The regulars — men, dudes, guys — all well into their (plastic) cups, outnumber the small crowd arriving just before 9 on this Tuesday night to see standup comedy at Big Fish. Big Fish is a neighborhood dive without the neighborhood. It’s a working-class swilling joint on a stretch of San Fernando Road that in the dark, even when crisscrossed by the teeming 134 and 5 freeways, still qualifies as where-the-hell-are-we? Only an illuminated Levitz warehouse sign a couple of blocks down gives any sign of commerce.
Whoever thought it would be a great idea to make the bar’s theme nautical, tacking up dead fish here and there, when the nearest body of water is the depressing, boatless so-called L.A. River, must have had a sick sense of humor. It’s a far cry from anything Jimmy Buffett ever sang about, and the type of irony-free bar that hipsters love to overtake and ruin for the regulars. But the newcomers may have finally met their match with Big Fish.
Sitting alone at a table is Michelle Biloon. As is her habit, she’s arrived a good half-hour before her performance, jotting down material for a show she’ll do later this evening at Upright Citizens Brigade. She nurses a $2.75 Miller Lite.
“Hey, you’re writing down stuff — what’s that all about?” says one of a group of rowdy dart players, snooping over her shoulder. An older patron, accustomed to the weekly infiltrators, shares a joke with Biloon that involves a baby chick, an egg and a blowjob. Biloon politely responds with a smile and fake chuckle.
After an introduction by Doug Pound and Denver Smith, the hosts of Big Fish’s weekly D & D’s Joke Center, Biloon takes the microphone. It’s obvious from the loud hoots and chatter from the preoccupied dart players that she’ll have to compete for attention tonight.
There’s no “How’s everybody doing tonight?” when Biloon takes the stage. She is a meat-and-potatoes–style comic — not cutesy or quirky like Maria Bamford or Rita Rudner. She doesn’t have a wacky persona like Judy Tenuta. As with Janeane Garofalo, to whom she is often compared, or Jerry Seinfeld, Biloon gets onstage because she has jokes she needs to tell.
All across this city, on any given night, in dives like Big Fish, coffeehouses, the backrooms of Middle Eastern restaurants, and two-drink-minimum laugh barns where customers sip $7 Coronas, there is a never-ending parade of people brave enough to stand before a microphone, some with unfolded notepaper in hand, doing everything they can to make us laugh.
Biloon is one of these comedy soldiers, though perhaps blessed with more confidence than others clawing their way up the bottom rungs of the comedy ladder. “I know I’m funny,” she will say in more than one conversation. At 30 — she looks much younger — she’s still primed to pay whatever dues it takes. If she were a character on a sitcom, she’d be the deadpan gal who’s too smart for the room, who points out the inanity of everyday occurrences. For example:
“I like cop TV shows. One of my favorite phrases from these types of shows is when there is a crime scene in a crowd and a cop gets on the megaphone and he says, ‘Okay, everybody, party’s over.’ Ninety percent of the time, there was never a party. It’s always a homicide or a suicide. A party? That was a party? A man just jumped out of a building and died — that was a party? Well, fuck it; if that was a party, I have a bathtub and a toaster. Everybody come over to my place.”
She takes the mike at Big Fish and forges into her well-honed set, digging in as if we’ve all met before and have some catching up to do. She comes across relaxed, as though she’s been doing this all her life.
“Hi, I’m the next comedian. My name is Michelle Biloon. Biloon is my real name. It’s not a stage name. It’s not my comedy name. I didn’t choose it. I was buying a bus ticket at the Greyhound station, and the Greyhound lady looked down at my ticket and said, ‘Biloon? I bet you got teased a lot as kid.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you work at a Greyhound station. I bet you got teased a lot this morning.’ And then I punched her in the face. And then I threw a fake fish at her head, which was fucking handy, since the Greyhound station was in Big Fish.”
It’s a joke she’s opened with countless times — minus the bit about the fake fish. It’s not terribly funny and doesn’t get a big laugh, but it leads well into her set, a stream of well-timed ministories about her lesbian twin sister, cop shows and the word Hezbollah.
“Granted, ‘Hezbollah’ the group is an evil, terrorist state. However, ‘Hezbollah’ the word . . . is pretty effing fantastic. It’s a great word with the z and the b. What Busby Berkeley was to choreography, Hezbollah is to world terrorism. I don’t know if that analogy really says anything, but it is fun to say. Hezbollah sounds like an old-timey word for bullshit. Hogwash, malarkey and Hezbollah. Oh, you say the sun rotates around the Earth? HEZBOLLAH!”
