Comedian and Novelist D.C. Pierson on Being Part of the NY-to-L.A. Comedy Exodus

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Dominic Dierkes, D.C. Pierson, Donald Glover in "Mystery Team" Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Vimeo

This week Vulture is running a series of stories about the comedy produced in, and inspired by, New York and Los Angeles. D.C. Pierson wraps it up with his memories of making the move from NY to LA with his comedy group DERRICK.

I remember when the rumors of L.A. started.

My NYU sketch comedy group Hammerkatz had started doing stuff at UCB in 2004, which was maybe the coolest thing that had happened in my life up to that point. As I remember it, Matt Besser, one of UCB’s founders, left for LA shortly after we started running our show there, and I started conjuring up a mental idea of Los Angeles. I’d never really been to L.A. proper, just Pasadena and Disneyland, so my imagined L.A. was pretty barren. Tabloid-cover paparazzi photographs I’d walk by during my high school grocery store job, the mansion from The Osbournes, and now, Besser out there in the wilderness, basically a warmer The Revenant with more open mics.

My mental LA never grew much beyond that, but I nevertheless became certain that some day I would live there, and that on holidays I would drive to Phoenix, where I’m from, with a great girlfriend in a nice car (if not literally a convertible, then spiritually a convertible) on a sunny day while I wore a white button-down with an insouciant-but-not-unclassy number of top buttons undone. I’m now realizing this fantasy was scored by the song “Boys Of Summer” by Don Henley.

In 2006 I split off from Hammerkatz with Donald [Glover], Dominic [Dierkes], Dan [Eckman] and Meggie [McFadden]. We formed a new group, DERRICK, and took a few trips out to L.A. I mostly remember being crammed in a rental car, arriving late for everything, and feeling disappointed that the weather was never as much of a dramatic sun-blasted contrast to whatever plastic-bags-in-the-skeletal-trees dystopia New York had going on at the moment. It felt like a cosmic injustice that it would sometimes be kinda cold here in February.

Regardless of how sucky L.A. seemed, there were more New York defections, and I would chat up the defectors when I saw them, on whichever coast, and try to fish for reassurances that L.A. could claim your body but not your soul. Katie Dippold told me, in the now-forbidden and extremely gross UCBNY back hallway during one Del Close Marathon improv festival weekend, that she knew she really lived in L.A. when she came out to New York for DCM and actually looked forward to returning to Los Angeles. I braced Joe Wengert at Birds in LA on one DERRICK trip. I thought, Here’s a cerebral guy I admire, surely his contempt for the place he has chosen to live will affirm my biases.

"I like it here,” he stated plainly.

This was discouraging.    

In 2008 DERRICK made a movie that went to Sundance the following January and got picked up shortly thereafter. The distributor was based in Los Angeles. On the roof of Donald’s apartment building in Long Island City, we drank champagne and finalized our decision to move. Everyone always said if they moved to L.A. they wanted to have something to move for. This was something.

We rolled into LA in the early evening on I-10 West, and learned that it feels like you’re in L.A. long before you’re in L.A., so you should really just stop and pee if you have to, because you’re never as close to your destination as you think you are. The two furnished apartments where we’d be staying for the first couple months were located in a neighborhood called “Beverly Hills Adjacent,” like the neighborhood itself was name-dropping. The jewels in the crown of Beverly Hills Adjacent are the Beverly Center mall — a very 90’s affair that answers the question “What would it be like if the Jawas' Sandcrawler from the beginning of A New Hope were stationary and full of Euro-trashy belt-buckle stores” — and Cedars-Sinai hospital.

