Ten years ago, in the summer of 2010, my partner Joel Mandelkorn and I started The Super Serious Show. The show set out to combine the best of the Los Angeles comedy scene, presenting a new mix of stand-up, sketch, and musical comedy, along with videos each month. It was during a time in Los Angeles independent comedy when there weren’t many live shows — at least compared to 2019 when live comedy was still an active community. When we originally hunted for venues to host the show, everyone turned us away. Then, on a whim, I asked my friends at Smashbox Studios if they would consider hosting a monthly comedy show in one of their studios for next to no money. I still can’t believe they agreed.
Since our very first show a decade ago, I’ve taken two four-by-five Polaroid photos of every performer backstage — one serious and one silly. Over ten years, this has amassed to something of an archive of independent L.A. stand-up during the 2010s. Looking at this collection now, I can see technical and conceptual alignments emerging, with Polaroids and stand-up being both classic and instant in their own ways. I recently turned the series into a book of photos and interviews with comedians titled Super Serious: An Oral History of Los Angeles Independent Stand-up Comedy.
The book is an accidental time-capsule yearbook, documenting independent comedy before the “after times” we’re currently living. In addition to the portraits, the book includes insights from the many comedians who performed on our stage. Of course, when the book came out, I couldn’t predict there would be a never-ending pandemic that halted live comedy as we know it. With all of us missing those cramped rooms and spaces filled with laughter, I decided to ask some comedians featured in the book one more question: If you could go back to your pre-pandemic self and offer advice about the coming months of your life and comedy career, what would it be? Here’s what they had to say.
(And for the record, if I could give my pre-pandemic self-advice, it would be to stay out later with friends. The deadlines will hold. Trust me — you’ll have plenty of time for work. Spend the time you have now making memories with those you love.)
Asif Ali: If I could travel back in time I would tell myself to savor each set, including the bad ones, because I’m sure even hecklers are going through it right now.
Maria Bamford: ENJOY every second of being onstage. Snort in the scent of a well-used microphone.
Kate Berlant: Don’t cancel any shows. Talk to everyone — you are about to essentially lose your personality. You will even miss people you have no chemistry with. Stay out very, very late.
Ahmed Bharoocha: Soak it all in. You’re going to miss every part of stand-up. You’ll miss thinking about your show during the day. Picking out an outfit. Driving to the venue. Finding parking. Checking in. Hanging in the greenroom. Sitting in the back listening to the other comics. Hearing a roomful of people laugh together. And, yes, you’ll even miss bombing in front of real people. And of course hanging out after the show. Record every set. Enjoy every set. Touch everyone!
Joel Kim Booster: I would tell myself to let go of feeling embarrassed about experimenting with different kinds of online comedy early — just do the Instagram Live show, figure out a way to make TiKTok work, all that shit. I feel like I’m just sort of now realizing that the way I’ve done comedy in the past, the only thing I’m really good at, live stand-up comedy, won’t exist for a while. Now I feel behind. I feel like I’ve gotta create an Instagram Live show, but all the good ideas have been taken. I felt embarrassed and nervous at the beginning because it’s not what I do, but I wish I would’ve experimented a little more back when everyone else was figuring shit out, not now when it feels like everyone else already has.
Byron Bowers: This is your comedy boom, like the one you read about in the ’80s. Take some time to enjoy it and make memories. Over the next few weeks, focus less on the set and spend a little more time with the community: the show producers, the staff, the bartenders, the sound people. Those are the people you’re really gonna miss.
1. I’d gently explain to myself that cities are dead. They had a great run, but now they’re over. C’est la vie. We’d have a funeral for cities, bury them, and move on.
2. I’d immediately rent out our house in L.A. and get a cheap place on the central coast of California near the beach. But far enough away from other human beings that they never need to close their playgrounds. Oh, what I wouldn’t have done for a fucking playground around week eight of lockdown with two kids under 3.
3. Go sit in a bar. Just spend so much time there. Bars are over now.
4. In fact, go get on a crowded elevator. Go to a tickle party. Go to an old-timey stock market and just press up against a bunch of strangers’ sweaty, yelling bodies. Old-timey stock markets are over now, too.
