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

Hollyweird, baby! Photo: Eloi_Omella/Getty Images

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.

PARHAM: I only had one bite from an agent list. And Jason Mantzoukas told me ‘Don’t go to prom with the first guy who asks you,’ which was great advice even though it reminded me that, literally, I had to ask a guy to take me to my prom. But he said ‘You’re about to do a show in LA. That’s where the decision-makers are.’ In LA, I had four agents calling me all the time. I went from feeling like I had to go prove myself over and over in New York, to an approach here that was more sit back and see what comes to you.

MANTZOUKAS: LA is checkers, one move at a time, one spot at a time, incremental. New York is chess, sitting in the same spot just waiting to make one big move, seven squares at once.

OZERI: People don’t want to feel like they’re in stasis.

SCHWARTZ: In New York the thing I never understand is that you can’t get a movie without an agent and you can’t get an agent without credits. It made no sense and I just felt stuck and frustrated.

OZERI: In New York, my experience writing for sitcoms was nonexistent. It wasn’t really an option.

MANTZOUKAS: At the top of improv or sketch in New York, there’s a ceiling. The next level, you’re not barred, but you need help, an agent or a manager or some middleman.

SKINNER: They have showcases in New York, but agents don’t just come to normal shows. New York is for getting good. LA is for getting seen.

MANDE: I was out in LA doing a show with Gethard and there were 47 industry people in the audience. That was unbelievable.

MANTZOUKAS: Look, part of it is talent-based and even luck-based, but it’s also social-based, which is crazy. People I knew would be on a really shitty show, and I didn’t understand it, but a year later they’d be on Arrested Development, because of the people they had met at that shitty show.

SCHWARTZ: In LA, you see, oh shit, people really get on TV shows. It’s not just a story. It’s the first time you can see opportunity with your eyes.

MANTZOUKAS: LA is momentum and opportunity. It’s not some evil you have to give into. I don’t hate LA. I just love New York. It’s counterintuitive because New York, in a lot of ways, works against your success because you’re unavailable to LA and you’re not meeting industry as much.

OZERI: It feels like opportunity breeds creativity here.

ATAMANUIK: LA is about anonymity and bubbles. It starts to shrivel that part of yourself that creates comedy or is just creative period. You’ll be in a car or apartment alone. A lot.

SKINNER: You know what? It’s just pleasant here.

PIERSON: The comedy scene is a meritocracy but also a nice-ocracy.

OZERI: Although it does feel like a casino in here, with the time and weather not changing.

SKINNER: Anytime anyone in New York gets a gig, it’s like, ‘HOW DID YOU GET THAT? WHAT DID YOU DO? HOW DO I DO WHAT YOU DID TO GET WHAT YOU GOT?’ You lose sight of thinking, y’know, that’s not right for me. Out here, it’s like ‘You got it? Great! OK, I’m going to go do my thing now, too!’

MANTZOUKAS: There’s some of that. People in New York where they might think, oh, he took my spot. Because there’s more to do in LA, people are doing more. It’s not as resentful.

ATAMANUIK: Yeah, there are more jobs. But there are more people, too.

GETHARD: The fight doesn’t stop because there are more jobs. You still have to work at maximum capacity anywhere for success.

ATAMANUIK: Maybe your show does well, but maybe it doesn’t. And then you know what happens? You go back to the pool like everyone else. Even 10 guest spots a year, that’s pretty good, 10 spots, after taxes that’s an average salary, like $45,000.

MANTZOUKAS: My dayjob in New York was a silly dayjob as a temp and theirs in LA was as a writer for Third Rock from the Sun. I had infinite access to office supplies; they had infinite access to sets and editing equipment. If you look back at those early Lonely Island videos, they’re doing their weird raps or whatever on, like, the set of War of The Worlds, on the Universal backlot.

PARHAM: I worked five years at the Bull Moose Saloon in Hell’s Kitchen.

ATAMANUIK: I worked at John’s Pizzeria in Times Square literally until the day I was hired for 30 Rock.

SEIDELL: I know dudes who have shows who are still looking for bartending gigs. People on TV, serving your drinks, asking if you’d like to look at the dessert menu.

PARHAM: If I had stayed in New York, I wouldn’t be executive-producing my own show right now. My life in New York would’ve been teaching, improv and commercials. I didn’t have to hit the pavement. Now I have a writers’ room full of people I hired for a show I created, auditioning people to play my on-screen boyfriend. That’s a dream I didn’t even know I had. It’s a full circle feeling here and I don’t know how that would’ve happened in New York.

