The Comedy Store’s “Potluck” open-mic night has a few ground rules: Buy two drinks, no heckling and absolutely no digital recording of any kind. After entering the Sunset Boulevard venue’s dim patio room and hearing the comics’ three-minute sets, it’s easy to see why.
At the Comedy Store, taboo doesn’t exist. Jokes about homeless people, suicide, a fat woman, lesbians and 9/11 echo off the neon-trimmed walls, along with expletives and slurs so foul they’d almost certainly earn their writers trial by Twitter if uttered in a Netflix special or podcast. But this was neither, and the room roared with laughter.
Spaces like “Potluck,” where comics can sound off completely unchecked, sit in opposition to our so-called “cancel culture” — the backlash against offensive remarks that has confronted Roseanne Barr, Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle and, most recently, Shane Gillis. Amid heightened social awareness and sharpened scrutiny, local comedians are feeling the heat, causing some to think twice about their riskier material and triggering an instinct among all to protect their own.
“You’ve got to support each other because it’s a hard thing to do,” said Feng Chao, 35. “It’s fair to say life is hard. Stand-up — to do stand up — it’s harder. Sometimes it’s harder than life.”
Many performers and Comedy Store employees lamented the consequences comedians have faced for insensitive tweets and comments made in stand-up specials or on podcasts. Yes, even in the case of Gillis, who lost a coveted gig as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member after video circulated of him using an anti-Chinese slur, mimicking a Chinese accent and mocking the conventions of Chinese restaurants.
“It’s kind of absurd to cancel somebody that doesn’t really have any money or power,” said Dave Waite, 41, a comic from Kentucky. “I feel like there’s a reaction to not be[ing] able to cancel certain politicians, yet there’s blowback on comedians. We don’t have any power. We’re not in charge of anything.”
After announcing Gillis’ exit, a spokesperson for “Saturday Night Live” apologized, saying the show’s “vetting process was not up to our standard.” Caley Chase, who once interned at “SNL,” could recall earlier days when the series first set its standard in 1975 — not because she was there but because her father, Chevy Chase, was part of the original cast of the long-running sketch comedy show.
“The freedom of it was to say shocking, ridiculous things,” she said between checking in other comics and attendees at the ticket booth.
Though Chase admitted she didn’t know “everything” about the Gillis scandal, she called his firing “ridiculous” based on what she had heard and on comedic principle. However, she and Waite agreed that there is a moral code by which comedians should abide.
“There are some bad people out there, and there are some really [bad] things to say,” she said. “There’s a line. Did you hurt someone? That’s the line.”
Chase, who described her own style of comedy as light and positive (“which is weird”), said she doesn’t worry much about her own image, but she supports those who routinely flirt with the edge and knows some daredevils who are “nervous.”
“You can hear, onstage, a lot of bad names, a lot of bad words,” she said. “It’s trying to figure out what works. And it’s also trying to be loving. I don’t really know people in this place that are actually racist.”
Jamie Masada, the founder of another popular L.A. comedy club, the Laugh Factory, also expressed his disappointment at shifting attitudes toward comedians. And though he doesn’t regret his actions, he holds himself partially accountable because of how he responded to an incident with “Seinfeld” alum Michael Richards, who unleashed a now-infamous racist rant on the venue’s crowd in 2006.
“I started the whole thing,” Masada told The Times. “He came out with hatred speech, and I thought it was not proper. I banned him from the club.”
The comedy veteran has drawn a line before, but recent backlash surrounding friends of his, such as Chappelle and Hart, and now Gillis, have made him concerned for the future of the craft.
“Comedians, they’re allowed to be able to have this freedom of speech,” Masada said. “All of that stuff is very important to our culture. ... This poor guy they hired for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ they hired because he’s funny and he made people laugh. And the next thing you know, they fired him. They ruined this guy’s life.”
One “Potluck” participant, David “Murph” Murphy, 35, has internalized the pressures of “cancel culture” to the point of policing his social media presence with the help of mentors who “look out for” and advise him.
“As a comic, you live in the moment,” he said while fielding compliments on his recent set from passersby. “Sometimes you want to tweet something that’s funny to you and your friends. ... ‘Is it worth it? If, in five years, somebody sees this tweet, is it worth — is the laugh you’re going to get or the like you’re going to get worth bringing your career down?’”
Sometimes, Murphy joked, he’ll screenshot off-color text exchanges with fellow comics and sarcastically threaten to blackmail anyone who crosses him.
“If people could see comedians’ text messages, they would lose their minds,” he said.
Even some of the more cavalier stand-ups, who backed Gillis and said they don’t censor their material, showed signs of unease. One facetiously prefaced his interview by saying, “Please, don’t cancel me.” Another declined to have his interview recorded. And two changed their minds about speaking with The Times mid-interview. None of their names are mentioned in this story.
But Chao held nothing back when sharing his thoughts on the “weird cultural revolution” he sees forming in the United States. As someone from China, where “you don’t really have that thing called freedom of speech,” he sees America as a haven for unfiltered expression.
“I’m not afraid of life,” he said. “I’m not going to be afraid of the job that I’m going to get fired from in the future.”
Is it worth it? If, in five years, somebody sees this tweet, is it worth — is the laugh you’re going to get or the like you’re going to get worth bringing your career down?
Landing on the opposite side of the spectrum from Waite or Chase, Chao identified his approach to funny as “dark” and “real” (“Don’t we all appreciate a good 9/11 joke? So we can laugh?”), and it doesn’t bother him that his style isn’t for the masses.
“I’m not trying to impress everybody,” he said. “My goal is to make everybody laugh, but I understand everybody’s sense of humor lands on a different level.”
In Chao’s opinion, what counts as amusing is up to the comedian and the comedian alone. Who’s going to tell him he can’t make fun of his Chinese girlfriends or tell jokes about his dead grandmother?
“If you can just drop your feelings and listen to me for a second, give me a shot to attempt to be funny with a very heavy and deep subject,” he said. “I have a bit about abortion because the girl that I dated in high school had an abortion. … I have a license to joke about it because I went through it.”
Whether cautious like Murphy or fearless like Chao, all valued the Comedy Store as an avenue for experimentation in a climate that judges swiftly and forgives reluctantly.
“That’s why, when people come here to the Comedy Store, we tell them they can’t record,” Waite said. “It’s so we can say what we want. Because sometimes we’re working on jokes, and we’re not all the way there — it’s not formed all the way. And then somebody could write about it, and it’s like, ‘Well, that wasn’t the joke. It wasn’t done.’”
Both Chase and Waite, who considers himself a “very forgiving person,” stressed the importance of second chances, especially for those still finding their footing in the world of comedy. Instead of shunning someone for their mistakes, Chase mused, why not give them an opportunity to learn and change?
“We’re just trying to alleviate the madness of life,” Waite said. “People need to give us a ... break.”