5. I’d tell myself to leave the kids in day care (don’t worry, apparently, they’re fine!?) and write two movies.
6. Then we’d move to Vancouver. Vancouver is the new Hollywood.
7. After Vancouver has a huge spike for being the new Hollywood, we’d move to Sydney: “Sydney’s the new Vancouver.”
8. Eventually move back to L.A. after Sydney and Vancouver are decimated by the entertainment industry.
9. Move to Glendale. It’s really not bad.
Naomi Ekperigin: Advice to myself March 1, 2020: Appreciate the audience in this half-filled bar because in a few short weeks, you’re going to be bored as hell. You’re going to realize the importance of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Soon you won’t be able to fit into your Old Navy jeans, and THAT’S OKAY!
Jena Friedman: I had been following the outbreak in the news since late January, so by mid-March I had already canceled my upcoming tour and postponed production on my Adult Swim show, and I was pretty prepared for what was to come. Now if I could travel back in time earlier, say to around 2009, I probably would have put my stand-up career on pause and pursued that master’s in public health, which I would have paid for by investing in bitcoin.
Ron Funches: Hi, pre-pandemic Ron. You’re gonna be really happy that you finally went to Japan and didn’t put it off one more year.
I know that you think getting into the stock market right now is a responsible thing to do, but trust me, IT IS NOT!
Spend that money on toilet paper, weed, and Nintendo Switches, and you will thank me later. Be nice to your wife; she’s gonna be one of the few reasons you survive the next six months.
The next year will be rough. Remember you have actually been through worse, which is both inspiring and depressing.
Love you so much.
Megan Gailey: I was out to dinner when the news broke that the NBA season had been suspended and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID. The restaurant I was eating at has really good ribs, and I wish I’d ordered a full slab. And then since I got ribs, I’d also need cornbread and macaroni and cheese and dirty martinis and a chocolate soufflé — all the really good shit that I can’t make at home. I rushed out of the restaurant because I felt like I needed to get home, but now I dream of someday going back and just covering myself in BBQ sauce, for all the world to see!
Anthony Jeselnik: If I could travel back in time to before the pandemic and give myself some advice, I’d say, “Just relax. You’ve released four hours of comedy in the past ten years. That is a lifetime of work for most comedians. Maybe the pandemic means stand-up will never come back the same way it was before. And if the new world of comedy is not to your liking, you can walk away and go do something else. Just keep writing and take care of the new puppy you adopted three months ago.” And then, of course, I would ignore that advice. As I ignore all advice.
Kyle Kinane: I’d tell myself to purchase more loungewear, as that will be the celebrated and functional choice for months to come. Plus, nobody wants to fight the militias in something restrictive. As far as comedy, I don’t know. I’d say maybe it’s okay to not force creativity when you don’t have it — that it’s not a rock you can keep hammering to crack it. It’s okay to step back from it and let the engine cool off for a while. My joke notes were starting to read like a prisoner’s diary.
Andy Kindler: My advice would have been to stock up on N95 masks, so I could sell them at an inflated price later. No, I mean so I could give them to all of my friends, at a slightly inflated price. I’m not in the friendship business. Career-wise I should have retired before the pandemic and moved to a Gilligan’s-style island. Who am I kidding? Not enough people I’ve been told. What am I sticking around for? A comeback in my 70s. I started in the ’70s so that would be appropriate. Good riddance suckers!
Jamie Lee: I would tell myself to appreciate all of the little quirks that come with the territory of being a comedian. For example, I would appreciate leaving the house late at night to do a set, even if it’s cold outside and I’m in the middle of watching a cozy-ass movie like Something’s Gotta Give … Too bad. Put on your coat because Jamie’s Gotta Go. It’s a blessing to see your fellow comedy friends and connect with a live audience. I would also work harder to appreciate the travel aspect of my job. It’s exciting to go to different cities, not inconvenient. It’s head-clearing to be by yourself, with your own thoughts, in your own hotel room during the day, before doing shows at night.
Will Miles: You’re gonna get some welcomed time at home, but not how you would’ve expected it. Either way, take advantage of being able to see your wife and soon-to-be baby all day every day for a change. But keep in mind, your sleep will still suck. Watch less news and stay off Twitter as much as possible, and maybe that’ll help. Career-wise, finish those scripts. All of them. Do it before the baby comes, please.
As far as stand-up, here’s that break you’ve been talking about for a year and a half. Come back with a stronger point of view and work on those act-outs. Utilize that non-weed stuff in your drafts. A lot of great stand-ups take breaks. Chris Rock took a break and came back with Bring the Pain. You can take a break and at least come back and bring the slight annoyance.
Also, start therapy. Peace.