Biloon moved to L.A. from Austin just under three years ago to see if she could go pro among the best comics in the world. She has a Premium Blend — Comedy Central’s showcase for new talent — to her credit, regular slots opening for her “comedy mentor” Dave Attell, and currently gets onstage somewhere at least twice a week. Unlike her better-known peers — Paul F. Tomkins, Bamford, Jackie Kashian, Patton Oswalt — Biloon doesn’t have representation and, for now, is happy booking herself every week.
With her cute, dimpled, freckled face, Eddie Bauer fashion sense and take-it-or-leave-it delivery, Biloon talks to her audience as if she’s lost the “truth” round of “Truth or Dare?” You asked for it, here it all comes.
“I’ve actually been working out a lot and dieting and I’ve been trying to lose some weight, which is nice and good,” she continues in her Big Fish set. “The only thing that sucks about it is that I kinda have this dream in life — which is that I’d really like to be pregnant without knowing it. I just want to go to the bathroom one day and become a mother. That way, I can drink through the whole pregnancy and not feel guilty.”
Sarah Silverman would be proud of this extremely taboo and layered joke. It’s what makes Michelle Biloon a brave comic. And, c’mon, who hasn’t wondered about those women who get stomach cramps and then a baby shows up in a restroom stall?
Meanwhile, drunk, pregnant and bathroom are words that have caught the attention of the hecklers. Biloon soldiers on, but it’s clear that the rowdies are riled up. Whoops and hollers compete with the crummy PA system.
She hurries through the setup for her next bit.
“A couple of weeks ago, my ex-brother-in-law, who is gay, asked me over instant messenger if I might like to have a child for him and his partner. Now, I’m not going to have my first baby for you and your partner, okay?” she says as a screeching train whistle from outside escalates to just below deafening, “but then a train rolled by, which got me to thinking” — she’s yelling now to compete with the din — “and now I think I might say yes, with the only stipulation being no fertility drugs, no turkey baster, no petri dishes — we’re fucking.”
Usually, this bit gets a big laugh, but the barflies are now acting like sugar-drunk toddlers whom Biloon is taunting with the bubble machine.
“He gets five tries — and I’ve had sex enough times without a condom to know that luck is on my side . . . What? Is that the part of the joke where you guys judge me?”
“What about your ca-cas?” someone shouts from the bar area.
Biloon squints to see who is yelling from the back of the room. “Is that the drunk or drunkier? Is it my turn at darts?” She points to a lamp fashioned out of an aquarium: “We’re playing for that fucking lamp right there because it’s awesome.”
Drunk at bar: “Unscrew the light bulb right now!”
Biloon: “I think that was dirty.”
Drunk at bar: “What part of dirty was it?”
Biloon: “Um, it was the d and the i and half of the r.”
She knows her set is pretty much in the toilet, but it’s now become a game. Biloon seems to delight in baiting the rowdies and then ignoring them, pulling the attention back to her. “Hey, dart people — you’re going to love this. It’s a love poem. You can repeat it to your wife when you roll into bed at 4 a.m.: Man on the bus/I see you drooling reading your dictionary playing your kazoo/What’s on your mind as the wheels on the bus go round and round? . . . /Put it in me.”
To most of us, standing on a stage trying to make people laugh would be terrifying enough. But being up there while half the audience have turned into petulant children is like watching someone live out one of your worst nightmares — right up there with giving birth to a three-headed dragon baby.
Out in the parking lot, an unfazed Biloon shrugs. “That was the worst crowd I’ve ever played to in L.A. They were like a Wisconsin crowd,” says the comic from Madison as she gets into her Mazda. “When I lived in Texas, I used to book a show at a boat harbor and there used to be a crowd like this. It was hilarious, and we used to just get into it. I would love to come back to Big Fish when I’m not in a rush.”
Half an hour and one ticket for an illegal U-turn later, Biloon enters the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on Franklin in Hollywood. Comedy Death Ray, a Tuesday staple for some of the best local talent in town, is climaxing with a crazy sketch featuring a slew of comics, including the popular Charlyne Yi. When it’s over, the packed house cheers, and about half clear out for the 11 p.m. show, See You Next Tuesday, the UCB’s weekly hour for newcomers to abandon their usual set and try something new. Biloon, who is booked for the show, escapes to the small green room next to the stage.
The host tonight is Paul F. Tompkins, a well-respected comic whose many credits include writing for Mr. Show and a regular stint at Largo, home to L.A. comedy’s chosen ones — the Odenkirks, the Oswalts, the Proops.