We were headed to Comic-Con with our movie in a few weeks, so there were lots of things to do, but the day still had lots of unoccupied hours in it free for howling loneliness and dislocation to blow through. I would walk to a Borders that isn’t there anymore and blow tiny pieces of my savings on comic book trade paperbacks, then read them way too fast and go back the next day for the next three volumes. I was self-conscious about walking on the mostly pedestrian-free streets but did it anyway. I switched to earbuds from the whole-ear-covering studio monitor headphones I’d favored in New York, because I never saw anyone else wearing the big ones. I felt incredibly unsure of myself almost all the time — and so, our proximity to the greater Cedars-Sinai medical complex proved time-and gas-saving when I had a months-long psychosomatic episode. My body decided it would simplify things for me emotionally if it made me think I was dying. It was right.

We made lots of things I’m proud of during that period, but doing work, which is usually great at airlifting me away from scary, complicated feelings, offered plenty of sadness opportunities of its own. We built our Comic-Con booth ourselves, which ended up being incredibly involved. One of the cabinets was supposed to contain “adult” items: for example, a cigarette-burned white tank top like the one a low-life goon in the movie wears. The pre-dawn hours of the day we were supposed to leave for Comic-Con found me crouched on our balcony so the neighbors would not see me alternately burning the tank top with a cigarette and taking drags from that same cigarette in a grim “one for you, one for me.”

The dissonance between “my dream is coming true” and “I feel pretty rough anyway” is cliché, but that didn’t make it hurt less. Then we went on tour with the movie. It was a mixed adventure, with highlights like our opening night at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, where the other screen was playing Inglourious Basterds on its first weekend, and lowlights like a rainy night at a mall Barnes & Noble in Ames, Iowa, where I bought a book called Loneliness. Out on the road I would frequently think, “I want to go home.” Then I’d think, “My home is L.A. now.” By the transitive property, I realized, I wanted to be in L.A..

First I just wanted to be there because I wanted to not be traveling all the time. But then, after the tour ended, I moved into a place I could actually afford in a neighborhood I was convinced I would be ejected from by some ethereal force that recognized I did not belong in the same physical space as cool craftsman-style houses and a nice ambient floral smell in the evenings. Appreciating your neighborhood for how nice and pretty it was seemed like something only a sell-out would do, but I went with it. At first I winced at how corny it felt that I lived in Hollywood. Then I started reading obsessively about movie-industry history in all its Danny-DeVito-busting-into-a-hophead-party-as-flashbulbs-pop goodness, and realized: Holy fuck, I live in Hollywood.

A lot of New Yorkers have moved here since. Not long ago I found myself picking an unnecessary Twitter spat with a more recent transplant who was bemoaning L.A.’s revival cinema scene. (If I had any advice for any recent transplant, it would be: This place IS movies, and whenever you feel lonesome, you can lower yourself into a rejuvenating bath of celluloid. There's Cinefamily, the New Beverly, the Aero, the Egyptian, the Nuart, etc., etc., and events like Cinespia’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery screenings, which, like many things, I was sure would suck until I actually tried it. According to Robert Evans, Paramount was doing so poorly in the early 70’s that the cemetery almost bought out the famous Paramount Studios lot next door — so if you’re my particular brand of pretentious, you can lie there on a summer night and think about how movies like the one you’re watching literally held off encroaching death!) I see now it bothered me so much ‘cause it reminded me of an old version of me. I was Dismissive New York Guy. Maybe now I’m Defensive Los Angeles Dude, a form I can’t wait to evolve out of. This is a deep weird beautiful place and it doesn't need any thirtysomething improv dorks to stick up for it.

It’s been almost seven years since I moved here. I often take those car trips back and forth to Phoenix like I’d imagined, accompanied by a girlfriend more specifically wonderful than my college-era projections could’ve accounted for. “Boys Of Summer” is great on that drive. Time it out so it comes on when you’re driving between those endless windmills around Indio.

I still walk around a lot. I recently switched back to the big dorky headphones. Everyone in DERRICK started doing their own thing not long after we got here, but I still work with Dan and Meggie every day. On their bathroom wall there’s a picture taken from Donald’s rooftop the day we decided to go. I’ve been back to New York a bunch since, and on the last day of every trip, I think, “Man, Dippold was right. I want to go home.”