Comedian Dana Gould has spent thirty years in comedy, won two Emmy Awards for writing The Simpsons and played “The Summer George” on Seinfeld. Yet on a chilly Thursday night in December, Gould is in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, wearing an oversized coat and more than a couple days of stubble, standing in front of a red velvet curtain in the attic of The Palace, a Chinese restaurant.
Dishes clank downstairs as the restaurant staff attends to the few tables still finishing their soup dumplings and kung pao chicken. The crowd upstairs is a little younger, a bit more hipster than the patrons below. Many sip cheap beer out of bottles. One guy in the corner eats a pile of lo mein out of a Styrofoam take-out container.
A phone rings downstairs. “Who would call a Chinese restaurant?” Gould asks sarcastically, continuing his set.
“I actually started my stand-up career in a Chinese restaurant,” he tells the crowd, “which shows how little I’ve progressed as a comedian. Or as a man.”
* * *
Comedian Ed Salazar, 37, started the Comedy Palace show, along with two friends, in early 2011, mostly because they wanted more stage time and weren’t getting it at the city’s many “legitimate” comedy clubs. The Meltdown comedy show, hosted by comics Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani, had recently launched in the back of a comic book store, so they figured, why not start one in the attic of a Chinese restaurant?
“There’s nothing worse than starting a comedy show in Los Angeles,” Salazar says, as he gets ready to host the night’s show while Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” blares over the speakers. He’s affable but visibly anxious as he moves chairs around, trying to make the space as comfortable as possible for the audience, who will begin showing up any minute. He pauses to ask his producer Samantha Varela to flip over an upside-down table so that people “don’t see the gum.” When the first two people arrive to the empty room before the show, he tells them, “Sorry guys, comedy died.”
Salazar used to think that launching yet another weekly comedy show in Los Angeles was “the worst idea ever.” But when he saw the space above The Palace restaurant, he knew immediately that it would work.
“You may come up here and say, ‘Hey, this is just an empty room with a lot of, like chairs and tables above a Chinese restaurant.’ What I see is low ceilings, small confined walls,” Salazar says. The space is small enough that “you can literally have five or ten people, and it feels like a packed room.”
Comedy shows in intimate settings are not unheard of. Sarah Silverman performed her latest HBO comedy special for thirty-nine people in the small room at Largo in Beverly Grove. Tig Notaro has a new show in development with Showtime where she will travel around the country and do stand-up “in the homes, backyards, driveways, and cul-de-sacs of her most loyal fans.” Maria Bamford, who just finished a month-long residency at the Comedy Palace, taped her most recent hour in her own living room, with her parents as the only audience members.
On the other end of the spectrum, Steve Martin famously quit performing stand-up live because the arena crowds got too big and he felt nobody could perceive the subtle aspects of what he was doing onstage.
While the restaurant has done a lot to accommodate the growing show, including offering drink specials at the bar, the setting has its challenges. At the beginning, the show’s organizers would come upstairs to set up and find makeshift beds constructed out of tables and chairs. They realized that some of the restaurant staff had been spending the night in their comedy club.
Tony, the restaurant manager who also serves as bartender on Thursday nights, and declined to provide his last name, admits that despite all the fun that appears to be happening upstairs, the show is not necessarily the best thing for the restaurant. His staff often has to stay late into the evening to clean up after the audience members. He says he doesn’t even sell more drinks at the bar during the show, complaining that people come up and ask for just a glass of water, or they order a Coke and pay for it with a credit card.
Despite all that, the restaurant has no intentions of shutting down the Comedy Palace, because, as Tony says, “we just want to help the community.” It doesn’t hurt that the show can bring in some high-profile guests.
If there’s one person who is responsible for turning this small-scale operation into the destination it is today, it’s producer Varela, who also works as an assistant to comedian and influential podcast host Marc Maron. “There have definitely been a lot of favors,” she says. Comedians say she’s different from your typical booker because she’s a genuine comedy fan.
Besides Gould, Varela has convinced comics like Eric Andre and Kristen Schaal to headline recent shows. When Patton Oswalt wanted to try out his latest hour on an audience, he decided to do it at The Palace.
Tony pulls out his phone to show off a photo he took of Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk doing stand-up at the recent Toys for Tots charity event held downstairs in the restaurant. He’s never seen the hit TV show, but he’s pretty sure it’s someone famous.
* * *
Why would a successful veteran comedian like Gould still want to perform stand-up on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant on a Thursday night?