Compared to Big Fish, UCB is like home field to Biloon. The paying customers are comedy fans extremely keyed in to rising talent. There’s no drink minimum, because there are no drinks. Just seats and a stage. Other comics show up to check out their colleagues, and famous names like Mary Lynn Rajskub, Sarah Silverman and Andy Kindler are just part of the gang. There is an element of support for performers to try out risky new stuff. And failing is considered part of the game. If a bit doesn’t work, nobody feels let down — like imagine if you got to see pre-fame Chris Rock totally tank.
Tompkins shares stories about his obsession with overheard comments. It’s stream-of-consciousness, but like the best standups, he makes it look so easy that you can’t tell if he’s making this stuff up or not. He could go on like this all night, but cuts himself off and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . Michelle Biloon!”
She takes the mike and returns Tompkins’ name-check repeatedly. He jogs back for more applause each time, in a spontaneous bit that’s typical of the lovey-dovey feel here.
The bit Biloon’s been working on is completely untried, and she’s been writing it up until only a couple of hours ago. Performing untried material to a discerning audience, however supportive, is the comedy equivalent of a netless tightrope. If the audience doesn’t get the concept from the get-go, there’s no turning back. Biloon, however, seems relaxed, laid back even, as she starts her act.
“I actually started a comedy school out of my apartment to make some extra money so I can buy a spoiler for my Mazda,” she starts. “And it’s amazing, because enrollment has completely blown up. So I decided I was going to take one of my own comedy classes just to see what the fuss is all about.”
The premise has been set; not a peep comes from the crowd, which is less than half-capacity.
“So I’m a little nervous, and since I’m also my teacher tonight, I’m also going to be critiquing myself.” She switches to Michelle the student. “Here’s my first joke — you can notice the change in character by just volume alone — I haven’t taken my own character course yet, so just leave me alone.
“This is my first joke: We’re close to Los Feliz, and in Spanish it means ‘The Happy.’ I wonder if in Mexico there are towns with English names for moods. ‘Hola, me llamo Michelle, vivo en The Melancholy.’
Now she’s Michelle the teacher: “Okay, that was a terrible joke. First of all, melancholy is depressing; second of all, you said ‘English,’ but you should have said ‘American’ to bring out that American pride. So this is how I think you should tell the joke: Okay, we’re really close to Los Feliz, which in Spanish means ‘The Happy.’ I wonder if there are towns in Mexico with American names for moods, ‘Hola, me llamo Michelle, vivo en ‘The Happy.’ That’s what we call in comedy the callback.”
The concept — Michelle Biloon the hack comedy teacher offering tips to Michelle Biloon the comedy student doing intentionally unfunny jokes — is a terrific one. But it’s so dry, plus the fact that she doesn’t alter the different characters’ voices — that it’s too convoluted to pull off. But she’s in the thick of it now.
“Here’s my next joke: I think my cats are trying to kill me. I found one of their balls of yarn tied into a hangman’s noose.”
As Michelle the teacher: “That was a terrible joke. No one is going to believe you. Cats don’t have opposable thumbs; they can’t tie a noose. This is what I think you should say: ‘I think my cats are trying to kill me. I came home from work and someone threw a bag over my head and stabbed me in the heart.’ I think that would be better. And how the fuck did you know that you’re dead?”
The real Michelle: “If anyone can identify if my teacher is talking or if I’m talking, you fucking get free enrollment to my comedy class.”
By now, her act has disintegrated into a nice experiment that probably won’t be repeated. But we still get it, and it’s funny nonetheless. Biloon folds up her notes and leaves the stage to encouraging applause.
It’s 11:45 p.m. She chats with Eddie Pepitone in the green room. Later, over drinks at Boardner’s, not far from her Hollywood apartment, Biloon talks about that hectic Tuesday night. She takes the Big Fish heckling experience in stride.
“As long as some people are enjoying it, I’m fine. No one’s going to hand me a development deal for a show at Big Fish. Hecklers — they think they’re being funny, that it’s their job. I’ve gotten angry before, where I jumped on somebody, and I just cannot be funny after that.”
What did she learn from the See You Next Tuesday show? “I realized I am terrible at characters,” she shrugs. “It certainly didn’t kill, but how could anything really kill in front of 20 people who paid zero cover at an 11 p.m. show? I just wanted to see if there was something funny there. I think there was. At least, people got the premise.”
Has she ever taken a comedy workshop like the one she mocks? “NO!” she balks, appalled at the mere idea.
