For most people, stand up comedy seems like a kind of magical art, a talent you need to be born with. But that's not true. No matter how naturally gifted a comic might be, being funny for an audience takes an enormous amount of often brutal practice at comedy open mics. As Robert Yasumura, the scathingly honest and hilarious co-host of Los Angeles' (and probably the world's) best and longest-running comedy open mic, once said, open mics are where the comedy sausage is made.
On July 23, 2013, the Open Mic of Love, which has fostered comedic talent in Los Angeles for a staggering twenty years, came to an end. Its current home near the UCLA campus in an upstairs side room of the Westwood Brewing Company was sold to a seafood restaurant chain. That seemed like as good of an opportunity as any for Vance Sanders, the beloved creator and host of the Open Mic of Love for all these twenty years, to start his well-earned retirement from hosting.
"I feel good," Vance told me the day after the Open Mic of Love ended.
Besides the fact that not everybody went up, which just killed me, but that was just how it was. I had a great time and everybody was so funny and yet heartfelt and sincere and full of gratitude and joy for the place. Comedians are not good at telling you how they really feel. That's how people develop a sense of humor, to kind of mask what's really going on. So the fact that people just kind of said how they really felt was really amazing. I was overwhelmed in really great ways, and there were so many people!A moment later, almost as an afterthought, he added, "You know, when you treat people with respect, it's amazing how people respond to that."
We were sitting in his home in Pasadena where Vance lives with his wife and two children. For those of you not familiar with the Los Angeles area, Pasadena is 24 miles from Westwood, a commute that could easily take two hours if you don't time the traffic right. But Vance has been making the trek nearly every Tuesday for twenty years, from the Open Mic of Love's original location at a Culver City café called Petterson's in March of 1994, then to a Middle Eastern restaurant called the Gypsy, before finding its final home at BrewCo, where it has been since 2000. Robert volunteered to fill in as host of the Open Mic of Love in 2006 when Vance took three months off to recover from prostate cancer surgery, and they've been co-hosting the show ever since.
The Open Mic of Love was the second open mic I'd ever been to and it, in many ways, spoiled me for almost every other open mic I've been to since. Most open mics have horrible, often brazenly unfair systems to determine which comics get stage time. At one I went to, at a certain time, the host simply shouted, "The list is out!" and comedians rushed at the table where the piece of paper had been laid, essentially rewarding people with stage time for being fast and rude. More commonly, hosts start open mics just so they can give stage time to themselves, their friends, and comics they want to network with or curry favors from, ignoring any newcomers, regardless of how long they had been waiting. That had been the case at the Pettersen's open mic, which had been run by comedian Jamie Kennedy before Vance took it over in 1994.
"[Jamie] had his little clique of who they decided was cool. At that point, none of the open mics were lotteries -- they were all 'sign up in order of arrival,'" Vance told me.
So if you wanted to get a decent spot, if the show started at six o'clock, you needed to get there at two or three in the afternoon and either blow your day and sit there, or if you lived close enough, you could go and come back. So people had to put in a lot more effort into getting a spot. Then [Jamie] would come in and say, 'Let's start the show now!' and this magic list would appear that he had made with all his friends on it and screw you, who had been there for three hours.
So Vance implemented a simple, seemingly obvious system -- comics put their names in a jar and he would pick them at the top of the show. When your name is called, you choose the slot you want and get seven minutes on stage. If your name is picked first but you don't want to be the first comic to perform (known as "taking the bullet"), you could sign up to go at a later slot. If you got picked late and needed to leave earlier, you could choose a shorter "work-in" slot, which would be inserted between the longer sets at the host's discretion. When the seven-minute slots had all been filled, the rest of the work-in slots were offered on a first-come-first-served basis. At BrewCo, the slots were shortened to five minutes with three-minute work-ins.
"I just wanted one place to be fair," Vance said. "If nothing else, everybody has an equal shot and is treated with an equal amount of respect. Just one place where everyone has the same shot as everyone else."
Though I hardly consider myself a comedian, I've been doing stand up comedy for close to four years. I consider myself a comedy hobbyist, cognizant and respectful of the fact that I lack innate comedic talent and am not able or willing to put in the years required to overcome that deficiency. No matter how naturally gifted a comic might be, great jokes and stories require stage time in front of an audience to become truly funny, where a comic can hear in real time which parts are working and emphasize them while stripping away the extraneous fluff that detracts from it, abandoning jokes along the way that bomb hard enough to be deemed unsalvageable. Unless you're a well-regarded comic who can get stage time at a comedy club or be booked on a show, open mics are the only place where that process can happen. Listen to any comedian talking about how they got started and you'll hear stories about waiting endless hours at open mics, hoping for a scant few minutes of stage time -- often in front of just a handful of people -- where they could attempt to develop their onstage persona and their point of view while trying to figure out what they have to say about the world and themselves. Comedians call it "finding your voice." In a quote attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, he claimed that finding your voice takes approximately ten years of dogged practice -- assuming it ever happens at all.
