"In order to gain entrance into this extremely private event, you will need to prove that you have, in fact, been invited," emphatically read the exclusive Evite to a Thursday-night alternative-comedy show. "Arrive at 1233 Vine St. at 8 p.m. Find the woman in the green top hat with the ornamental poof. Tell her you're looking for Nick. When she asks for a password, say, 'Sero Vendentes Male Sedentes.' Dress sharp. The Nickel has spoken."
Following these directions on a recent November evening, visitors arrive inside a barnlike attic above the Sassafras Saloon, filled with hanging antiques and a 30-and-younger crowd, decked out in vintage attire that looks as if it's from Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. The house jazz band's rendition of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" fills the air among clinked cherry sours and old-fashioneds. The cool, wry stand-up Jerrod Carmichael takes the mic and jokes, "This is, by far, the classiest Cracker Barrel I've ever been in."
Welcome to the Nickel Club: More than just another independent comedy room, it's an immersive experience, and an indication of where the alternative-comedy scene is heading. Unlike the days when they could simply wrangle hip, nonconformist comics such as Patton Oswalt or Greg Proops for a spot at the Tangiers in Los Feliz and call it a day, alternative-comedy bookers are upping their game by thinking up catchy gimmicks, in an effort to boost foot traffic amidst heavy competition.
"This started from a place of attracting a large cross-section of people who don't normally attend comedy shows," comic/booker Brad Davis Silnutzer, 27, explains. Silnutzer is one of the co-producers of Nickel Club, as well as of Brew HaHa — a popular, monthly house party/drinking game comedy show held in the Silver Lake backyard of co-producer Marissa Gallant — which attracts such talent as Pete Holmes, Ron Funches and Nick Thune. Brew HaHa came first, and Silnutzer used its mailing list to start Nickel Club, filling it just a week after it was announced.
"I looked at the magic of Disneyland and a Cirque du Soleil show and assessed that it was the encompassing experience that keeps any crowd coming back for more," Silnutzer says.
Nickel Club and Brew HaHa are two members of a new generation of invite-only shows in secret locations with a speakeasy vibe. The consensus among stand-ups is that the trend is approximately 3 years old, with its roots in such now-dormant shows as Barbara Gray's One-Two Punch and Alex Hooper's It's a Long Way Down. Hooper has since started Crave, an underground comedy-dance party; invitees learn of the show's location the night before by email. Similar shows include the North Hollywood tiki patio lounge show Canopy Comedy and Comedy Living Room Show run by Matt Lottman and Frank Chad Muniz.
Josh Di Donato, a renowned alternative booker–comedian who produces We Have a Hammock, which takes place in his backyard, explains these shows offer "a cool, underground intimacy" as well as a "relaxed environment," despite frequent visits by LAPD over the noise and crowds of 100 people or more. (Hooper launched Crave after being handcuffed by the cops for hosting his Culver City house comedy show.)
Once when Cameron Esposito was performing at Sofiya Alexandra and Robert Buscemi's house show, Surprise! Comedy, in West Hollywood, the cops asked that the amp be turned off — but then stayed to savor the comedy. "There was an amazing, campfire vibe in that scenario," says Esposito, who enjoys the spontaneous atmosphere of house-party shows. "You're asking for an extra buy-in from the audience, an extra vulnerability, and the audience adores that interaction with a comedian: 'I can't use the microphone because the cops are outside!'
"It's the ultimate de-evolution of the comedy club," Esposito adds. "There's no brick wall, no two-drink minimum and sometimes no chairs."
Bookers for these shows don't have to worry about meeting a venue owner's demands for high turnouts and drink minimums. Not to mention, a house party comedy show comes with priceless impromptu moments, such as the time when an intruding skunk threatened to spray Emo Phillips during his Surprise! set.
Surprise! changes its private venue every month, so that attendees can visit different parts of the city. On a late November evening, stand-ups such as Emily Maya Mills and Myq Kaplan have found their way to the Brewery, the downtown art loft complex, where Alexandra and Buscemi have built a stage with a backdrop of Styrofoam coolers. The duo sought to create a show in which performers can mingle comfortably with fans after their sets, unlike the separation that happens at a restaurant or bar.
Getting on the invite list of these shows is as simple as finding them on Facebook. Once you're in the door, you're in for life.
Another category of gimmick is the high-stakes thematic showcase, in which the performers adhere to a specific set of rules. On a recent Friday night, when the number of comedy shows in L.A. rivals the tally of vintage British TV shows on Netflix, Bryan Cook manages to fill the Nerdist Showroom at Meltdown Comics with his X-rated show Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, which has been running for about a year and a half. At one point, audience members are on their knees, thanks to Keith Carey's filthy Space Jam tale about Porky Pig performing fellatio on Michael Jordan. Despite the show's affiliation with the popular venue, Cook says, "You have to promote every show like it's a new one."
Another example is Andy Haynes' once-monthly Midnight Run show at Echoes Under Sunset, where comedians are required to perform under the influence of some kind of alcohol or drug.
"One sketch group, Murder Fist, performed while they were on mushrooms," Haynes says. "They were panicking over forgetting their lines."
He isn't worried about being raided by the cops — a lot of the preshow drug use is restricted to the pot dispensary next door.
Other rule-based shows include Set List, where stand-ups improvise their material from a TV monitor proffering outrageous suggestions, as well as Nerd Fight, where comedians compete in a game show as a character. The grand prize: getting to perform your stand-up set in character.
Such shows raise the question of whether the alternative scene has become too gimmicky, to the point where its tackiness level rivals that of a more mainstream club (i.e., the Laugh Factory still calls its urban night Chocolate Sundaes).
But pose that question to an organizer of one of these shows and you're apt to get a bristling look. "Nobody thinks of their own show as gimmicky," Di Donato asserts. "We're just trying to come up with inventive ways to get people out."
Comedian Melinda Hill, who oversees 7-year-old Monday-night show What's Up Tiger Lily?, says that whether a show is a "good hang" is important, as an audience member's favorite comic might not come back week after week. Still, in the end, funny always needs to win out.
Hill declares, "In a viral age, you need a concept, and the quality of the show needs to outlast the concept."