Due West: A Roundtable Discussion on New York’s Ongoing Comedy Exodus

It was inevitable that a city so saturated with comedians would stumble onto a storyline so unexpected from their jaded ironies and hipster quips. New York is in the middle of its own romcom and, true to form, the object of its affection is the very thing it always swore it hated: Los Angeles. But if New York is all about the bookish grad-schooly dry wit of, say, Jon Stewart and LA quintessence is the vain bubblegum blather of a Kardashian, then what kind of drama unfolds when the two lock eyes? Turns out: none.

This is not drama. Drama has mystery and tension, and what’s going on with these bicoastal bedfellows is actually pretty predictable and practiced, nothing new. What is new, though, is that so many comedians have moved out of New York in so few recent months. It’s not just that Conan moved out to LA or that The Onion is about to pack up and head to Chicago. It’s that the Del Close Marathon this year ran into booking problems precisely because too many of its regular performers were busy with LA’s TV production season (there’s talk of moving the marathon to earlier in the summer next year, in deference to LA). That bears repeating: In deference to LA.

There’s a gold rush! “This would be a good time for Brooklyn hipster stand-up comics out there to start bugging their agents about TV work,” declared New York. Some of the folks interviewed in this 3,000-mile-wide roundtable discussion were in the midst of moving out there while they were being interviewed. There are real consequences: What has this done to the scene in New York? And can all those new Los Angelenos really find superstardom? And how many people can Jason Mantzoukas convince to watch the documentary Touching The Void? Read on.

ANTHONY KING, UCB Theatre NY’s longtime Artistic Director, who just moved to LA: In the last 10 years, the whole city in New York feels like it’s about money and it cuts off so many avenues of strangeness. New York has become such a Wall Street town. There’s not that much else. LA is more varied: Beverly Hills, Malibu, hipsters and mall people, Venice Beach and surfers.

ANTHONY ATAMANUIK, a 30 Rock writer-who-never-talks whose one-man show, Pissing My Pants on Vine, detailed his travails in LA: When the moves to LA first happened, it was a hit – it hit us – and we went into sorta yellow alert. There was some soul-searching: is this something I should’ve done? What am I still doing in New York anyway?

STREETER SEIDELL, editor-in-chief of CollegeHumor: Is all the talent leaving New York? What’s left? Look, it always replenishes. That said, there’s nobody funny in New York now at all.

LENNON PARHAM, starred in Accidentally on Purpose, now starring in and executive producing NBC’s midseason BFFs: The majority of it happened when I was already bicoastal, since summer 2008. It really started to hit me when former students said they were moving.

BEN SCHWARTZ, who dabbles as Jean-Ralphio, author of awkard/adorable animal books, and Soapdish rebooter: I had a tiny New York apartment in Koreatown. I gave my bed and couch to my doorman and I put everything else — like, a suitcase, a suit, a duffel bag of stuff — and I put that in the trunk of the car I rented, because I couldn’t afford to buy one yet, a Toyota Corolla, and I lived in a tent on the floor of my friend’s place. And instead of paying rent I bought him an Xbox 360. My first month was the most crazy in the universe. I got a job writing for the Oscars, which I won an Emmy for with a bunch of other people. I joined a pilot with Mitch Hurwitz and Jason Biggs and Richard Dreyfuss. I was in the PeepWorld cast with Sarah Silverman.

ELIZA SKINNER, who is currently bringing improvised musical theater to LA: I wanted to move to LA for a long time. When I left, I was going through Facebook to invite people to a goodbye party and it was just all, oh, he’s already gone, she’s already gone, he’s there, he’s there, he’s there. They were all there already.

KING: For a while, the joke was that LA was the AIDS of the New York comedy scene. One day, LA would just take a friend of yours. They’d be gone. And you’d ask, ‘Where’d he go?’ And someone would just say ‘LA.’

CHRIS GETHARD, whose cable access The Chris Gethard Show could easily fit into the book he authored on Weird NY: I’m Irish and we have Irish funerals. You left for America and it was just like, OK, we’re never going to see you again. That’s happening now.

ATAMANUIK: There’s this cabal, this guild house in LA. It culled the scene. It’s an outpost, like Rome in Jerusalem, so the crusaders flock.

GETHARD: It feels like Frodo leaving the Shire.

JOE MANDE, Time Out New York’s “Best New Comedian of 2009,” who left for a 3-month stint in LA while this story was being put together: It’s pretty crazy how quickly people here are going out there and getting shows. It’s nuts.

NICK KROLL, of FX’s The League, whose “Thank You Very Cool” DVD drops this fall: The roads that were paved are now being treaded faster. There was a quickening of the pace, people going younger and younger: Donald Glover, Adam Pally came out a little earlier than they would have a few years ago.

ATAMANUIK: People disconnect the idea that they had deep connections to the theater since 1999. Or deep friendships. You can’t just show up in LA. Nothing fucking changed.

Established, primed people go. Then the less-primed people follow. Then the not-primed-at-all people follow them. There’s an avalanche. Look, not everyone can survive. There’s only so much stage time and air time.

SEIDELL: Some people might say they need New York because they have more sensitivity to the vibe of a place. That’s like a musician saying they need to be in Jamaica in order to crank out an album. But I think comics are too cynical for that vibe stuff. So you have this LA shift, the thing I’ll call The LA Shift, which seems to happen every three or four years, usually because of a key person or group — the key for this generation was Derrick, then before that it was Human Giant, then before that and before that, until you get to Besser.

MATT BESSER, a founding member of The Upright Citizens Brigade: I was the first of the UCB Four to move out here, in like 2000 or 2001. It was miserable. MIS-ER-A-BLE.

