Yes, Los Angeles is wading in a profusion of comedic talent and is home to countless excellent comedy clubs (some housed in fish taco joints.) For our People 2012 issue, we zeroed in on six L.A. comedians who traffic in everything from sitcom writing to cartoons to YouTube videos.
6. Lalo Alcarez: Most Mexcellent
Shortly after it was revealed that Mitt Romney's father was born in Mexico, a mysterious alter ego cropped up on Twitter: Mexican Mitt Romney (@MexicanMitt), who wears a huge sombrero and tweets things like, “MY GOAL IS TO KNOCK MY TAX RATE DOWN BELOW JUAN PERCENT.”
Strangely, the L.A. Mexican-American humorist Lalo Alcaraz claims no official credit for the Twitter account. “I think he's hilarious,” is all he'll say. “Whoever's tweeting Mexican Mitt is very funny and a very good-looking man.”
Alcaraz is best known for his comic strip “La Cucaracha,” which had a home at the Weekly for years but now is nationally syndicated. The cartoon is a send-up of iconic Mexican stereotypes — Speedy Gonzalez, a man snoozing under a sombrero — with biting commentary on the continued subjugation of Mexican-Americans.
A founder of the legendary satirical theater troop Chicano Secret Service, a graduate of UC Berkeley (where he roomed with State Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez) and a San Diego native, Alcaraz has been one of Southern California's preeminent voices for Latino rights, even if his delivery comes via comedy.
He comes out of Chicanismo, the '70s-era movement that dreamed of a better life for brown masses in the Southwest. But now his stance has become “post-Chicano,” he says. “We have certainly gained important power, and that's only going to get stronger.”
Still, he adds, “L.A. can still feel like Johannesburg — apartheid — in certain industries. I don't know any Latinos calling the shots in the entertainment industry.”
These days Alcaraz, 48, lives with his wife and children in what he calls the “Greater Eastside” (which does not include Silver Lake or Echo Park, he says emphatically). He is writing an animated pilot for a major network. He's celebrating publication of the revised edition of his book Latino USA: A Cartoon History. He's working on a new U.S. history book with Latino USA co-author Ilan Stavans. He's doing a children's book. And he's writing an edition of the Bart Simpson comic book series for Matt Groening's Bongo Comics. “That's almost more prestigious than getting a TV deal,” he says.
Alcaraz recently jumped into the Trayvon Martin controversy, siding with the family of the black teen who was shot in Florida earlier this year in a confrontation with a Latino neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. Alcaraz has tweeted many a snarky thing about the dark-skinned suspect (“Zimmerman also suspending his campaign for the GOP nomination”). His stance proves that his satire and criticism can cut both ways. “Don't tell me you're surprised there are Latino racists,” he says. “Trayvon's just an innocent kid, man. Wrong is wrong.” –Dennis Romero
5. Jessica St. Clair: Sitcomely
There's never dead air when you're with Jessica St. Clair, who has a giant personality to go with her big blue eyes and blond hair. Taking a break from filming her new NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever at a Rampart Village studio, the Santa Monica-based comedian and actress delivers a delirious barrage of quips, observations and one-liners. “I was so flat-chested in high school,” she explains, “that I thought I'd better be funny if guys were going to like me.”
She is certainly that. (Funny, that is.) In fact, she's easily among the most hilarious of the rapidly expanding sphere of prominent female comedians, spurred, in part, by last year's surprise hit Bridesmaids. St. Clair had a memorable role in that film, as the bridal shop owner. (You know, the spot where the ladies lose their lunch.) “For some reason, we're having a moment,” St. Clair says of her fellow Hollywood funnywomen.
Still, she's not exactly sure how to characterize the female-centric vibe of Best Friends Forever — perhaps a “ho-mance” between “friend-bians”? It's a fictionalized portrait of the obsessive-yet-platonic relationship between her and Lennon Parham, her co-star, writing partner and real-life bestie. After St. Clair's character gets divorced, she moves back in with Parham, only to find out that her roommate's new boyfriend has set up shop. They promptly deflate his beloved Michigan Wolverines blow-up chair.
The New Jersey-bred St. Clair met Parham at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where the alt-comedy institution's co-founder Amy Poehler discouraged female performers from dressing “hot” for their shows. In this spirit, St. Clair remains uninterested in stereotypical wife or girlfriend roles. “I'd much rather play the homeless person jerking off in the corner,” she insists.
Landing in L.A. just before the 2007 writers strike, she feared her career would crater — “I spent a lot of time crying in the Target parking lot,” she says. But things rebounded with a prominent role in She's Out of My League, and television and movie parts followed, not to mention a memorable turn on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast as Marissa Wompler, a precocious 15-year-old awkwardly coming to grips with her sexuality. Wompler consumes nothing but candy and is prone to excessive enthusiasm, which is what makes her so likable.