MANDE: But moving straight to LA is ambition that’s blind ambition.

BESSER: LA is the hardest place to grow as a performer.

GETHARD: As a teacher, there is some anguish that there are people heading out there with so much more to learn.

PARHAM: I had a show on 14th Street in 2002 in an old strip club and for some reason Sean Hayes came and told me ‘You should move to LA. You’d get a show immediately.’ It seemed crazy to me. Who would take me in? I had just gotten on my first Harold team! If I had come to LA in 2003, it appears on the surface that I would’ve been better off professionally by now. But that’s misleading because I was not ready. I just wasn’t.

BESSER: It’s a mistake for someone in their early 20s.

KING: Spend your 20s in New York. Spend your 30s in LA.

BESSER: You should come here with a complete game. There’s just too much pressure here. It’s much more career-oriented. And I’d hate to worry about my career before I knew who I was. I’d hate Hollywood to compromise me before I knew myself and had time to develop my strengths and my voice.

GETHARD: If you look at people who are New York people — Jon Glaser, Louis C.K., Eugene Mirman — they’re artists more than comics.

BESSER: New York is more alive in stand-up than LA, for sure, especially

MIRMAN: If Todd Barry got up and moved to LA, that’d surprise me.

GETHARD: They do what they love. They’re businessmen, but not like LA people are.

MIRMAN: I wouldn’t want my life to be auditions, to try out for things I might or might not like. I’d rather work on personal projects with close friends. I’ve literally never been tempted by LA. It doesn’t sound fun. It doesn’t sound like why I got into comedy.

GETHARD: Doesn’t that feel like killing a mockingbird? Like I know why the caged bird sings? Why would you want to give up on your personal project and personal joy for a writers’ room?

KROLL: It’s a mutual progression. LA is so focused on production. And so are young comics.

MANDE: LA is nice but it makes me uneasy because it’s desperate and nervous, always about the next big project.

KING: Industry is looking for product. That’s how it works.

KROLL: It’s caused such a major move of NYC to LA, because UCB allowed people to be writers and actors simultaneously, and Hollywood took notice of that agility.

SKINNER: I was scared to come out to LA because I thought as soon as I stepped off the plane I’d feel flat and fat. But I felt smart.

SEIDELL: You have to be a multi-hyphenate to survive and find success.

PARHAM: My social media consultant, Luigi, is telling me to get on the ball.

SCHWARTZ: If I started getting lazy in LA, I remembered how I had memorized the 99-cent menu at Wendy’s, down to what the cost of stuff would be including taxes. My life in New York was this: wake up at 6 a.m. and write jokes for Letterman for 3 hours, then be a Letterman page, then sleep in the security office for a little bit, then be a page some more, then maybe a bit of a show that night, then sleep for four hours and do it all again. For years.

MANTZOUKAS: The Derrick model is the model that works.

DONALD GLOVER, of Derrick, NBC’s Community and rapper under the name Childish Gambino: Hell yeah. Damn right.

MANDE: That’s what going to happen, that’d be funny. People say, y’know, I’m looking for The Full Glover.

MANTZOUKAS: Like, let me explain this to you: I was in a great show at UCB in New York with Jessica St. Clair, the first UCB show ever to be reviewed in The New York Times, where we sold out every night, every Saturday night for a year. And I realized that the audience that saw that, read about that — that even knew about that — was so much less than the people who’ve seen any single Derrick video. It blew my mind.

GLOVER: That’s exactly why we did what we did. We can do shows all night every night, and sell them all out, but you know what’s happening right now? People are watching a Derrick video. Right now. For the first time. They’re telling their friend about it. They’re posting it on Facebook. And you know what I’m doing? I’m doing nothing. I’m just standing here talking to you. It’s always there and it’s always working.

SEIDELL: The proper path doesn’t exist anymore. It’s wherever you are. It’s a huge YouTube channel and you can do that in Cincinnati.

MIRMAN: There are people who are celebrities because they’re very good at Twitter.

OZERI: You can get that stuff — the jokes and the little creative personal victories — from Twitter.

GETHARD: New York offers more breathing room and more freedom. Andy Warhol, punk rock, that’s all out of here. You can go darker and stranger and more abstract in New York. The audience here actually craves experimentation. What works in LA is a sure thing, what they already know has worked before.

PIERSON: If you were white and self-aware back then, then you think a lot about the 90s. There were 50 cities aching to be the next Seattle. None of them did. Nowhere is the next Seattle because everywhere is the next Seattle.