JASON MANTZOUKAS, of The League, Children’s Hospital and upcoming Sacha Baron Cohen project The Dictator: I’d be in LA and people used to say ‘Oh, UCB? Like the University of California at Berkeley?’

BESSER: In a lot of ways it was like starting over. Beyond being frustrating it was humiliating. I remember walking into some tiny coffee shop on a Monday night for an open mic and I said, ‘Hi, I just moved to town and I’m a comedian.’ And this woman who ran it said ‘Yeah, I know you. I recognize you from your show.’ And I said I’d like to perform at the open mic and she said, ‘Sure, just send me a tape and I’ll look it over and let you know.’ I should’ve thrown coffee on her right there. So, no, I didn’t perform there that night. Fuck no. But I performed in lots of places like that, just as bad or worse.

MANTZOUKAS: It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. We came in and put up shows constantly. I remember I played Ricky Martin for a year — for a year! — in a show every Saturday night. It was a horrible show. I look back and, really, it’s embarrassing. But we were doing it.

SCHWARTZ: It feels like something you have to do.

MANTZOUKAS: LA was for a long time where, if you went there, you were allowing that you weren’t going to have the showcase scene and creative comedic outlet of New York.

GETHARD: I went out there in 2004. It was scary. There weren’t things you could participate in. Improv Olympic felt really closed off.

KROLL: Groundlings and Second City were driven by a more stratified, by a certain, slower, weeding-out process.

GETHARD: I had been performing in New York for five or six years and I found LA intimidating. It was soul-crushing how isolating it was.

ATAMANUIK: You have a quarterlife crisis. You think ‘What am I doing?’ You push yourself with the idea of ‘If I want to do this, I have to do this now and I need a big move.’ There’s a panic, and the panic gets doubled-down on.

MANTZOUKAS: The crop gets bigger as the theater grows. UCBLA really changed the game. The crop would always be big but LA didn’t seem viable because there was no home base. There were years that people could’ve moved but couldn’t really. That’s changed.

BESSER: It’s like the first generation of UCB that now lives in LA.

KING: A much faster exodus, and a lot of that is because there is a home in LA now.

DC PIERSON, of comedy troupe DERRICK, and novelist behind The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To, who blogged about his first 100 days in LA here: There were enough of us out here that it made sense for all of us to be out here.

MANTZOUKAS: In order for the scene itself to flourish, people have to turnover. People talk about UCB like it’s high school, all the hierarchy and cliques, and that’s very true and very real. But that also necessitates graduation, renewal. Why should I be invested if there’s no hope for me getting stage time because it goes to all the veterans? There needs to be turnover.

GETHARD: It’s a necessary thing for growth, like a forest fire kind of thing. Although I hope that doesn’t sound like an insensitive joke about LA wildfires.

GIL OZERI, writer for ABC’s Happy Endings: If it wasn’t for all those folks who came out here first, I wouldn’t be here. And when I moved to LA, I had the feeling that I should’ve moved earlier.

SEIDELL: There is a fresh energy in LA. You can colonize places for comedy in LA. There’s a homegrown scene that’s growing. There’s a place and space and opportunity to cut your teeth there.

PIERSON: The problem with being ahead of your time is that by the time everyone else catches up, you’re so bored. And that happened a little with the New York scene.

EUGENE MIRMAN, of Adult Swim’s Delocated and Fox’s Bob’s Burgers: Chevy Chase moved out to LA. And he wasn’t the first even back then. This has always happened: Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Steve Carell. Always. LA is just another city with work and friends.

SEIDELL: New York doesn’t have anything that LA doesn’t provide. But, certainly in the jobs sense and the production sense, there are things in LA that New York doesn’t have.

ATAMANUIK: It was natural to be behind the ball with Channel 101. In New York, you need filming permits. Or guerilla style. Even interior lighting sucks. Exteriors are hard. And there isn’t the cross-pollination of talent or skills here. It’s very, very tiered.

MANTZOUKAS: What LA had all the time that New York never had was access: to actors, to production teams, to VIPs, all that.

SCHWARTZ: I couldn’t afford to fly to LA and not get it. And I couldn’t afford to turn things down just because I couldn’t fly out. So I just made the move.

PARHAM: I had my sights set on SNL for quite a while. When it came down to it, when that looked like it wasn’t happening, I remember being at an SNL showcase with Lorne Michaels in the audience and when it didn’t happen then, I knew I had to move on. There was a bigger picture, and LA is the bigger picture.

MANDE: I prefer New York because I can be in show business here without having to think about it so much. I get too worked up thinking about it all the time, which you’d have to do in LA.

KROLL: Look, people came out for jobs.

ATAMANUIK: Chris Kelly moved out to LA to be a writer for Funny or Die and then what? He moved right back to write for SNL.

KROLL: The truth is there are more jobs in LA. It’s like 8 or 9 to 1.

SEIDELL: There’s 10 times more work in LA.


KING: 20 to 1

PIERSON: There are 20 LA jobs for every 1 in New York.

OZERI: 70 to 80 percent of all the work is in LA

SKINNER: Up to 100 to 1; they’re not always your dream job.

BESSER: As far as writing goes, though, I’d say it’s 50-50. It might be easier in New York, actually.

KROLL: If you’re not on The Daily Show, 30 Rock, SNL or Letterman or Fallon, there’s not a lot. It’s tougher.

SEIDELL: We always thought we’ve been the antithesis of that elite Ivy League wall that the New York scene is so much.

KING: For a while there was all that Best Week Ever, VH1 panel commentary stuff, but it didn’t pay much and then that kind of died.

ATAMANUIK: It’s a very drained pond here in New York.

SEIDELL: It’s not so much of a draining in New York. It’s a cycle that’s always existed.

PARHAM: There was no forward movement in industry in New York.

SKINNER: Ugly Betty died in New York.

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