But perhaps as important is that open mics are where comics meet other comics and learn from them, either by gaining inspiration by watching them perform or chatting with them in the back of the room or outside as they wait for their precious minutes. While I firmly believe that comedians are made and not born, I've found that comics are indeed a special type. They're perceptive, opinionated, vulnerable, and endlessly sensitive to everything happening to and around them. They're people obsessed with exploring why they and others are the way they are and articulating it in perhaps the most difficult way possible -- by getting absolute strangers to relate and laugh about it. While there's a stereotype that comedians are depressed and tortured, I think the world would be a better place if more people shared their willingness to examine themselves and the world and find the humor in it. When something big happened in the news -- whether it was an election, a disaster, a celebrity death, or some weird bit of pop culture news -- I couldn't wait to get to BrewCo to hear how comics would put their spin on it.
While I'm hardly a comedian, I got to be one at the Open Mic of Love, sharing the stage with some of the funniest and most clever people I've ever known, some of whom I'm proud to call my friends and others whom I'm amazed that they recognize my face or know my name. Regardless of fame or comedic skills, there's a bond all comedians share. It's a recognition that you both understand what a difficult and sometimes terrifying thing it is to do stand up comedy and the long journey of self-discovery required to get good at it. In 2011, I met Patton Oswalt -- one of the luminaries of the comedy world -- at a reception for his film Young Adult. When I told him I dabbled in stand up comedy, he asked me which open mics I went to. When I mentioned the Open Mic of Love at BrewCo, his face lit up. "I LOVE that place!" he exclaimed, then gushed about what a great guy Vance is and his bafflement that Robert remains Los Angeles' most underrated comedian. Even though I was a rank amateur and Patton will surely go down as one of the greatest comedians of all time, he considered me a kindred spirit.
Adopting an idea given to him by fellow comedian Michael Kirk, every year Vance (and later with Robert) would put on a gala called the Scoomies, an awards show from the fictional Southern California Organization of Open Mic-ers, where comedians vote on categories ranging from Best Newcomer and Best Writer to Best Pothead, Best Depressed, Comic You'd Like to Hang Out With, Ironic Racism-est, and Fastest Post Set Exit. Despite Robert's repeated claims that the Scoomies was a "fake" awards show, comedians took it incredibly seriously, dressing up in their best outfits and often giving heartfelt speeches when they won. Even if you won an award that was a not-so-veiled insult, you were still unbelievably proud that people even knew who you were.
I had been doing stand up for less than a year when, to my utter amazement, I won the Best Ethnic Award at the 2010 Scoomies. I considered it a fluke at the time, attributing it to the fact that I'm Asian (the comedy scene is primarily white), do a lot of jokes about race, and had maybe had a rare good set on one of the nights that the Scoomie ballots were handed out. I simply couldn't believe that anyone at the Open Mic of Love knew who I was or thought I was any good. But as time has passed, that little trophy made from foam board, printer paper and glue has become one of the things I'm most proud of -- not just in comedy, but in my life. I know many comics way more talented, successful, and rightfully beloved than I who are still upset that they have never won a Scoomie.
The last night of the Open Mic of Love was a raucous lovefest, with names chosen from a bucket for three-minute sets. Comics from as far back as the Pattersen's days largely abandoned their material to shower praise and gratitude on Vance and Robert. It was a hilarious, joyful, and emotional night the likes of which I've never experienced.
While almost sixty comics got stage time, there were two sets that perfectly encapsulated the night and the twenty years of the Open Mic of Love. The first was a young man none of us recognized who had clearly just started doing stand up, was attending the Open Mic of Love for the very first time, and was just the third comic to perform -- a high-stakes slot. Clearly intimidated by the large, buzzing crowd of comics wondering "Why the fuck is THIS guy up there?" and baffled by what he had stumbled into, he struggled through his prepared material, getting barely a chuckle and nervously rambling way over his allotted time (what comedians call "running the light") in a fruitless attempt to finish strong. He finally stopped when he saw me frantically making the neck-cutting gesture from the back of the room, which he thanked me for later. It must have been his worst nightmare come true.
The second set was by Zach Galifianakis, one of the most famous and respected comedians on the planet, who had been a regular at the Open Mic of Love since Pattersen's when he was still struggling to hone the comedic voice you see today. A longtime friend of Vance -- who Zach called "the great, great, great, great grandfather of open mic comedy" -- Zach testified to "the heart of a room like this and the heart of Vance Sanders and how great and nurturing this human being has been" while peppering in jokes and eventually bringing the house down with a hilarious story exemplifying an embarrassing downside of being famous. In comedian-speak, Zach destroyed, and everyone in the audience was thrilled.
On several of the wonderful posters and graphics Vance created for the Open Mic of Love (Vance is a talented graphic designer) is the phrase "Hello, Dreamers," and I can't think of two sets that better illustrate that sentiment. The young unknown comic's dream of being a stand up comedian was just starting, and he was confronted with the horrifying agony of bombing -- which any comedian will tell you is absolutely essential to becoming good at stand up -- though it wouldn't surprise me if bombing so hard in front of a room packed with some of LA's best comedians was so traumatic that he quits stand up altogether. I wish I remembered his name, but he ran out of the room so fast after his set that he didn't sign the sheet of all the comics who performed that night. But in some ways, I'm sort of glad I didn't get his name. He was the young, scared, unknown comic that all of us at the Open Mic of Love had once been.
