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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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.”

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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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