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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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.

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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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