Comedy’s living legends — like Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Richard Lewis — all started out, at least in part, as nobodies playing The Improv on Melrose Avenue. It’s long been a place committed to showcasing new talent, and these days, every Tuesday at 5 p.m., the storied comedy club hosts a popular open mic for striving comics. It has been running in this time slot for more than two years.
At around 4 p.m., wannabe comics congregate outside the club’s entrance. Many carry pens and pads and work on jokes while they wait. It’s a big deal for them. The Improv is one of the few clubs where the management watches open mic and even occasionally books talent from it for official house shows, including Wednesday’s Comedy Juice and Refried Fridays.
Typically, between 50 and 100 comics come each week. Due to time constraints, only 20 to 25 are chosen. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and many are aspiring actors.
Reeta Piazza, director of special events at The Improv, selects who goes up. Several factors determine her choices. If she has seen a comic at a recent open mic and is interested in booking him or her for a show, she said, she might choose that person. She also likes giving new people a chance and tries for an even number of guys and girls.
If she likes somebody enough, she will mention the comic to the booking office next door, where Budd Friedman, who founded the first Improv in New York in 1963, keeps an office.
There is no definable method to Piazza’s selection, however. For instance, if someone is overly confident and takes the art of stand-up for granted, Piazza said, “Sometimes I’ll just put them up for the hell of it ... [so] they realize how hard this is. It takes years and years, and that’s something I don’t think most of the population understands.”
Since I was writing a story on The Improv, Piazza guaranteed me a spot one recent evening. I’m a fan of comedy and have gone to the club’s open mics before. I enjoy watching quirky and talented nobodies explore their comedic voices onstage, and I was attracted to the squirm-inducing, awkward moments of comics telling jokes to absolutely no laughter at all. I’ve also been touched by the support comics often receive from their peers, even when bombing. Heckling isn’t allowed, and the sense that everybody is in this together is palpable, as usually almost everyone in the room is a comedian.
“It’s competitive, of course, but they all really support each other,” Piazza said. “It’s young fraternities and sororities, generations of people that grow up together, like the [Adam] Sandlers and the [Judd] Apatows.”
On Feb. 16, Samantha Tinsley, 24, went up for her first time. She had recently seen “Funny People,” the 2009 Apatow film about stand-up comics , and had decided she wanted to try it.
Tinsley made a politically incorrect joke about Anne Frank, and it went over well.
Andy Ostroff, 29, who is from the East Coast, has been coming to the open mics for more than two years. I asked him if it was hard to go onstage.
“Not really. I always liked public speaking,” he said. “It’s hard when you don’t have any material.”
That evening, Ostroff bombed. Two weeks earlier, I had seen him tell the exact same jokes to laughter, proving that much of what makes a successful act is placement of the jokes and the delivery.
Cerebral palsy has disabled Luis Rivera, 29. He is in a wheelchair. Yet every week for the past year, he has shown up for the open mics. I asked him the same question I asked Ostroff: Do you ever feel frightened about going up?
“I am scared sometimes,” Rivera admitted. “I thought people wouldn’t understand me. But I figure we’re all human. There’s no difference between me and [the audience].”
Rivera was not chosen this time, but I had seen him perform before. He did some of the dirtiest material I had ever heard.
At 5 p.m., approximately 30 comics sat down at the tables around the low stage. An Improv employee stood behind a podium in the rear. He told the comics that when they’re onstage they have to watch for the red light, which flashes after three minutes. The quickest way to never be picked again, he said, is by going over three minutes.
Piazza sat down in the back with a clipboard, which I assumed was for note taking. Soon it was my turn.
“Ryan To-rak,” said the announcer, mispronouncing my name.
Gulp. With an acoustic guitar, I walked onstage.
“OK, this is a song for all the stalkers in the house,” I said into the microphone. This got a minor laugh.
Wanting to fingerpick but knowing that would be too demanding, I started strumming, sloppily: A major, E major — two chords, that’s all there were in the song. And yet, my legs shook and my heart beat out of my chest as I sang a “guy likes girl” comedy song that, over the course of three thankfully brief verses, becomes less “guy likes girl” and more “guy stalks girl.”
I kept my eyes closed half of the time. A lyric that I hadn’t expected to get a laugh got one. Two lines I thought would connect didn’t. And then it was over. A few people clapped. I realized I had forgotten to watch for the light.
Walking off stage, I saw a girl look embarrassed for me. That hurt. Then, I sat back down at my seat. The comedian next to me shook my hand. He told me I had done a good job. I didn’t know if he was being honest, but it didn’t matter. If you went up, you were in. If you were lousy, nobody cared.
On March 6, the Improv holds auditions for “Last Comic Standing,” the “American Idol” for people interested in stand-up. “It’s going to be crazy,” said Piazza, adding she expects that people will be sleeping outside the club the night before auditions. I may be one of them.
For more information, go to symfonee.com/improv/hollywood.