, they’re progressing in their careers, and a lot of times thanking me and giving me credit.”

On my first night at Marty’s, it was nearly midnight by the time all the comics had gotten their fill of the main stage. The last to perform was a young guy with a pompadour and thick-framed glasses. “That’s Andrew Dice Clay’s kid,” Foster said. Andrew Dice Clay’s kid showed up almost every night that week. He hustled between the patio and the Bunker, from which raucous shouts and laughter could often be heard through the closed door. I’d avoided the room out of some unspecified fear, but one night I mustered the courage to follow Clay’s kid inside, and I watched him run a set for two people who were draped across plush vinyl sofas in a room just big enough to park a Yaris. He was twenty-two, tall and lanky, lived with his father in the Valley, and performed under his given name, Max Silverstein. His act was quiet, goofy, and self-deprecating — nothing like his dad’s horny bluster. “I’m still really learning how to do comedy,” Silverstein told me. “I could probably walk into certain clubs and go, you know, ‘Yo, my dad’s Andrew Dice Clay, get me on right now,’ and it would probably work. I’d get up there. But if I eat shit, I’m fucking done.”

Stand-up, Silverstein said, “really is a personal journey. Finding yourself onstage, knowing who you are, being comfortable with yourself.” His dad, he said, “can give me all the tips in the world, but at the end of the day I just have to go do it, fail or do good, and learn from that.” Marty’s was an ideal place for him to practice, and not only because of the amount of stage time he could rack up. “There’s no pressure whatsoever,” he said. “Even if there’s one person listening, it gives you the practice of just being able to say the sentences out loud into a microphone.”

Couldn’t he do that at home?

“I could, but I also like to come here because I think it’s a great hangout,” he said. “It’s a clubhouse for open-mic comedians.”

I saved my last set at Marty’s for my final night in L.A. Taking Foster and Arya’s advice into account, I decided to reveal something of myself to the audience. I’d assumed that the joke about my fling with Carlos Mencia had made it clear that I was gay, but I was wrong. “I didn’t know,” Foster said when I told him one night. (He’d spent the week telling tremendously offensive gay jokes, and, to his credit, he didn’t stop.) “You just revealed that to me. That’s good. This is what we’re striving for.”

I took the stage late, right after a homeless guy who, midway through his set, told a story about having to walk an old man down the street. “He took my hand,” he said. “I felt like a faggot.” The tone of the evening was strange. Foster had taken the night off, and there was a weird lawlessness about the place. No women had shown up yet. Most of the guys were smoking pot on the patio, where they’d just finished taping the club’s first podcast. “ ‘Female’ and ‘comic’ do not go in the same sentence,” one of them said during the taping. I couldn’t imagine a less appropriate audience for my material, which consisted of jokes on precisely three topics: West Hollywood, straight porn versus gay porn, and transmale top surgery.

“You guys talk a lot about watching porn,” I said. “Lots of porn jokes this week, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ ”

A stoned guy in the corner gave me my first laugh. It would also be my last. I kept going, scriptless and afraid. I knew that I wanted to talk about the way muscle-bears often punch each other in the chest in porn, but I didn’t know how to make it funny.

“I like big dudes,” I said. “Like big hairy dudes? Those types?”

“You like bears,” two guys shouted back in unison.

“Wow,” I said. “You all know the lingo.”

They looked bored. I realized that while chest-punching might be a staple of man-on-man porn, it might not be common in female-on-female porn. “I don’t know if two women punch each other in the tit,” I said, “as a way to, like, measure the niceness of it? I don’t think that happens. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

“I’ve never seen it,” said the long-haired man who sang his jokes my first night at the club.

“I imagine not,” I said. It was like we were just having a conversation, the five of us in the room. Was it stand-up? No. Or maybe it was. I felt better than I had all week. I wasn’t telling jokes, and nobody was laughing, but I was talking into a microphone and people were listening. Was that stand-up? Or was it performance art? My set lasted fifteen minutes, but it felt like five.

Later, I wondered what had made the set so enjoyable. In a one-man show, no matter how autobiographical, there’s a pose, a theatrical affectation. Even improv — a form of comedy that trades in spontaneity and instinct — requires an audience to suspend its disbelief. Stand-up comedy, which is often scripted and timed, requires even more suspension. But a real laugh can’t be faked. This is the magic of stand-up: we submit ourselves to a performer and hope to be given an experience of spontaneous emotion. Successful comedians have learned to overcome or to conceal the unease inherent in performing, so that we can experience their acts as something natural and true. I wasn’t able to accomplish this, but my last night onstage I’d come close. A place like Marty’s gives comedians the chance to work through their discomfort — in public and over many hours — by racking up stage time. They get used to being watched, and they bomb, and bomb again.

“You know who Mitzi Shore is?” a Marty’s regular named Sam Stevens asked me one night at the club. “I don’t think he’s gonna be the equivalent of Mitzi Shore, but Marty will be a known figure that certain comedians came up through, because the cool thing about Marty is that he guides us by listening. He listens and appreciates, which is a weird quality that most people don’t have.”

Stevens carried on this conversation as he dawdled onstage before beginning his set. It was the most revealing I’d heard anybody get when talking about the place. As Stevens spoke, Foster sat in his easy chair at the front of the room, smiling under a wall of stand-up devotees, each of whom he’d photographed himself.

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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July 2015

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