It's just after 10 p.m. and already five comedians have done their thing when comic Eddie Pepitone strides up to start his set. Short, bald and decidedly unhinged, Pepitone gives the air of a blue-collar Buddha: a wizened, workaday sage who happens to be slightly crazy-eyed.
Getting right to the point, he starts his trademark screaming.
“Let's address the elephant in the room,” he shrieks. “We are out-fucking-side a fish taco place — things are not going well for ANYONE!”
Pepitone is in the outdoor faux-cabana of the venerable Los Feliz taco hut Best Fish Taco in Ensenada — a spot that looks like a cross between a Corona Light commercial and Keanu Reeves' man cave. Normally you'd come here to eat fish and/or shrimp tacos, and gulp down any number of canned sodas. And yet, for the 11th time on alternating Tuesdays (the first and third of every month), the hip, the punk and the snarky are crowded here under stage lights, listening to some comedy.
There's more of a neighborhood punk-rock throwdown feel than a U2-on-a-rooftop vibe. No one is above anyone else. There's no admission fee. There's not even a stage.
But there is, unbelievably, Patton Oswalt.
The alpha nerd of comedy is an around-the-block local who literally walks down the street and, after Pepitone and six other comics, starts telling stories (plus some highbrow fart yuks) — which makes his presence seem both random and oddly wholesome.
Oswalt makes light of once having to play taco stands and pizza joints out of necessity, then revels in the purity of the event. “When do you do this? Tuesdays? Awesome. I'll be back.” It isn't a joke.
The show's emcee, 27-year-old Jeremy Burke, closes with genuine surprise and elation, “Patton Oswalt? What are we doing right now? We started with $1.75 fish tacos and now we got Mr. Ratatouille in the house. What is happening?”
What is happening here started, mostly, with Best Fish Taco's owner, Joseph Cordova — and with Jeremy Burke.
Cordova is a funny guy; hip, worldly-uncle funny — undeniably younger than dirt but, y'know, still older than his teeth. (He won't say, but we're guessing he's in his mid-40s.) Asked why he'd host comedy at a taco restaurant, he jokes, “Don't call it a restaurant, goddammit, it's a taco stand — that means I can do whatever I want!”
Then he explains that everything started with one of the neighborhood regulars: “One day, Jeremy came up to me and said, 'I'm the [Foursquare] mayor of this place!' And I said, 'Well, that makes you the coolest motherfucker around!' And with that we became good friends.” From there, Burke took on the task of using his social media expertise to promote Cordova's taco stand — and he stuck with it, unlike a slew of past promoters who had petered out.
One day, the men were talking about all the comedians they recognized in the neighborhood and at the stand. A taco/comedy bromance was born.
Cordova got Burke a PA system and some lights and let him run with it. They both committed to the idea that it would always be free and fun. “To have no money involved, to me, is the purest form of that art. … Everyone's there with no expectations,” Burke says.
“This show will never change,” he vows. “If it gets to the point where we'll have to turn people away, we'll have to figure something out, but I never want to charge for it.”
So how does free comedy at a fish taco stand work? Much as you'd expect — or wouldn't. On May 1 there was Twitter sensation Rob Delaney to open, Oswalt to close and, in between, everything from just post-amateur comics clinging to the bluest of masturbation jokes to veteran joke master Jay London, wisecracking vaudevillian bits.
On this evening, Best Fish Taco's outdoor cabana is packed with about 80 to 90 people, a gaggle of them overflowing to the sidewalk. The crowd stays engaged, even through the flops. Burke, who wears an ironically cool sweater decorated with a giant anchor, represents the golden mean of the crowd, sartorially speaking: the perfect mix of trendy and tousled, hip and understated.
Emily Maya Mills is the evening's sole female comic. “I've done enough shows in my life where, if you're depending on your friends for a crowd, it eventually peters out,” she says. “But that hasn't happened here yet.” Mills, whose resume includes Children's Hospital, helped get Oswalt to show up tonight.
Past evenings featured Maria Bamford, Demetri Martin, T.J. Miller, Chelsea Peretti and other so-called “alternative” comedy luminaries. Burke's dream is to get Louis C.K.: “If I could get him on the show, I would be ecstatic — he does stuff like this, even though he's, like, the biggest in the world right now, so I think we could get him.”
Burke previously managed Warped Tour bands. Now he works in that somewhat nebulous field of social media for a boutique digital marketing and media agency in West Hollywood. His taco gigs have become the perfect merger of his raucous rock roots and his social marketing skills.
“It feels more like a music show than a comedy show, doesn't it?” he remarks after the show. “I love comedy, but I'm not into two-drink minimums and the intimidating vibes of a lot of traditional comedy venues.”
He adds, “I do want this to be the perfect blend of punk rock and comedy, that sort of thing where people will say, 'Did you see that? I was there!' ”