“There were only a few clubs in the country where an unknown comic could get on stage, and then it was only on amateur nights,” said Argus Hamilton, a veteran of the stand-up industry, who has been a regular performer at both the L.A. and the La Jolla Comedy Stores since the mid-1970s. “You would have to work those open mics night after night, week after week, sometimes year after year, to get good enough to work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then you might have to work another year or two to get good enough to work Friday and Saturday.”
One hundred miles south, things could not have been more different. At the La Jolla Comedy Store, located at 916 Pearl St., things were distinctly more relaxed. Comics had no reason to worry about getting noticed — but they were there only because they were already somebody in the realm of stand-up comedy.
“By the time you were good enough for La Jolla, you were a five- or six-year seasoned comic,” Hamilton said. “Everyone who came to La Jolla was good enough to work the weekends up in L.A.”
Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store chain, opened the Comedy Store South in Pacific Beach in 1976, and moved the club to its present location in La Jolla in August of 1977. She even bought a pair of condos in Pacific Beach so that out-of-town acts would have somewhere to stay. Hamilton said she wanted a place where comedians who regularly performed up in L.A. could get away for “a week-long vacation and have a nice, paid gig.”
For Hamilton and his peers, La Jolla was just that place to escape from the chaos of the L.A. scene.
“Comics got to bond down there. Most of the time in L.A., we’re workaholics, scrambling like mad to get our careers going. It really allowed all of the funniest guys in my generation and the generations that followed to sit together on the beach and kick ideas around,” he said. “We would party with the locals, fall in love with the local girls. We just couldn’t wait to come down to La Jolla.”
According to Hamilton, the draw of La Jolla came not only from the relaxed feel and party scene. The club itself, he said, is renowned for its exceptional acoustics, and comedians have come from all over the country to record albums there.
“That room is the best comedy room in the country,” Hamilton said. “Crowds get a kind of mob mentality when they realize how much noise they can make, and they start to enjoy making it. There is no room in the country like it.”
Hamilton tells of comedy greats like Kelly Monteith, Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams and Michael Keaton, who shared the stage in La Jolla in the 1970s when comedy clubs were a phenomenon known only to the West Coast and New York City.
Today, in-house comics at the Comedy Store La Jolla do double-duty at the club, working as bouncers, ticket-takers, promoters and janitors, all so they can have their eight or 10 minutes of stage time three or four times per week. Mike Vinn, a comedian who also does promotions at the club, said a position as an in-house comic, even if it requires occasionally unclogging toilets, is a coveted spot.
“It’s a great way to learn, and you actually have to be funny to work here,” he said.
Another shift in the stand-up scene was the flow of comics from south to north. While big names do still often come down to La Jolla, and though they still enjoy the “vacation” atmosphere and free beachfront accommodations, the club is no longer expressly reserved as a haven for seasoned comics. The stream of talent has switched directions, and now comics who start down in San Diego are generally trying to work their way up to L.A.
Max Caraisco, a comedian and bouncer at the club, said he was shocked at the process that would-be comedians had to go through to get stage time when he moved to San Diego from New York in 2007.
“In New York, you just pay some money and you get to perform at an open mic,” he said. “Here, you have to pay your dues. But look at the people who have performed here. It’s a proven process, and it works.”
The general consensus among up-and-coming comics at the club seems to be that jumping through hoops on the road to success is a lot easier to swallow when you’re doing it in a place with a reputation like the Comedy Store.
“The cool thing,” said Vinn, scanning the headshots of famous comics on the wall of the club, “is that this place has so much history, and I get to be a part of it.”
Most agree that, although there is certainly no shortage of post-show partying, the business of comedy has forever been altered from the days when talk show stars David Letterman and Jay Leno were the acts and not the hosts.
“It’s much more professionally and collegially oriented now, in a chamber-of-commerce type of atmosphere, like you’re businessmen on the road together,” said Hamilton. “But back in the late 1970s, La Jolla was just a continuation of the party that was going on in L.A.”