“Ironically, the very first time I did stand-up was in a Chinese restaurant, at the now legendary Ding Ho,” Gould says of his comedy debut, as he waits to mount the Palace stage. In the early 1980s when he was just seventeen, Gould began his career at the now-defunct Ding Ho Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Inman Square, where he would share bills with comedians like Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwait.
“Here’s the great thing about both places,” Gould says. “They’re perfect spots for comedy, because comedy isn’t really the main course of a meal.” Performing at the Comedy Palace allows him to take risks that he might not be willing to take in front of a larger crowd that he knows spent a lot of money on a special night out.
As long as the sound and lighting are decent, he explains, comedians in a way prefer to be “crammed up in the attic of a restaurant,” he says. ”It’s the perfect place to do comedy.”
“You don’t need to do the big, ginormous club set pieces that I do, because they’re finished,” he says. “It’s too much weaponry for this room. This is a small, intimate room. And I don’t have to run around. You can just sort of stand there and talk.”
That impetus to just “stand there and talk” comes through when Gould is on stage. He’s far more subdued than he has been in past television performances, sometimes choosing not to use the microphone he has in his hand, leaning on the stand and speaking just loud enough for the people in the back to make out what he’s saying.
“My kids are from China,” he tells the audience, before giving an honest, and often sad, account of what it’s like to be divorced with three adopted daughters.
The jokes that he once told about his hypothetical inability to pick up women after being out of the dating pool for so long now take on a darker urgency. He shares a couple of his best post-marriage pick-up lines:
“I noticed you sitting there by yourself and thought you might have a list of chores and errands you wanted me to do.”
“It’s going to be a beautiful day out there tomorrow. I thought I might take out the convertible, swing by your place, drive your mom to Target. Then she can bitch about your dad and yell at me if I agree with her.”
Later, he brings out some less personal material. “Once you’ve been an astronaut, and you’ve gone on a mission, what is your daily life like?” Gould alters his voice to take on the character. “’Golly gee, I caught a fish. This reminds of that time I walked on the fucking moon!’”
When the joke doesn’t land quite as hard it did in his 2009 Showtime special Let Me Put My Thoughts In You, he quietly admonishes himself for not yelling the punchline quite as loudly as he would have liked. He didn’t want to disturb the handful of people still eating downstairs.
Gould isn’t the only comedian to incorporate the unusual setting into his act. At the previous week’s show, Mary Lynn Rajskub was telling jokes about being a mother when a baby started crying downstairs. Rather than fighting against it, she worked the distraction into her act, saying how “shitty” those parents were for bringing their small child to a restaurant that late.
When Demetri Martin popped in as a surprise guest on a recent night, he pointed out how “flammable” the space looked as he squeezed past the tightly-packed crowd and made his way to the stage. “The worse a room is in a fire, the better it is for comedy,” he said.
As long as they will continue to have him, Gould says he will keep performing in the mainstream comedy clubs with their “high ceilings and neon lights” because “I gotta eat.” But “creatively,” he says, “you’ll fare a lot better here.”
“These are comedy fans. People are here because they want to be here,” Gould says, reminding himself of a story one of his comedy heroes once told him.
“George Carlin used to play the Orleans Casino in Vegas and he would sit in his dressing room and he would count the cabs. And he knew that if there were a lot of cabs it would be a better show, because the people in cabs went out of their way to see the show. Whereas other people were sort of just wandering in off the strip.”
“And that’s what this has,” he continues. “People are going out of their way to come here. They want to see the show.”
It’s been about fifteen minutes since he started his set and Gould is getting “the light.” In this case, that means Varela waving her illuminated iPhone above her head from the side of the stage to let him know his time is up.
He ignores her for as long as he can, making sure to try out a few more work-in-progress bits on the eager audience while he still has the chance. Eventually he acquiesces, leaving the audience with one final “challenge” to take with them into the world.
“The simple act of walking down the street, looking a stranger in the eye and smiling at them can make the world a much better place,” Gould says with utter sincerity. “Unless it’s the day you’ve decided to walk around with your cock out. Then, I would suggest poker face.”
As the crowd applauds, he puts the microphone back in its stand and walks off the stage.
* * *
Damon Casarez is an editorial and documentary photographer based in Los Angeles. He is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Magazine and Pacific Standard Magazine and has also completed assignments for Bloomberg BusinessWeek.