At 34, St. Clair has the same quality. Talking today with her show's writers about promotional spots, she's tickled about one pairing her with Betty White, star of the senior citizen candid-camera show Off Their Rockers, the lead-in for Best Friends Forever. The plan is for St. Clair to punch the nonagenarian in the face. “This,” she says of her TV odyssey, “has been my dream since I was 12.” –Ben Westhoff
4. Jenna Marbles: The YouTube Star
One Friday in July 2010, Jenna Mourey drove home from her job at a tanning salon in Boston; she had to shower and change for her night gig as a go-go dancer. As she walked into her apartment, she decided to film herself getting ready.
She enjoyed go-go dancing (getting paid to dance — in flats!). But she had a master's degree from Boston University in sports psychology and counseling. Her life was, as she says, “ridiculous.”
“I went to school, tried really hard, did everything I was supposed to do, and now, like, what the fuck is this mess I'm in right now?” the 25-year-old recalls thinking. “I'm going to work dancing in my underwear, making myself look like a whore on purpose.”
That night she edited together a video called “How to Trick People Into Thinking You're Good-Looking” and posted it on YouTube. By the time she got to her night gig, the other dancers had already passed it around Facebook. It has since been watched 38 million times.
Jenna Marbles, as she now calls herself, eventually started posting weekly to her YouTube channel, which has 2.9 million subscribers (No. 6 on the site), and almost half a billion views. Most of her fans are teenage girls, who relate to her foul-mouthed, brutally straightforward comedy sketches on the plight of young womanhood.
Her video “How to Avoid Talking to People You Don't Want to Talk To,” for example, was inspired by a guy who was pestering her in a Rhode Island nightclub. She gave him a bizarre look — picture a scared clown — and didn't say a thing. The technique spread among her female fans, to the point where the creepy guys now know what it is and give it back. Articles about “the face” painted her as some kind of YouTube feminist but, like most entertainers, her process is instinctual. “I fucking hate that,” she says. “They're giving me way too much credit.”
L.A. is a magnet for successful YouTubers, so in September Marbles moved from Boston with her boyfriend to a three-story townhouse on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. She'll meet with production companies (“Those are so stupid”) and occasionally audition (“I'm terrible”), but traditional Hollywood doesn't yet know what to do with her, and she already probably makes six figures from YouTube ad revenue.
Marbles' power has started to dawn on her. She's often recognized while hanging out with her boyfriend on the Santa Monica Pier. One fan who has cancer emailed her to say that she watched Marbles' videos from her bed, and her mom cried because it was the first time she had seen her daughter laugh in months.
But despite her success, Marbles still films her videos with her laptop camera in her bedroom, which, one recent day, was littered with T-shirts and shampoo bottles. Her weekly deadline is Wednesday at sundown, as her only light source is the window.
“The way I work is not necessarily effective,” she says. “It's pretty messed up.” –Zachary Pincus-Roth
3. Emily Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani: Nerds of a Feather
When Kumail Nanjiani was 18, he came halfway around the world from Karachi, Pakistan, to one of the whitest places on Earth, Grinnell College in Iowa. Appropriately, at 34, he's now a comedian specializing in wry jokes and fish-out-of-water observations, which have landed him both a Late Show With David Letterman appearance and a recently filmed Comedy Central special.
His wife, Emily V. Gordon, also works in the comedy industry, but that's about where their similarities end, at least on paper. Hailing from Scarborough, N.C., the 33-year-old Gordon previously was employed as a therapist at a Chicago institution for schizophrenics. Now program director of West Hollywood's Nerdist Theater, Gordon is charged with wrangling events at the venue, which happens to be in the rear of a Sunset Boulevard comics store.
Nerdist's flagship weekly show is called The Meltdown, which Gordon produces and Nanjiani co-hosts. It has quickly become the best event at the coolest alternative room in the city: Rising talent appears alongside such alt-comedy superstars as Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K., and admission costs only eight bucks.
Though Gordon's pale skin, red bangs and Southern reticence contrast with Nanjiani's dark complexion, animated eyebrows and thickly accented erudition, they're nonetheless a harmonious pair. Just watch them giggling over subjects like their shared love of video games — they co-host a gaming-centric podcast — or the odd manner in which they met. One night in the mid-aughts, not long after Nanjiani had moved to Chicago to pursue comedy, Gordon happened to be sitting in the front row of the venue where he was performing.
“Is anyone here from Pakistan?” he inquired of the crowd, presumably about to launch into a bit.
“Whoo!” cried out Gordon, sarcastically. (Oddly, she was completely sober.)
“She's clearly not from Pakistan,” Nanjiani recalls thinking to himself. “But hey, she's cute.”
A week later they ran into each other at a bar, and he confronted her. “I was, like, 'Hey, you're the girl who heckled me!' ” She initially declined when he asked her out, but before long she was sending him messages. “I realized texting him was more fun than hanging out with most of my friends,” she says.
After moving to New York together in 2007, the pair married — a few times, actually, both in a courthouse and in a traditional Muslim ceremony. They arrived in L.A. in 2010, and before long teamed up with Meltdown founder Jonah Ray.
It's been off to the races ever since, although they admit their venue isn't the fanciest. “It is a little rough around the edges, the ceilings are low and we have folding chairs,” Nanjiani says.
But they've nonetheless succeeded in uniting a community-in-the-know of nerdy alt-comedy fans who might not otherwise venture out on a Wednesday night.
