“I’m at peak powers,” says comedian Steve Hernandez to chuckles from the crowd. He warms the stage with the same magnetism and reverence of a pastor, which is fitting because he used to be one. “I mean, look at this face,” he says, stroking each round, bearded cheek with the back of his hand. “I’m gorgeous.” He beams in response to more chuckling. “And you know, I’m a badass bartender in Covina — I’m at the top of my game.” The crowd of locals gurgles with self-deprecating laughter.
Covina may be the butt of jokes, but thanks to dive-bar-cum-comedy-club the Chatterbox, it’s also where a lot of jokes are conceived. For the past six years, Hernandez has built a raucous Sunday comedy night, attracting legions of savvy regulars to kick back and laugh. The dim, one-room watering hole is taken over. The two TVs go off and stage lights go on. Hecklers are ousted lest they mess with the vibe; a packed audience expectantly faces the stage in rows of pop-up chairs. With this degree of intimacy and attention, it’s the kind of room comics salivate over, which is why Hollywood’s best and brightest are coaxed out to the San Gabriel Valley suburb to perform.
“When you start in L.A., you can’t get any stage time,” Hernandez tells me over coffee in Hollywood, where he now lives. He’s moonlighted as a bartender at the Chatterbox for the past 10 years and started the show in his hometown in 2010 to have a crack at a real audience. “All I would do is write for this show,” he says. “I would go to open mics and everything, but I knew that there were real people waiting for my jokes.”
After initial success, the show was bumped up to twice a month and then to once a week for the past four years. These days Hernandez books the show two months in advance with co-producers Scott Luhrs and Ellie McElvain, working from a sprawling wait list of local and out-of-town comics more than willing to make the commute. Big names like Maria Bamford, Kyle Kinane, Guy Branum and Beth Stelling have graced the humble stage. Whittier native and new SNL featured player Melissa Villaseñor recently recorded her album there to a house so packed they had to turn people away at the door. “That was a cool moment,” McElvain says. “It feels like we snuck our way into comedy history a little bit.”
From the outside, you’d never guess the Chatterbox was a place that's achieved cult status. The bar’s inconspicuous wood-paneled façade is illuminated by a singular overhead light. A diminutive sign reads “lounge” in unimpressive red letters over a low-slung doorway. Were it not for the roadside neon arrow perforating the darkness, I’d have missed the place altogether.
On a recent Sunday, the bar roils with laughter as 20-to-30-somethings find their seats, whispering greetings to one another and doling out handshakes and hugs to familiar faces. The dark red walls are lined with backlit spirits and a DVD collection of ‘80s classics; they're plastered haphazardly with fliers advertising comedy nights past. There’s a prominent billiards table and a digital jukebox busting ‘90s hip-hop between sets. The drinks are stiff and cheap, too — for a mere $4.50, my whiskey sour took me places.
For comics, Luhrs says realness is the draw. L.A. audiences are often saturated with industry types that are either too jaded or too caught up in the bubble to laugh, Luhrs says, so the Chatterbox can be a better litmus test for jokes. “Even though it’s only 30 miles away, it’s a different world. No one cares about Hollywood,” he explains. “You’re able to get real reactions from real people to your material.” McElvain agrees, likening the Chatterbox vibe to road gigs, which have a reputation for being more authentic. “At the end of the day, I think Chatterbox is your most honest room.”
Despite their popularity, the Chatterbox crew is committed to giving up-and-comers a shot, whether or not they’ve earned their stage chops yet. The bar hosts a bustling open mic, where the best comic is awarded a spot on the breadwinning Sunday night show. Having all scrambled up in the L.A. scene, the producers pay forward the opportunity they got here to greener comics.
McElvain, who now writes for Awesomeness TV, says she finessed her style at the Chatterbox. “I credit it completely for figuring out how to feel comfortable onstage and find my voice,” she says. She started hanging around the comedy nights when she was a senior at Scripps College in 2014, and soon after, Hernandez invited her to host the open mic and then co-produce the Sunday show. Though the audience leans conservative, she says they’re attentive: “They’re completely open to listening,” she emphasizes. “You can tell jokes about literally anything, and they live or die based on the strength of your joke-writing more than the subject matter.”
The night I attended, comedians pushed the envelope to positive reactions from the crowd, from Joe Dosch’s jokes about the practicality of poppers for gay sex to Aaron Weaver’s bit about God being fake. Kate Willett took on the politics of female pubic hair and promiscuity, and closer Tamer Kattan came out swinging about presidential nominee Donald Trump pedaling racism to America like a drug dealer slings to an addict with a bad habit.
“It’s not just a white-guy show — we make that a point,” Hernandez explains. Though the show isn’t curated around specific politics, the Chatterboxers represent diverse perspectives on the mic. “I want more women comedians, I want more Latino comedians, I want more black comedians,” Hernandez says. “The only way we’ll get that is if people see themselves.”
On the other hand, as someone who works the alternative L.A. circuit, Hernandez says the Chatterbox provides an important reminder: “You can’t write off conservative people.”
“We’re all human, and that’s always what we’re trying to connect to as artists,” he says earnestly before interjecting levity. “I mean, I don’t like referring to myself as an artist — I have a lot of pussy jokes.”
McElvain takes it further: “Comedy is transformative and transgressive. Every punchline is wrapped up in a message. It has the potential to shift your perspective, even if just for a night.”
At the top of the show, Luhrs and Hernandez debrief each other’s weeks, riffing naturally and informally testing material. Hernandez encourages the audience to let loose, offering a ride home to anyone who needs one. They lovingly cajole Adam the door guy and Travis the bartender, who bleats with laughter throughout the night. Hernandez too lets out knee-slapping cackles intermittently alongside the rapt crowd. It’s not that this more suburban audience is easier to please — sitting in the audience, the secret ingredient seems like it might just be trust. After six years of shared laughs, there’s a palpable sense of community here — and in that way, the Chatterbox is more beloved clubhouse than bar.
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A broad and loyal constituency keeps coming back. “That forces us to be really good comedians because we can’t do the same shit,” Hernandez says. “We can’t afford to be false.”
The Chatterbox Comedy Night is free every Sunday at 9:30 p.m., 943 N. Citrus Ave., Covina.