Hasan Minhaj: Listen, I know you don’t like doing late spots, but do late spots. You’re going to miss doing stand-up. Also, it’s totally cool to not see the kids for a while. I’m serious. Neglect them. You’ll thank me later.
1. If you thought most of the inane professional nonsense you worry about didn’t matter before, there’s a whole new level of not mattering that’s about to come into play; get psyched for that! Will you still stress about all of it in an attempt to feel control since there are much larger problems you have even less control over? Yes, mother!
2. Everything you have learned and perfected as an introvert will finally be a moral imperative. Enjoy that.
3. Please start crafting an answer to the question, “But are women pandemic funny?” Yes, a fart noise is acceptable.
4. Each night, you will fall asleep to the soothing sounds of your own irrelevance, but don’t let it stop you from going to a protest.
5. Buy one cat toy for your cat and one for yourself.
Natalie Palamides: If I could give my pre-COVID self some advice, I’d suggest creating at least one act that doesn’t require touching an audience member, and definitely find some sort of work-around for any material (most of my material) that includes making out with an audience member. I’d remind myself not to panic, and that if I’m bombing on a Zoom show, I can still pull out my boobs — nipples are always a great surprise. No masks required for nipples — oh, wait … Yes there are. Masks are almost consistently required for nipples on the internet, even pre-COVID. So, I won’t be able to make out with anyone or get my tits out … I guess I better get better at comedy! Or maybe shift to ass stuff? Ass is always allowed. Isn’t that interesting? Why is ass more socially acceptable than the female nipple? Some would argue that ass is just as provocative as nipple, and yet we allow one and not the other. I’m onboard for ass — not saying it shouldn’t be allowed; just think that it’s not fair that ass is allowed, and half the population’s nipple isn’t allowed. Huh. Anyway, good luck doing interactive naked physical comedy in 2020, Nat! Gonna love watching you squirm!
Andy Peters: I would travel back to the weeks before this thing and say, “Hey, buddy, all those big shows that you are preparing for right now … stop. Trust me on this … Start a podcast. Pick a topic and just start a really good, quality podcast right now and do it twice a week. Trust me.”
Rory Scovel: If I could tell my pre-pandemic self anything, it would be: “Spot the gratitude and the need for it much earlier in life. Spot it without needing horrific circumstances to wake you up to what feels good in life. Wake up now to relationships that have meaning, and quit focusing so much on the need to have a successful career, and be grateful that you have one at all. One that you can afford to pay the bills on and buy groceries on.”
I already loved getting onstage, but I took it for granted. I took for granted that one day it might not be available. I see now who I want to be as a person simply because of gratitude. It’s a great way to clean the cobwebs and bullshit out of your brain and just focus on your joy. My happiness and adrenaline comes from making people laugh — whether that makes them feel better or happier, I don’t know, but I do miss being able to do it, and hope that maybe it does that for someone.
Moses Storm: I would have told my pre-pandemic self to move the shoot date of my special up a little. I was supposed to tape my first one-hour comedy special with HBO on May 9. Sure, I could tape it now, but I don’t think any comedian wants their first special to be a weird “pandemic outdoor masked crowd Zoom drive-in heckled by a Kia Sorento honk-laugh” show. No shade to anyone who does. And who really cares what I do. I just know for me, after this, I am not gonna wanna watch anything that reminds me of this awful time. And I plan to have my special playing in a loop in my fire mansion.
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Stock up on toilet paper and Clorox wipes. No time to explain, just trust me!
Sasheer Zamata: Hey there, pre-quarantine Sasheer. Look at us, so hopeful, always on the go, go, GO! Well, guess what, you’re gonna get a break soon. Will it be by choice? No, but you’ll be able to sit yourself down and relaaaax (in those few moments when you’re not getting anxious while reading the news). Sure, you were going to film another stand-up special, but it can wait! The next few months will give you time to really refine your material. Will you be able to do that? No, live shows won’t be safe for a while, but you’ll have so much time to think about what performing could be like! Honestly, on the plus side, you are going to have a ton of time to focus on yourself. You’re gonna get into new activities (rollerskating! Hula-Hooping! Singing!), you’re gonna reconnect with friends and family in a new way (Zoom), and you’re gonna do the most therapy you’ve ever done in your life. And at the end of all this you’re gonna be so much better than the person you were before, and you’ll be well equipped to take over the world (if there’s still one to take over)!
All photos are from Mandee Johnson’s new book, Super Serious: An Oral History of Los Angeles Independent Stand-up Comedy.