Michelle Biloon was born in Orange County but moved to north Wisconsin at a young age. She has a twin sister, who is a lesbian and the subject of a staple joke: “I think it’s my fault she’s a lesbian. When we were younger, we were watching k.d. lang sing on the Grammys, and I said, ‘Oh my God, look at that guy, he’s so hot,’ and she said, ‘You’re right. Who is he?’ And I said, ‘That’s it, girl — you’re gay.’ ”
She didn’t grow up worshipping Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Steve Martin like many of her peers, but she did adore Roald Dahl and Arsenio Hall and later became a tad more than obsessed with David Letterman.
“I never missed a show. I sent him birthday cards. And I went to New York twice to see the show taped, and my friend Eddie, who works on the show, got me to meet everybody except Paul and Dave. I have pictures of me at his desk and with pencils he threw,” she says gleefully, digging into a plate of fish and chips. “And it’s funny because we share a lot in common. I say ‘kids’ and that’s what he says a lot. I put ‘the’ in front of things, like ‘the TV,’ and that’s a very Letterman thing, and it just comes from really loving him.”
Was she a funny kid? “I think I placed a big importance on being funny. My entire life, my twin sister, who’s not funny at all, hated the fact that I’m trying to be funny. Now she’s my biggest fan.”
Biloon didn’t attempt standup until after college, when she moved from Wisconsin to Austin at the urging of a friend. “If I stayed in Madison, I would have become a drunk,” she says. Instead, Biloon got a job as a Web designer and started showing up at open mikes.
“It was February 2000 which changed my life. I had never even thought of doing comedy, but nobody knew me, so if it’s terrible, who cares? I went to an open mike, and I had written about three minutes of material about the Greyhound bus system,” she recalls. “The second week, I realized you don’t have to write new jokes every week. I wrote about the history of the word motherfucker, and only my parents were in the audience, and my jokes were terrible.”
Since moving to Los Angeles, Biloon has seen her peers get rewarded with plum writing gigs on sitcoms and talk shows. Biloon, meanwhile, doesn’t yet have representation. “I don’t go on auditions. I’ve never taken a meeting. I’m working on my podcast Walking With Michelle. I earn a good living as a Web designer.
“I can’t see myself writing for Carlos Mencia. I couldn’t stand it.”
Still, people are always telling her how funny she is, she gets good bookings, and she certainly has the confidence.
“Some people call themselves alternative comics when they should just call themselves not funny. I’m funny. I’m smart. I can write a joke. I can package a joke to an alternative room, and I can package the same joke to a club room.”
Every comic has bad nights, and Biloon’s low moment came last year opening for Attell at the Brea Improv.
“My parents were there. I grew up nearby, and even my crosswalk lady from elementary school was there. It was a Friday night, and the audience hated me. What I should have done is gone dirty, because that was the vibe, but I’m not really a dirty comic — and my parents were there,” she says. “After I got offstage, I just cried. Honestly, when people come up to me and go, ‘You’re so funny,’ all I think about is some other crowd who think I’m so not funny.
“People always tell me I remind them of Janeane Garofalo and Julia Sweeney [people are correct on this one — she has Garofalo’s monotone delivery, not to mention smarty-pants slacker thing, going, and Sweeney’s robust sweetness]. My mom will call and say, ‘You were on TV this morning,’ meaning Julia Sweeney was on TV.”
Attell, best known as the host of Comedy Central’s Insomniac, remains a cheerleader. “I first met Michelle in Texas at a comedy club in Houston or Austin, I’m not quite sure — that was a million shots ago,” says Attell. “Anyway, I really got into her material. Especially the ‘pus boil’ joke.”
He’s talking about a bit that’s become a crowd favorite in which Biloon trades instant messages with her mom about an inner-ear infection. “Maybe you have an inner-ear pimple,” Mom suggests. “Maybe you need to tilt your head and let the pus-y water flow.”
Says Attell, “Michelle will do just fine in L.A., and as long as she stays off the heroin and the Scientology, there’s no telling where she might end up.”
Biloon is not easy to make laugh in conversation. She greets mildly amusing quips with a forced smile that says, “I’m the funny one here.” What does make her laugh? “Well, if somebody has a really good shitting-their-pants story, that’ll get me,” she smiles. Like a lot of comics, though (Have you ever seen Christopher Guest on a talk show? He’s practically comatose), she’s only on when there’s a live audience.
After two gin-and-tonics, it’s time for the big Barbara Walters question: What’s it like to make people laugh?
“It’s the best feeling in the world. When I was growing up, my stepfather would say, ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of comedy,’ and one of the most satisfying things is basing my whole act on being sarcastic.”
Michelle Biloon performs this Saturday as part of “IFILM Presents: UCB’s Stand Up Get Down” at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.