There are arguments to be made for both New York and Chicago, and maybe even Boston, but it’s really difficult to debate the fact that the world of comedy as we know it was born in Los Angeles. Making the pilgrimage to the entertainment capital is a quintessential journey, not only for aspiring actors, but also for those who want to earn a living making people laugh. And though their journey to stardom is by no means an easy one, when a comedian arrives in this sprawling city, they know they’re where they’re supposed to be.
Since the old days, when you fought for a spot at the Store and prayed to earn that career-launching set on Johnny Carson, LA’s comedy scene has evolved in the areas in and around West Hollywood. And even in today’s less linear comedy landscape — with its complex network of improv schools, one-man shows, experimental theatre troupes, and humor podcasts — the best comedians stay in WeHo. With the lone exception of the influential Upright Citizens Brigade, which is situated well to the east in Hollywood, virtually every major comedic institution can be found either in or just outside this city within a city.
LA’s comedy has always been both a serious artistic endeavor and a simple vehicle for making people laugh. Though audience members don’t always see the work that goes into the former, they inevitably get to reap the benefits of the latter. And with its unpredictable nature — Are you in for a killer set or a bomb? Will you get pulled up on stage for the next improv sketch? Is a big name gonna stop by? Will you discover someone new? — the city’s comedy scene is charged with a particularly exciting energy. In order to truly experience that, here are the most iconic institutions that deserve a visit.
The Comedy Store
The Comedy Store, that black-and-red landmark with the bright-white sign on the Sunset Strip, is the venue that aspiring comedians have dreamed of performing at for decades. At the time of its opening in 1972, it was owned by comedian Sammy Shore, but when Shore and his wife, Mitzi, divorced, she took over. The comedy world at the time was a definitive boy’s club, but through savvy management and a keen understanding of show business (not to mention, a willingness to let previously marginalized groups step up to the mic), Mitzi became one of the greatest and most well-respected figures in the world of stand-up — she even coined the famous club’s name. The list of comedians who have performed there — or, more accurately, got their start there — is somewhat of a novel, but all you have to do to get a feel for the history of the place is take a look at the club itself. Its black exterior is decorated with the signatures of the Store’s alumni, and on your way out, you’ll walk through a hallway whose walls are completely covered in their headshots. You’ll see Richard Pryor and Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Silverman and Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman and… well, okay, you get the picture.
There are three rooms to choose from: the Main Room, the Original Room, and the Belly Room. On most nights, each offers an early show, which includes sets from about 10 stand-ups, and a late show, which runs from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The late show features a much looser line-up that ranges from newcomers eager for any sort of stage time to superstars who were in town and decided to stop by for a surprise set. So even if you’re tired, resist the urge to go home early — you never know who you might get to see!
The Laugh Factory
Located just down the street from the Comedy Store and just east of the WeHo border, the Laugh Factory is famous for both the best and the worst of stand-up comedy history. While it’s hosted a wide variety of world-class comedians, it was also the venue where Michael Richards was performing when he had the infamous outburst and breakdown that ended his career. With the exception of that incident, however, the Laugh Factory has been one of LA’s greatest comedic institutions since owner Jamie Masada (who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran at age 14) founded it in 1979.
Dave Chappelle is among the regulars there, having routinely stepped up to the mic since his return to the stage after years away from show business. He and Dane Cook are also famous for going toe-to-toe to set the stand-up endurance record, which the club keeps a record of. Currently, Cook has the title, awarded for his seven-hour set in 2008. All of this is to say that history is regularly being made at the Laugh Factory — there’s a reason its sunset-colored marquee is so recognizable.
Largo at the Coronet
Usually referred to simply as “Largo” (it moved to the Coronet Theatre, one block south and half a block east of the WeHo border, in 2008), this famous nightclub and Cabaret on La Cienega hosts all sorts of comedy shows — from musical performances to live podcast tapings to experimental theatre and improv. It’s more a performance space than a comedy stage, but since comedians are often some of the most creative and entertaining people in the business, you’ll always be in for an interesting show, no matter whose name is on the billing.
And though Largo isn’t a stand-up venue in the same vein as the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, and the Improv, you can still catch some great sets there, and fans of the form will be delighted to know that it was the site of Tig Notaro’s famous post-cancer diagnosis set in 2012. Today, you can regularly see the likes of Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, and Patton Oswalt hanging around the club, so whether you’re buying tickets for a traditional show or something wild and out-of-the-box, you might just be signing up to play witness to comedy history.
Though not as near West Hollywood as the rest, the Groundlings improv theatre and school is both close enough (a mile east along Melrose) and influential enough that we thought it should have a spot on this list. The theatre, which trains and develops writers and actors for both sketch and improv comedy, has been a regular feeder school for “Saturday Night Live” since it opened in 1974. As with almost all of these institutions, the list of alumni is too large to include in full, but it’s important to note that legends such as Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Phil Hartman, Melissa McCarthy, and Jon Lovitz all got their start there, workshopping their famous characters and refining their acting and writing skills before anyone knew their names.
Part of what makes the Groundlings shows so special is their intimacy — the tiny theater seats roughly 100 audience members and a three-man house band, so not only is there a good chance your suggestions will get taken, but throughout the night, you’ll feel like you’re laughing along with the performers. While you can catch a variety of shows throughout the week, some pure improv and some a mix of sketch and short-form improv exercises, the best of the best is the Sunday Show. Each week, the top level of the Groundlings school writes and performs a new sketch show to perform that Sunday at 7:30 p.m. At $16 a ticket, this show is probably the best bang for your buck, and it’s where you’re most likely to see someone who may someday be shouting through your TV screen, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
It’s no coincidence that the iconic Improv logo, which appears on the signs outside the venue and the brick wall behind the performing comedians, is written in Broadway typeface. The club got its start in 1963 when Broadway producer Budd Friedman envisioned an intimate gathering place for performers to retreat to after a show. It originally operated as an open-mic venue, but after comedian Dave Astor did a set there, more followed suit, and it soon became known as the place to go for live comedy. Budd eventually moved west to open a second location on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood’s Fairfax neighborhood (two blocks east of the WeHo border), and though the New York location was influential in the world of comedy, the LA site grew to become, as some have argued, the greatest comedy club in North America.
Not only can you see a regular line-up of world-class stand-ups there — such as Whitney Cummings, Theo Von, Nikki Glaser, and Jay Mohr — but you can also catch more experimental shows at “the Lab” next door. With close to 25 locations across the U.S., the Improv has grown into both a brand and a movement, but the little club on Melrose remains its beating heart.
Bar Lubitsch certainly lacks the historical prestige of the other names on this list, but this little community hangout on Santa Monica Boulevard and Stanley Avenue is still one of the best spots for those in need of a laugh. Located in WeHo’s Russian District, the bar specializes in vodka, featuring over 200 varieties of the liquor to be knocked back or sipped on while taking in that night’s entertainment. Depending on the night of the week, you could be in for live music or a DJ, but the bar is also well-known for its comedy shows, which are promoted in advance through its Instagram. You might recognize the occasional name — Brett Gelman, Kurt Metzger, and Kate Berlant have all performed there — but for the most part, you’ll be hearing new voices. And the best part is that it’s FREE. So grab a drink, get to know the WeHo regulars, and enjoy the show.
Need to find a good spot to grab dinner before the show? Check out our West Hollywood Foodie’s Guide!