How the Other Laugh Lives

Posted December 10, 2009 in Feature Story

Yucks might seem difficult to come by in the IE these days—in addition to the perennial poxes on our houses like smog, Ken Calvert and Iron Cross tattoos, we’re now one of the mandatory stops on any news story dealing with the housing crisis, have a crippling unemployment rate of 14½ percent and are generally suffering as an area from that “not so fresh feeling.” Any search on my part to find the heart of the IE comedy scene was bound to be a sobering affair, even as I found myself drinking far more than necessary as I hunted down the funny in Temecula, Riverside and San Bernardino. Trepidation and unease gnawed at me before I began my search. Would it all be jokes about tramp stamps, meth and mullets—the holy troika of comedy in the Inland Empire? Bromedy in all it’s shining glory?



My nervousness also related to me selling the story on the idea that I would actually go up on stage somewhere and, you know, tell jokes and try to do a five-minute set. This was a mistake, mostly due to me not knowing any jokes. Now, 12 days to deadline, I had maybe 30 seconds of material that my girlfriend couldn’t even sympathy-laugh at. “Why,” she asked, “would you be ordering a midget prostitute in the first place?” I had my reasons, but I didn’t feel like sharing. “You’ve got a point,” I responded. 


First up on the local comedy scene was San Manuel Casino in Highland, where there’s a free comedy show every Wednesday in the Tukut lounge. I arrive about nine. The show starts at nine-thirty. This gives me a half hour to listen to the insanely bass-y, insanely loud, insanely KIIS-FM-esque jams that threaten to overwhelm my table, which at this point feels like there’s a Whirlpool washer and dryer underneath and it’s spin cycle time, baby. Then one of three dress code warnings come on—apparently sagging is a huge concern. Plus ball caps, which are also on the naughty list. Next, some casino cops walk amongst the crowd, haul a few people out for ambiguous reasons, intimidate the rest, including the weather-beaten drunk dancing in front of the stage, and generally set a mood for hilarity. 


Emcee Fraser Smith then comes on and manages to get off some choice material about meth labs and Thanksgiving, which is the next day. He also uses the word “Biaatch” and other tidbits pulled from the Urban Dictionary. People laugh at this, mainly because he’s at least 50 and White. Soon another comic comes on and tells jokes about clubbing and the HBO show Entourage. The crowd, 60 percent African American, looks at him as if he were the Son of Sam. Then the headliner, Thea, walks on stage and tells jokes about how crap men are at giving women oral sex. The crowd eats it up, so to speak. My first impression of comedy in the IE is an eclectic mix: Expect a police presence proportional to the Timothy McVeigh execution, a hipster L.A. comic failing to tailor his material to his audience and bombing, as well as sex jokes in which men are judged as incompetent.



Still recovering from the bizarre night at San Man, I realized I had made absolutely no headway writing my own material, nor in finding a club in L.A. that would let me do a few good minutes, minutes as yet unwritten and seemingly destined to stay that way. The midget hooker joke was out, a Michael Jackson joke involving Macaulay Culkin, sex with fruit and reconstructive nose surgery was in. But I didn’t have much else to work with—maybe I needed help.


So I did what most people would do in this situation: I Googled a comedy coach.


And his name is Steve North. After purveying his website for a bit (cool testimonials from people whose names rang a slight bell), I gave Steve a call and asked if he would be my comedy coach. Steve told me yes, and he also told me he could make anyone funnier but he couldn’t promise he could make me funny per se. Comics need a comic character, he said, and he would help me find mine—I was hooked. Plus, Steve North just looks like he’s funny, half Rodney Dangerfield, half the guy who almost got the role of Skipper on Gilligan’s Island but lost out to Alan Hale, Jr.


As we wound up our conversation I promised to try to write a few more jokes and bring them to the comedy training session that Tuesday. Perhaps Steve would go on stage and tell the actual jokes for me too.



The next day I headed out to Pechanga Casino to interview Leonard Holloway, the manager of the comedy club there, the booker too and the guy the comics go to when they need anything. Leonard, in short, does everything except run the soundboard. As I talk to Leonard, I realize that there’s no real comedic “scene” in the IE to speak of. He draws a blank for example when I ask for the funniest Inland comic, not that comedians don’t somewhat tailor their jokes for the area. Apparently, there is an airport in Temecula?


Vibe-wise, we’re far away from Berdoo. Whether it’s because this is a show people actually pay to get into or simply due to the fact that it’s not San Bernardino. We’re not warned about sagging. The room’s nice, the drinks too and we’re treated to an hour of stand up by Jeff Garcia, who manages to kill simply by talking to audience members for an hour, sans anything remotely close to a set-up joke.