MIRMAN: The things that shoot in LA often shoot in Vancouver and you know what? I can fly to Vancouver, too.

KING: They’re both traps. New York says ‘no’ and ‘Who cares? So what?’ and makes you feel bad. LA says ‘yes’ and makes you feel great, but everyone lies. How many people in LA have jobs that are entirely just having meetings?

SKINNER: People trust negativity more than they trust positivity. I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.

KROLL: LA also allows for a more settled lifestyle, yards and all that. It’s more of a grown-up place.

SKINNER: It feels like getting serious.

MANDE: My friends out there certainly don’t miss New York.

GETHARD: Oh that? That I will go on the record saying it really pisses me off. People move and two months later say ‘You have to move!’ I went out there and had drinks with a friend — a legitimate friend — and he said ‘You’re not serious about your career unless you live in LA.’ I was like, motherfucker! I got a lead in a sitcom in New York! I work so hard! Don’t tell me I have to move here. That’s not nice.

ATAMANUIK: When the mob set up in Vegas, the New York mob didn’t die. But you know what? New York still sorta pays LA’s bills.

SEIDELL: Everyone’s working both coasts. It’s the same talent. You go to Montreal and someone gets introduced as an LA comic and you’re like, what? You just moved there last year after like 10 years in New York.

GETHARD: The pendulum will swing. The next thing that could only come out of New York will come out of New York. And then things will equalize, a bit of a game-changer.

KING: You can do whatever you want in either place. In New York, that’s because nobody pays attention to you. In LA, it’s because people are only paying attention to themselves. Everyone I talk to here, really, the dream is to live in both. Because there’s nothing better than spring and fall in New York, and there’s nothing worse than summer and winter there.

SEIDELL: You can catch a break in New York. Maybe it’s a lower break than LA, but a break’s a break. I feel like you can’t take that away from New York.

BESSER: You can get lost out here, too. New York is a less lonely place. You live closer to where you perform. LA, though, it weighs on the soul.

SCHWARTZ: I was supposed to fly out to New York next week, but then I got asked to shoot some at Parks & Rec, so what I’m doing now is New York for 2 days, then LA for 3 days, then New York again. But I didn’t buy a return ticket, so I can really be in New York without always planning out LA in my head.

MANTZOUKAS: LA, New York, whatever, it’s all an improv show itself, really. The hardest thing is the internal battle between the knowledge that your audience expects you to be hilarious and brilliant and the awareness you have that you have no idea what’s about to happen, and very little real control over it, an inability to control the inherent panic. So what do you do? You be very good at narrowing the scope of what you’re going to do. The first rule is: don’t ask questions, because everyone else is in the same situation and they don’t know anything either.

GETHARD: I’m in a real personal crisis: What am I in comedy for? Being happy and being successful don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but often they are. In LA, I could pay my rent but I’d have to walk a much more traditional track. But the thing I’m best at is being weird. So do I wanna keep being weird or go out there and be less weird but make more money? I don’t know. I have to decide soon.

MANTZOUKAS [after a detailed synopsis of the harrowing mountainclimbing accident documentary Touching The Void, which he sincerely and earnestly recommends everyone see immediately]: Everyone is dropped in the jungle, given a machete and told ‘Success is out there!’ And everyone has to cut their own path, which means if you find someone else’s path, don’t follow it because it’s not yours.

PARHAM: I had to come on my own time.

MANTZOUKAS: Does stuff happen out of the blue? Yes. Conan gets a show. Or Bill Hader is in a sketch show someone’s backyard and goes straight to SNL. But Bill Hader was still out there, doing his thing in that backyard. In LA.

SCHWARTZ: I don’t want to let myself cool off. You don’t want to lose what you have after you’ve worked so hard for it and sacrificed so much.

MANTZOUKAS: This is the most intellectual and sincere thing I’ll say: You can’t say ‘I want to be on SNL’ or ‘I want to be in the next Apatow movie,’ because that’s not available to you and that’s not going to happen. What you can do is do the next thing you can do. You have to climb up the mountain, or down the mountain, and the way you do that is by looking around and seeing what’s the next rock you can grab in arm’s reach. And that’s how it happens, rock by rock.

Richard Morgan’s best joke is that, when people call him Dick, he says “Richard is long for Dick.” He has no idea how he has written about comedy for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, Out and more.

Due West: A Roundtable Discussion on NY’s Comedy Exodus