In a sea of comedians who sport faded black T-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, Argus Hamilton stands out like a hijab at a Trump rally. He's dressed to the nines in a tailored cream suit, button-up shirt and tie. Taking the stage with the gait of a well-born Southern gentleman, he looks more likely to deliver a sermon than a set.
Chances are, if you've been to the Comedy Store in the last 41 years, you've seen Hamilton. These days, he's recognizable as the out-of-place, wizened stand-up comic who shouldn't be able to relate to the millennial customers — but never fails to. You may have wondered, “How did this guy manage to get on the same bill as Joe Rogan and Ali Wong?” But he didn't break into their world; they invaded his. Like a prehistoric fish still swimming around the ocean today, Hamilton has survived the varied conditions from the beginning of (comedy's) time.
Tonight's show is sold out because of Rogan. The young, rowdy crowd looks skeptical of the elderly man, square by comparison with his fellow comics. Then he opens his mouth, speaking in his native tongue: one-liners. “I'm calling a press conference tomorrow to announce that 30 years ago at Warner Bros., I was inappropriately touched by whoever is willing to settle.” Armed with an exhaustive knowledge of current events and his template of “premise, setup, punch line, repeat” — nearly extinct in today's stand-up scene, where “material” reigns — he slays, night after night. It's no wonder he had more appearances on Carson's Tonight Show than anyone.
“To this day he still has it. He constantly writes and is coming up with new material faster than you can think it,” says Pauly Shore, son of Mitzi Shore, who made the Comedy Store — and L.A.'s stand-up scene — what they are today.
It all began when Argus Hamilton III (Lord Argus Hamilton III, as he likes to remind you; he's the direct descendant of three dukes) left an Oklahoma fraternity to pursue stand-up comedy. First stop: the Comedy Store. He'd heard Freddie Prinze talk about it on Carson and headed West — but he wasn't alone. His “freshman class” that year included Robin Williams, Arsenio Hall, Marsha Warfield, Michael Keaton and Bob Saget — a profound wave of talent flooding the Comedy Store.
“I think it was a byproduct of Watergate. We were diverted from politics by Watergate because stand-up comedy got hot during that time and it looked like a lot more fun way to stand up in front of people and get glory and attention,” says Hamilton, who looks like a senator, regardless.
“To this day he still has it. He constantly writes and is coming up with new material faster than you can think it.” —Pauly Shore on Argus Hamilton
“It was a natural grandson to Beat poetry,” Hamilton muses. “From the Beats, to the improv comics in the '60s to the '70s comics like Andy Kaufman. That generation was really creative: George Carlin, Robert Klein — they transformed it.”
Unlike today, where comics have to show up for months straight to even get a spot at the Comedy Store open mic, Mitzi Shore herself would judge whoever walked through the door. “She just looked for charisma,” Hamilton says. “If you had charisma and three jokes she would send you over to the Comedy Store Westwood.”
The Westwood club was 18-and-over, packed with rambunctious high school and college kids who had never been to a club. It was a dream room for up-and-comers — and Shore's training ground. “Then, Mitzi would bring us over here once a week to play the Original Room — it was like playing a tomb,” Hamilton says. The Original Room, notoriously the hardest stand-up stage in the country, was formerly a waiting room for the Main Room; Shore had it soundproofed. “There's no ricochet of laughter, no reverb. In there, we start the next joke as soon as the last one ended,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton quickly became a regular at the store. “It took me about seven months to go from [open mic] to weekends; today that takes seven years.” Hamilton was a favorite of Shore's alongside Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and the like. “We'd often wind up at Pryor's house. Fridays and Saturdays were out of this world. [Pryor's] Sunday afternoons were hell. We were all dancing real fast and didn't know when the merry-go-round would end. We were young and thought it was going to last forever.”
Hamilton, though, got clean, as his reputation as an addict began to harm his career. He's stuck with sobriety, stand-up and the Store ever since, despite multiple sitcom offers. “I turned them all down because some inner gyroscope told me to stick with stand-up. Those sitcom guys, once their shows were done they came back here looking for time slots. Because they're stand-ups. We're not family men. We're not team players. We don't share the stage. We're gunslingers.” He did make an exception to write for The Richard Pryor Show and Laugh-In.
Forty years later, there he stands, night after night, conquering a brand-new audience, inspiring tenacity in a younger generation of comics, including Last Comic Standing winner Iliza Shlesinger, who went onstage just after him.
“Argus Hamilton is as much a part of the institution that is the Comedy Store as Mitzi or the brick and mortar that hold this place together. He is a consummate joke writer, has a ceaseless work ethic, and his ability to keep refreshing his material on a daily if not weekly basis is an inspiration to all working comics,” says Shlesinger, whose fourth Netflix special is due in 2018.
Thus Hamilton continues to thrive, like the lone redwood that endured the fire, now surrounded by new growth.
People may have come tonight to see Shlesinger, Wong or Rogan, but they'll find themselves passionately searching for Hamilton's name on future set lists.
“Did you hear there's a new movie coming out about Hillary Clinton? Scarlett Johansson will play young Hillary. Is that an upgrade or what? Bill Clinton just volunteered to play himself in the movie!” Hamilton has dealt the lethal blow. The crowd breaks into uncontrollably giddy giggles.
The air seems to buzz a little more than before Hamilton took the stage. His job is done. Graciously he exits — but not before paying homage to the Patron Saint of Stand-ups, Mitzi Shore. Lord Argus Hamilton III — son, grandson and great-grandson of Methodist ministers — has delivered a sermon, after all.