It was Tuesday, and Cher Ofstedahl was telling 100 people a joke about her penis.
“I can tell that I’m attractive,” the 44-year-old stand-up comedian told the crowd of predominantly male, varyingly intoxicated patrons at the Ontario Improv. “Not gorgeous. Not beautiful. Attractive. In the olden days, I’m what would have been referred to as a handsome woman. Now that could be because of my masculine jaw line.”
She let the set-up hang in the air for a long moment before dropping the bomb.
“Or it could be because of my enormous dick.”
The audience collectively gasped at first, then roared with laughter. For Ofstedahl, an Upland resident who goes by the stage name “Cher” (“I’m the other white meat”), her seven-minute set at the Improv was better than sex. Though she wasn’t paid for her performance, she accomplished the one thing that makes the grueling world of stand-up comedy worthwhile—she killed. By making the audience laugh from start to finish, by leaving them wanting more, she improved her chances of being asked back for a repeat performance. Better, she inched herself closer to that Big Break, that chance of a lifetime—the headliner show.
To headline—to walk into a big room knowing that the sold-out crowd has come to see you because it’s your name outside on the marquee—that’s what it’s all about. It’s what makes Ofstedahl and hundreds of other burgeoning comedians work for nothing in the wee hours after already having put in a full day at their day jobs. The occasional spot at a professional comedy club aside, being a stand-up comedian typically means driving long distances to places most of us wouldn’t visit on a bet, trying to wrench precious laughs out of people most of us go out of our way to avoid.
“Sometimes you go into these little bars and some drunk yells at you through your entire set,” she says. “He’s not so much heckling you as trying to get to know you while you’re up on stage. I was in a club in Upland where, throughout my set, this guy yelled out ‘You’re hot! You’re hot!’ probably 25 times.”
Stand-up is big in the Inland Empire, though you wouldn’t know it at a passing glance. The region has exactly one full-fledged comedy club, the Ontario Improv, but that club just happens to be the biggest moneymaker in the Improv chain. There are comedy “rooms” holding shows every night of the week throughout the IE, too—you just have to know the circuit of bars, coffee houses and restaurants at which they’re held. Like Los Angeles, the Inland Empire offers fledging comics dozens of venues in which to perform their sets and improve their craft. Unlike in L.A., the comedy rooms in the I.E. are typically filled to the rafters with “real” audience members, as opposed to fellow comics looking to see what the competition is doing.
“I absolutely love the comedy scene in the I.E.—I’d rather do comedy here than anywhere else in the U.S.,” says Becky Buckwild, a 25-year-old Upland resident whose name frequently pops up on lists of “comedians to watch for.”
“When you perform in L.A. it’s more like you’re performing for comedians, bookers and agents. Out here it’s like you’re performing for the fans. You’re more comfortable. In L.A., it’s like you’re auditioning all the time.”
Buckwild recently gained national attention by appearing in six episodes of the VH1 reality freak show, Flavor of Love, in which female contestants compete for the sexual favors of former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav. Though Flavor of Love is about as low-brow as it gets (the episode titled “Somethin’s Stinkin’ In the House of Flav” has one of the contestants taking a noxious dump on the floor), it provided Buckwild with both an enormous fan base and talk of her own show on VH1.
This is fabulous good fortune for a comic who only two and a half years ago was a student in comedian Johnny Dam’s stand-up class at the Ontario Improv. One of Buckwild’s fellow students in that class was Jorge Aldama, who has also vaulted to success in stand-up under the stage name D.J. Cooch. A protégé of comedian Carlos Mencia, Cooch recently headlined a sold-out show at the Ontario Improv.
“The thing that’s so hard about this business is first, you have to be talented—you have to get your audience,” said Cooch, a 31-year-old resident of Perris. “I asked Carlos what’s the best suggestion for making it in this business. He said, ‘Go up as many times as you can whenever you can, and don’t pay attention to what people tell you. Other comics can be really negative.’
“But you also have to be a 50-50. Just like you’re talented at being funny, you have to be talented in selling yourself. You have to go into a club and recognize everyone from the waiter to the cook, because you might be talking to the future director of the Improv. When I walk into a club, I recognize everybody, and that really helps.”
Despite their quick success, Cooch’s and Buckwild’s experiences are by far the exception to the rule. Most comics can expect to grind away at the circuit for five, even 10 years before gaining any kind of notoriety at all, if they ever do.
The comedy world is fiercely competitive, with comics squaring off not just with other comics for stage time, but with legions of wannabe hacks. Worse, they find themselves tossed in the same morass as the “dabblers,” the infuriatingly unfunny yahoos who vie for precious stage time on a goof or because they like the free drinks. This is why stand-up comics refer to their craft as “the lowest form of entertainment.” It isn’t just that so many people think they can do stand-up. It’s that so many try.
For the serious comedian (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the difference between success and failure often boils down to a combination of talent, luck and relationship skills. A lot of times, not even talent matters: It isn’t enough to simply be funny. A comic has to know how to “work” the bookers, club managers and talent scouts upon whose whims the comedy world turns.
For Guy Groves, a 36-year-old Moreno Valley resident, the required sucking up for stage time is the worst part of the comedy business. Like Ofstedahl, Groves is a talented comic (he recently won top honors in the Uncle Clyde’s Comedy Contest in Pasadena) who’s driven to make it in the biz. He sometimes performs six or seven times a month while maintaining his day job as director of security for a big-name hotel. Unlike Ofstedahl, for whom relationship-building comes natural, Groves said he’s struggled to make sense of a business that can value glad-handing over funniness.
“I couldn’t get onstage sometimes in the Inland Empire because I wasn’t part of the politics,” he said. “It’s the simple fact that there’s a mentality in the Inland Empire that unless you’re friends with certain people, you shouldn’t be given certain opportunities. I once did a phenomenal show with several other comics, and everybody in the group knew each other. I was the new guy, and went onstage ahead of this really loud comic who demanded to be put up at the time of his choosing. I had just the greatest show—so great that I surprised myself—and that apparently pissed off the loud comic. Afterward, the promoter came up to me and said, ‘The next time you do this show, don’t put so much into it.’
“I’ve heard there’s club managers who are sleeping with comics, and that’s leading to opportunities. But there’s a great equalizer in that. If you’re not that funny, you’re not that funny. That’s why a lot of promoters in the I.E. are bringing in comics from L.A., because if the foundation of a comic is a relationship, that’s not going to make for a good show.”
But according to Johnny Dam, who’s been performing stand-up for 15 years and teaching the basics of the craft at the Ontario and Irvine Improvs for four, networking is as important a part of the profession as in any other business. If you don’t network, Dam says, you just don’t work.
“This is, after all, a business,” he said. In Iraq as part of a show entertaining U.S troops, Dam was interviewed via email exchanges. “If you approach it that way then your odds are just as good as anyone else’s. It’s all a matter of networking, performing, and dedicating your time to your craft/business.
“Nobody made it in this or any other business on their own. Talent is only one piece of the puzzle. I will often hear comics complain that somebody on TV is not as talented as them. While this may be true, the person on TV networked and sent in tapes and made phone calls and didn’t get drunk or stoned at the club and took control of their career.”
A big part of Dam’s act involves the daily pitfalls of marriage, something of which he knows very well. He’s been married four times. His third wife actually had him served with divorce papers while he was in the middle of teaching a stand-up class in Ontario. Dam cites the experience as a warning to new comics with significant others.
“Being a comic in a relationship is very difficult, especially if you were in the relationship before you started comedy,” he said. “Comedy will eat your soul if you’re not careful.”