“If they stop coming, then that's it,” Gordon says of the loyal patrons. “Then we're just some weirdos in the back of a store.” –Julie Seabaugh
2. Aubrey Plaza: Stare Appeal
Nobody does “jaded twentysomething” better than Aubrey Plaza. The 27-year-old NYU- and UCB-trained actress has mastered the art of the dry wit and judging stare.
And that's not just on the small screen.
Best known for playing human eye roll April Ludgate on NBC's Parks and Recreation, Plaza's deadpan humor has cracked up audiences in such films as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Funny People. It also has made her the poster child for Gen-Y apathy. (Although she cares, really she does — in fact, she was nice enough not to cancel a phone interview despite being bedridden in a New York hotel room with food poisoning.)
Plaza stresses that she doesn't write the dialogue for most of her roles, although her Parks and Rec character was something of a collaborative effort. The part was written specifically for her after she made a strong impression on the show's co-creator, Michael Schur, and because the cast will occasionally improvise, she's had some impact on plot lines.
She understands that it can be hard for fans to separate the actress from the characters. Not only do her roles have a “feeling of realness,” but, she admits, they represent her actual persona: “There's always a part of me that's like that character, because I'm me.
“There's a kind of self-deprecating thing to a lot of the characters that I've played so far,” she adds. “I think if I played the characters as just sarcastic or mean, I don't think people would care as much. I think maybe a lot of the characters that I've been lucky to play are really three-dimensional, too, so they're funny because they're acting like they don't care, but really they do care.”
Intentionally or not, some of this radiates off the screen. Plaza tweets under the handle @evilhag, where she takes on haters, ponders why John Goodman appeared in her dreams and responds to a marriage proposal with “Fine.” She garnered a good deal of Internet buzz when a video was released of her onstage doing an impression of Sarah Silverman (“Hey guys, I'm Sarah Silverman and I just pooped … out a Jewish person”); more recently, she showed off her wickedly intense smile in the video for “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” the new single from former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, now Father John Misty.
Born in Wilmington, Del., Plaza currently lives in Los Feliz, despite her claims that she never thought she'd ever call Los Angeles home. For that matter, she says, she “never thought I'd be on a TV show, to be honest.”
This summer, in the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza plays a magazine intern helping New Girl's Jake Johnson research a man looking for a partner to join him in a time-traveling expedition. Her character is emotionally damaged with a heart of gold. And yes, she can cut you with her stare. –Whitney Friedlander
1. Liz Meriwether: Nice Quirk if You Can Get It
If you haven't seen New Girl — the Fox sitcom that premiered last September to stellar ratings — you've probably seen the billboards all over town, featuring star Zooey Deschanel in lime-green vintage, grinning alongside the slogan, “Simply Adorkable.”
Its almost-cringeworthy tagline may have been the work of buzzword-happy marketers, but New Girl itself is the creation of 30-year-old Liz Meriwether, who based Deschanel's character Jess — a gorgeous but almost pathologically quirky young woman who moves into a loft shared by three dudes — on herself.
New Girl's fans and detractors alike have zeroed in on the very specific brand of femininity Deschanel's character defends. In one oft-blogged speech, Jess insists her love of glitter, ribbons and desserts “doesn't mean I'm not smart and tough and strong.”
What's actually genius about New Girl is the way its girly-girl often is used as a catalyst to humanize her male roommates, turning potentially stereotypical characters — the slacker, the douchebag — into multilayered, endlessly surprising people.
“The idea for the show [came] from my experiences, and my friendships with my guy friends,” says Meriwether, who came to TV via playwriting (Heddatron, an adaptation of Hedda Gabler involving robots) and screenwriting (last year's Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman sex-com No Strings Attached).
As she talks to a reporter in a conference room next to her office on the Fox lot, Meriwether is getting her makeup done for the Weekly's photo shoot, a submission from a would-be New Girl writer open on her lap. She was in the editing room the night before until midnight — it's not unusual for her to arrive on the lot at 7 a.m. and leave at 3 a.m. Today she's so tired that she actually forgot to have coffee. “I feel like I live in my office,” she says.
She actually lives in Laurel Canyon, near Mount Olympus, where her neighbors include screenwriter friends Diablo Cody, Lorene Scafaria and Dana Fox, a unit immortalized as “The Fempire” in a New York Times story a few years back.
“I think the word fempire” — Meriwether laughs just saying it — “was a joke that got a little bit overused. I certainly don't call myself that, or call my friends that or anything. But I think it's great to know that there are a lot of women screenwriters in Hollywood who are supportive of one another and not competitive — they're not trying to bring each other down.”
With her tousled blond mop, high cheekbones and bashful eyes behind big, black-framed glasses, Meriwether is unmistakably fetching. Given the general invisibility of writers in Hollywood, is there perhaps any upside to being — you know — a young, female, attractive …
Meriwether cuts off our awkward inquiry. “You can say 'hot,' ” she deadpans, then bursts into a self-deprecating grin that defines the middle ground between awkward and alluring, making the case that if Deschanel is the glamorized TV version of adorkability, Meriwether is the real thing. –Karina Longworth