It's around 11 a.m. on a Wednesday as Cash Levy enters a banquet room within the pleasant, faux-sylvan Etiwanda Gardens event center near Rancho Cucamonga. Sixty employees of a major Southern California utility mingle, kick back at round banquet tables or head over to the steaming buffet line.
After the crowd has eaten and settled in, Levy centers himself on the floor and addresses the group, microphone in hand.
"After this I'm actually doing the Johnson family brunch next door," he says. "And then I'll be doing the early bird special at the Golden Corral." Referring to the company's in-house magazine, he quips, "I'm being paid for this in a lifetime subscription to The Buzz."
A minute in and the crowd has erupted in laughter several times. Which is exactly the point: The 40-year-old Levy is a stand-up comedian — one who specializes in the sort of gigs that would make many of his peers run for cover. It's barely noon on a weekday, there's no stage or special lighting, much less a drop of alcohol to be had, and the company that brought him here has mandated various restrictions on content: nothing even lightly sexual or religious, and no profanity. Not even "crap." Even worse, this group is expecting restructuring and/or layoffs in the coming months. Not exactly a guaranteed giggle fest.
Yet Levy strongly connects. One of the keys: jokes tailor-made for the crowd.
"You're a black belt?" Levy queries a hefty man in front, having been informed of the employee's martial arts ranking. "Are they just giving those out now? I feel, like, if we fought, I could just kinda dodge you."
Levy's delivery is droll and gentle. He sounds a bit like Mike Myers as Dr. Evil, with a shot of California surfer lilt. He uses his face — smirking lips and playful, expressive eyes — to excellent effect.
The corporate side of the stand-up industry contains many unorthodox gigs, and Levy takes the toughest. He's a sort of comedy commando, able to negotiate awkward situations and even thrive by using inspired improvisation.
Levy has employed this knack for creative contingency on a larger scale, carving out a career as a comedian, even as many conventional doors of the entertainment machine have remained closed to him. While he hasn't achieved the colossal payoffs that come with TV stardom, he has for years made a solid living.
Of his early touring years, he says, "You're going to Alaska or the Deep South, and you don't have a set that's going to work with all these different groups. So I talked to the crowd a lot. I didn't want to recite the same jokes, in the same order, every evening. I wanted each night to be its own story and unique experience for the audience."
On the road, people sometimes come to see his act twice in a week, curious as to how Friday's content differs from Wednesday's.
Levy's predilection for onstage spontaneity reached its ultimate expression a couple years ago, when he taped a seven-camera, one-hour comedy special at a historic theater in Bend, Ore. Levy did the whole thing on spec, spending a large chunk of his yearly income on it with no television outlet lined up.
" 'You can't market improvisation,' " he says, repeating the industry's mantra. " 'They'll see it live, but you can't sell it on TV.' I wanted to prove them wrong."
For his comedy CD, Extemporaneous, he taped four different club shows and edited together an album's worth of hilarious, razor-sharp crowd riffing. But this was a risk of a different magnitude — both financially and artistically.
"I knew that AXS TV, formerly HD Net, had an emphasis on live programming," Levy says. (The growing network, which reaches 35 million homes, is found at channel 340 on DirecTV.) "And their owner, Mark Cuban, is a risk-taking visionary. So I approached them personally, through their website. Within a week we had a deal."
As of Oct. 25, Cash Levy: Crowd Control has been a featured part of AXS programming — the channel's first stand-up comedy special.
"Cash is the ultimate live comic," Cuban tells the Weekly via email. "And AXS TV is the ESPN of music and pop culture, including live comedy. He is hilarious and it's a great fit."
Throughout the special, Levy asks various audience members what they do.
"Highway flagger!" he repeats, after querying a man. "You could get people to crash if you feel like it. You have a lot more power than people realize." Levy then gestures errant flagging and makes a car-crash sound effect.
"Having an hour on national TV is so rare," says Andrew Norelli, a comedian who recently appeared on Late Show with David Letterman. "And Cash's special is really groundbreaking with all the improvisation. It should create a lot of opportunities for him in Hollywood."
Adds legendary comedy manager Barry Katz, "The greatest thing about it is you got a guy who did an amazing job on a special, produced it well and sold it when so many other people sit around and say, 'Why doesn't anyone believe in me? This town is fucked.' "
Cash Levy: Crowd Control will be rebroadcast on AXS TV on Thursday, Dec. 20. In the six weeks the special has been offered on AXS, Levy has already seen heightened interest in his work: "It's gotten a lot of people on Twitter, and led to some different live shows around the country. I also have some meetings set up around L.A."
He plans to pitch a sitcom script he co-wrote and is finishing a nonfiction book about his hobby of sneaking into major, high-ticket events, including multiple Super Bowls, titled No Ticket Required.
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Levy also has established a successful podcast, Cashing in With T.J. Miller, on the influential Nerdist Network.
Still, corporate gigs remain the Manhattan Beach resident's bread and butter. And the most powerful experience Levy recalls is an "In Memoriam" show in the house of a military serviceman killed at 19 in Iraq.
"I wanted to be very careful about the subject matter," Levy relates, somberly. "And I was nervous about saying the wrong thing, but it turned out to be a great release for them. They needed to laugh, and I was honored to be able to deliver it."