And why was a comic who had never even been to the Open Mic of Love given a prime spot on its final night when so many more accomplished comedians who had been going for years didn't get to perform? "He was exactly what that place was about," Vance said. "We pulled him out of the hat, he took a shot. I mean, there was no way he was going to win because the night was all about this familiarity, but I couldn't not do that. Did it work or not? I don't know. But that's what we've been doing this for twenty years for. This guy got to get up and take a shot."
For Zach, not only did his dream of becoming a professional stand up comedian come true, but it came true to such a staggering degree that I'm sure it has surpassed what he dared to imagine in even his most delusional fantasies. But even with all the fame and success stand up comedy has brought him, his story revealed the sensitivity and vulnerability that most comedians share, along with the comedian's bizarre trait of not only being willing to risk mortifying embarrassment, but to actually revel in it and overshare it if it delights an audience.
And like the young unknown comic who had bombed so badly earlier, Zach was nervous about his set. "I asked Zach, 'When do you want to go on?'" Vance recounted. "He said, 'I don't know if I should go on. What if I bomb?' So then I was just being mean to him, and I said, 'You've already been in The Hangover 3! What's the problem? You've already had that this year." Zach asked if he could go on around ten, but Vance said it would be great if he could arrive a little earlier since Vance's son would be at the early part of the show and was dying to meet him. Zach Galifianakis, one of comedy's biggest superstars, dutifully arrived at 9:30.
I took the photo below two weeks before the last Open Mic of Love, the second-to-last night it was held in the room that had been its home for the past thirteen years before moving to a larger room for its last night.
To me, this is so much of what the Open Mic of Love was all about. While it was wonderful to get a big laugh from the other comics waiting to do their sets, the audience that mattered most was Vance and Robert. I'll always remember the first (and maybe only) time I told a joke that got a huge laugh from Robert, and the head-swelling pride I felt when he began introducing me as "one of our favorites", "our good friend", and "friend of the room" -- badges of honor for all aspiring LA stand ups. If I told a joke and Vance was the only person in the room who laughed, I knew it had potential. Vance and Robert were the perfect good cop/bad cop comedy duo, with Vance being endlessly warm, friendly, and encouraging, sometimes passing around cookies in celebration of nothing and introducing every comic as "The young, vivacious..." In contrast, the often surly and intimidating Robert could eviscerate a comic with just a few words and seemed to delight in repeatedly (and hilariously) encouraging all of us to quit stand up comedy and never come back.
But what's amazing is that Vance and Robert would really listen. "For most people at open mics, it's 'When I'm not onstage, I'm not listening. I'm waiting for you to stop talking so I can start talking,'" Vance told me. "But I listen. That's how you learn, and I try to keep the hosting somewhat organic and bring in elements of what someone was just talking about. And from doing improv so long, I think it's much easier to get a joke off of something someone just said instead of trying to start a whole thing. But to do that, you need to actually listen to what they're saying, which is also something from improv. Also, I don't see why I should expect anyone else to sit and listen to the show if I don't do it myself."
I'm writing this the day after the last Open Mic of Love, and while it may be partially due to a persistent hangover, I've spent the entire day on the verge of tears thinking about the Open Mic of Love, what it has given me, and if I'll be able to fill the hole in my life now that it's gone. I know there are other open mics out there and more to come, but they won't be like this one. The world of stand up comedy and its fans owe Vance Sanders a debt of gratitude that is impossible to repay for providing a welcoming space for amazing comedians like Maria Bamford, Anthony Jeselnik, Zach Galifianakis, and Chris Hardwick, as well as comedy writers like Aaron Lee and Daisy Gardner, who have dedicated their lives to bringing laughter, joy, and revelation into people's lives.
There was nothing particularly special about that small, often stuffy room on the second floor of the Westwood Brewing Company, but Vance and Robert transformed it into a magical place every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. by declaring it a space where a certain type of oddball could reveal themselves to like-minded others and attempt to live out their dreams together -- or go down in flames trying. The Open Mic of Love now passes into the realm of legend, and while I'm immeasurably sad that it's gone, I'm trying my best to feel proud, honored, lucky, and grateful that because of Robert and especially Vance, I was not just able to witness comedy history, but be a part of it.
After interviewing him, I asked Vance if I could read him the rough draft of this piece. It would be the last time I would get to perform for him, and I assured him that I would cry (which I did). I sat there on the sofa in his living room reading it off of my phone, not daring to look up at him since I knew it would make my crying worse.
When I was done, we chatted a bit as I composed myself and got ready to go. "The point of all of this is to reveal yourself," said Vance. "And that is the hardest thing to do, but also the most rewarding. I will admire your brain, and you can be very clever, but it's that next level of letting people know who you really are -- not just your brain, but your heart and your soul. To me, that's the best."
Below is the lineup for the last Open Mic of Love (though a few comics forgot to sign it).
If you're a comedian who has ever attended the Open Mic of Love and would like to share your memories of it and your thoughts about Vance Sanders and Robert Yasumura, please leave a comment.
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