Laughing matters in tough times

In the face of horrific violence across the country, comedians heal one another at open mics.

Kate McCarthy

Smog Cutter is easy to miss, a little East Hollywood hole in the wall. It was still relatively early for the open mic, so I sat quietly in the dark while the woman sporting clear frames laughed with her cohost over a sound check. 

One by one, young stand-ups filed in, yanking aside the makeshift plastic drape of a door to expose a brief strip of light from the dusk outside. Names were drawn, and we began. I was number 22. 

Comics never pass up stage time — that’s a given. But add in a tragedy, and the fervor is doubled. They flock to a three-minute spot to make sense of their feelings or as a simple act of protest. In the wake of recent racially motivated police brutality, these stand-ups still sought out the stage to commune, grieve and sort through it all. 

Comics lined the walls, some standing and some seated, but all eyes centered on whoever was up. Everyone performing addressed the events in some fashion, often with a wink of self-deprecation that we should be so lucky to comment from afar. I improvised a riff describing my workplace earlier that day as a group of white people seeing how hard they could collectively ignore something. 

Stand-up is a great act of resistance. Just to speak about where we stand is enduring, powerful and possibly the beginning of agitation. In fact, the police brutality letter-writing campaign I attended a few days later was organized and widely attended by comedians. We do what we can to feel less alone and more impactful.

Los Angeles is a lonely and flawed city in a similarly fashioned country — one whose pent-up problems are reaching a boil. Leaving Smog Cutter that night, however, I felt a little bit more assured that we’d be okay as long as there were spaces to speak up, mourn, truly hear each other and move forward together.