Back in 2005 or so, I worked at The Comedy Union, one of the top comedy clubs in Los Angeles. I was a waitress. (And I was not good.) My job was to get chicken strips and frozen daiquiris in plastic hurricane cups out to laughing patrons without not only spilling drinks, but also making sure my butt wasn’t blocking their view as they watched Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rodney Perry, Damon Wayans, Leslie Jones and many others work.
I was new to LA. I was totally trying to find my way in this city that can suck you in like a black hole, leave you gasping for air one week OR have you at the top of a Ferris wheel – truly on top of the world – with screams of joy bursting from your lungs the next.
The Comedy Union was my anchor. It was creative, it was energetic. It was home. I rubbed elbows with people who wanted something. Just like me. Some desperately wanted to escape their lives for thirty minutes and laugh until they couldn’t. Some desperately wanted to land that big break, to escape from the clutch of the level where they were and get to the next. Some desperately wanted to earn enough tips to pay rent and escape eviction. Some just wanted to belong …while they…waited.
I hadn’t much of an opinion about comedy until I started working at The Union (as we home-bodies call it). I would stand in the shadows and watch the comics work. I would see how some would tell the same jokes over and over each night because those jokes killed. They played it safe to get it right. I would see how some would try new material and struggle and push to get those jokes right. Sometimes they killed and sometimes they didn’t. And I would watch the new comics go up; some with sheer fear in their eyes, some with sheer determination to get that laugh, to get it right.
And then their time would be up. Enss, the owner, would flick that tell-tale red light, and the moment to get it right would be over. Some would push past the light. They’d keep on trying to find that sweet spot of funny within the cotton candy of jokes they’d spun; or they’d keep on trying to awkwardly or expertly catch the brightly colored airborne balls juggled into a joke. I learned that the skill is in getting those moments in before the light. But, as is the gorgeousness that is comedy, sometimes a comic would have put a spell on the audience and the magic wave of the moment rode out way beyond the light; too beautiful to extinguish.
From the shadows, tray in hand waiting to pick up or serve, I learned why folks say comedy is a beast. Because it is.
But life is a beast too, isn’t it?
I came to LA to act, and you know, be famous. While my goals were similar to so many, including those on stage who ARE in fact, now famous, I felt different. A Kenoshan out of water. But, if you believe in the law of attraction and God and the Universe and other stuff, we know that we are where we’re supposed to be. We are in the company of those whom we’re supposed to be. We are watching the Kevin Harts of the world work because we’re supposed to learn from them. We’re supposed to watch the Rodney Perry‘s of the world hustle and fall down and get back up again because we’re supposed to learn from them.
I don’t know about you, but I learn by observing.
I used to write for Frank Holder’s Humor Mill Magazine; the tag for my Brown Bettie Knows Best column was, “I may not be funny, but I sure know what is.” I’d write about things I observed, about life and things that are “funny”, like the time my drugged out neighbor got busted by the cops for shooting porn in her apartment. I think about her. About how she got to that point and what her dreams were and how the beast got her.
Thirteen years later, The Union lives on. I’m still friends with the girls with whom I worked. Who’d stood in the shadows with me, their own thoughts and dreams spinning. We’d count our tips at the end of the night, share a basket of (now-famous) E Dubble’s chicken strips, laugh with the comics as they licked wounds or pounded fists for work well-done. We fed the beast.
Around 2013, I wrote a play called DICK AND JAYNE GET A LIFE, about an unfunny comedian, Dick, who stinks up the stage. His manager tells him to get out, get a girlfriend and get funny. Enter Jayne who’s pregnant by asshole Alex and she doesn’t know what to do. They meet one 2 a.m. night in the aisles of Ralph’s grocery store as she looks for the pregnancy tests and Dick tries to find the pistachio. Together, they get a life. It was semi-autobiographical. And funny.
That play got me to Prague. Actually, it got me and the lead, Jayne (my friend, Nicole) to Prague where we lived an international life for several years and then started a theater company, CATNIP. This month, we’ll hold our second fundraiser for our 2018/19 Season. A comedy night. Where we’ll stand in the shadows, our fingers on the red light, as international comics hang onto the mic and try to get it right. Afterwards, we’ll dance to a DJ, the comics will lick their rány or pound pěstmi for work well done. Well, they’ll do that in Prague; I’ll watch from my co-producer seat from afar in LA. That’s life. I’ll hope that we’re creating moments for someone wanting something. I hope they’ll learn how life is a beast and keep on teaching.
If you’re someone looking for life, looking to get it right, following a dream, or learning that life indeed is a beast, I encourage you to keep going.
Keep going like my high school friend Nancy who’s on a triumphant quest to shed 100lbs.
Keep going like my young friend Rhegan who’s being super brave and sharing “My 22“.
Keep going like my friend Tiffany who just lost her mom, her anchor, to cancer.
Keep going until that red light comes on. And if it does, push and keep going further still.
The Comedy Union is at 5040 West Pico Blvd, LA 90019. Follow on Facebook.
Support CATNIP with a donation to our Patreon page here.
Photos above are from March 2005. I arrived in LA September 2004. Photos by Lauren Jackson Coplan.