Leonard’s been great and the comedians were, for the most part, funny, but if there’s a comedic soul to the IE I’ve yet to find it, and as I walk past the gamblers pumping dinero into the Star Trek slots I start to worry if I will.



Woodland Hills is a long drive on a work night—I know because I’ve just pulled into the driveway of my comedy coach after two crapilicous hours on the 60 and the 101. For a second I’m worried that it’s at his house and not an office. What if this whole comedy coach deal is just a lure to draw in the unfunny and murder them? But then Steve answers the door with his trademark blue sailor’s cap, offers me tea and then spends the next hour trying to make an unfunny act funny.


Steve now manages several acts but spent his time on the comedy circuit in the ’80s and has written for several television shows including The Gong Show, so I feel fairly confident he can help me. But still . . . Right off the bat I’m doing something wrong—“Don’t try to put on a funny voice,” he tells me. “Don’t do the Michael Jackson joke,” he tells me. “Slow down,” he tells me. “Practice your act till you’re sick of it,” he tells me.


By the time we’ve whittled my act down I’m left with something close to two minutes of serviceable material. “That’s enough. Anything more than that and you’ll start forgetting your material,” Steve says for his parting words of advice. I drive back home.


This is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.



Last stop on the comedy circuit is Romano’s in Riverside’s Canyon Crest neighborhood where comedian Eddie Jarvis runs a comedy show every Thursday night amidst televisions, pizza-munchers who had no idea they’d be seeing a comedy show and drunks. And yet . . . if I found a scene, a heart, a nexus for comedy in the IE, it might well be here. If the area is about anything besides its somewhat crippling inadequacies, it’s about a lack of pretension, an island of reality in an ocean of silicone, agents, $20 million homes and film deals.


This is no-frills comedy. Jarvis, who appeared on Last Comic Standing, is an amiable and funny guy and he helps set the mood for a relaxed show—no huge names, just struggling comics, some hilarious, some not so much. In an hour-and-half I watch a female comic named Rosie Tran kill, an obese woman endlessly shout obscene, half-crazed nonsense and another comic do almost a private set for his friends. Some of the comics even live here.


In short, the show at Romano’s may be the most IE-centric of the clubs around; free, funky and without a hint of glitz or artifice.



I would be remiss in not mentioning The Improv in Ontario in any article on comedy in the Inland Empire—it is simply the biggest, the most popular, the Mecca of joke-telling round these parts. Modeled on the original Improv (Improvisation Comedy Club) opened by Budd Friedman in New York City in 1963 and later franchised across North America, the Improv in Ontario is also a fantastic place to take in world-class comedy without leaving the IE. 


I would also be remiss not to say that as of deadline I’ve yet to make it on an actual stage—truth be told I’m terrified. I’ve gone to a nudist trailer park for the Weekly and stripped down to nothing, been in the midst of angry demonstrations and eaten some wretched food, but for sheer fear this tops it all. I’ve gained new respect for anyone who steps onto a stage and tries to make people laugh—it’s a tough gig. My comedy debut is set for Romano’s on Dec. 17. Anyone know a good joke?



The Yucks Start Here

Laugh Factory, Schmaff Factory—gut-busting comics of every size and shape can be found in our own backyard. Here’s a sampling of the IE’s comedy shows and venues:



“The Comedy Room” books acts every Wednesday, 7-10PM. 1180 El Camino Rd. Ste. 116, Corona, (951) 270-5062;



“Live Improv Comedy” every second, fourth Sunday. 3204 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 222-2263;



Free comedy show every Tuesday at 9:30PM. 1087 S. Mount Vernon Ave., Colton, (909) 422-9900;



“The Comedy Club” shows Wed-Sat, typically three comedians per show. 45000 Pechanga Pkwy., Temecula, (877) 711-2WIN; $22. 21+.



Free comedy at the Laugh Factory every Wednesday night in the Tukut Lounge, 9PM-1:30AM. 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (888) 777-7401 x2832;



Top-notch comics you’d normally have to drive to L.A. to see. 4555 Mills Circle, Ontario, (909) 484-5411;



Free comedy every Thursday. 5225 Canyon Crest Dr. #60, Riverside, (951) 781-0773;



Every Wednesday at 8:30PM, former dominatrix Norma Jean gives you a gaggle of funny-peddlers. She’s funny, too. 3220 Temple Ave., Pomona, (909) 468-0444.



“The Joe Show” every Thursday at 7:30PM. 3587 University Ave., Riverside, (951) 779-9169;



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