The rise of standup comedy in Ventura County
By Michael Sullivan 06/26/2014
I was nervous. Really nervous.
It was my first time performing in front of so many people. Sure, my friends had seen me do it before — I had always been a crowd pleaser. Even my classmates had been supportive of my endeavor. But this was different. What if these strangers found my performance to be offensive or, worse, boring? It didn’t matter at this point. It was do or die.
I was sitting in the back of the room trying to calm my nerves with a couple of beers. Two of my classmates had just gone up. They didn’t look nervous. All of us had just completed a six-week course to perfect our stage performances. (It was news to me that such a thing could be taught.) All of us had practiced in front of each other and criticized our various techniques. I knew I wanted firsthand experience on the subject so this was the best way to do it. I watched, I laughed. They were great.
The audience at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club enjoys a recent show.
Photo by: Scott Alan Mount
“Next up is Michael Sullivan. Give her a round of applause!” Randy Lubas of the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club revved up the crowd.
“Yes. Hi. My name is Michael Sullivan. And just in case you are wondering, yes, these are real,” I spoke nervously and pointed to my obvious assets — my blue eyes, of course. (Or not. You had to be there to know.) “I’m here to talk to you tonight about my dating life as a 6-foot-1-inch woman named Michael.”
The crowd laughed and cheered — my dating life has always been such a bother and they knew it by only those three simple facts. For the next five minutes, things were a bit hazy as my heart raced; my only hope was that not all of my bits would fall on deaf ears. I was funny, or at least I thought I was. It was a blur, really. I am certain my face was flush and I might even have stuttered and stammered. I know that I missed some of the jokes I had wanted to tell. The one about the little person who called himself Little Rich Man was fairly funny. I know that I forgot some of the punch lines, too; it didn’t really matter in the scheme of things. It was only five minutes but, surprisingly, it felt like five hours. And so my life as a standup comic began and ended in the same night — at least for the foreseeable future. But the class, the performances, the drive to make people laugh … and the need to laugh, to be entertained, it all became crystal clear.
Several months prior to the standup performance in May, it became obvious that the comedy scene in Ventura County had accelerated at a rapid pace. From only weekend shows at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, the Ventura Improv Company and Borderline in Thousand Oaks years ago to produced shows and open mics at several restaurants and bars practically every night of the week popping up over the last several months, the comedy scene in Ventura County had exploded, for good reason.
I took the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club standup workshop because I wanted to learn how to write jokes, tell jokes in front of a crowd and build enough courage to actually do it — I knew I didn’t have enough nerve to do it on my own. I wanted to know what it was like to be on stage and why so many were willing to share so much of their personal lives to keep a crowd amused. And I did get it, doing my own standup and then going to so many shows. Laughter is the best medicine. The reality of this scene is that there is no way to hold it back: Laugh, be laughed at or get out of the way.
Back in the day
As far back as locals can remember, there were only, really, two places one could catch a standup comedy show. First and foremost was the Comedy Club at Hornblowers Restaurant at the Ventura Harbor. It was the place to catch a regular weekend show in the 1980s and ’90s. You’d grab a burger at the restaurant and then head toward the back, disappearing behind the curtains that separated the restaurant from the club. Harry Capehart was the reason the comedy club came to be in the first place.
In an L.A. Times article, “Stand-Up Takes a Tumble,” published May 25, 1995, Capehart spoke about going to the management of Hornblowers in 1981, proposing the idea of a comedy club. (At one point, Capehart was booking talent for nearly 30 venues.) By 1983, the Comedy Club was fully realized and local residents caught the comedy fever.
“Imagine the first business undertaking you decide to do, a hit beyond your wildest imaginings,” Capehart said in the article. “Lines out the door, turning away 100 people. People in the county were starved for comedy. It was huge — like wildfire.”
While Capehart had hit the mother lode of affection for the local comedy scene, the other player, the Ventura Theater, wasn’t as fortunate. Over a seven-year course, the theater was able to attract big names such as Jim Carrey, Sam Kinnison, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Sandra Bernhard and Dana Carvey — before they became superstars. Despite the big acts, former general manager Tom Welton told the L.A. Times that comedy at the theater was not a moneymaker.
The 1990s, however, forever changed the standup comedy scene when many of these big-name acts went mainstream, starring in sitcoms and offering audiences the option of staying in the comfort of their own homes. And so the comedians went off to other ventures.
From that point on, things were never quite the same again, at least in Ventura County. But there has been a recent resurgence, a rapid growth in local up-and-coming comedians as well as audiences who want to be entertained by them.
It’s all about stage time
Over the last five years — beginning nearly 15 years from the point that the local comedy scene basically went bust — there has been a dedicated effort to recapture the love for standup. Enter Randy Lubas and Andres Fernandez. Both comedians had gained a certain notoriety and success with their careers but they were looking for a change of scenery and found the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club. By 2008, the comedy club was really struggling and Lubas and Fernandez were presented with an opportunity they couldn’t refuse: Buy the comedy club and change the status quo. And that’s exactly what they did.
“Whenever we finally bought the club, within a matter of three years, we quadrupled the business,” Lubas said.
The club’s offerings grew from just regular weekend shows with bigger-name acts to hosting open mics, themed shows, karaoke and more every night of the week. Some days, different shows will be running simultaneously in the theater and the Green Room, which is a smaller space adjacent to the theater, with its own bar and stage and which has been open for about a year. On any given Tuesday, the club hosts an open mic in the Green Room where up-and-coming comedians all from over the county and elsewhere get five minutes to test out their bits on audiences partially made up of other budding comedians. Beyond the actual club at the Harbor, Lubas and Fernandez created the annual Ventura Comedy Festival, which has brought hundreds of comedians to the city to perform on stages all over the city. This year it will take place Sept. 22-28. But just as the club grew in participation on both sides of the stage, the scene was gaining momentum throughout the county.
On occasion over the last several years, the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and the Ventura Theater have featured bigger-named acts as well, such as Dana Carvey, Lisa Lampanelli, Lewis Black and Bob Saget. Four years ago, local funnyman and cartoonist Jason Love began hosting sporadic shows at Borderline Bar and Grill, featuring Adam Carolla, Jamie Kennedy and more; it’s now a regular show called Friday Night Funnies. In late 2013, Love began producing Laugh Out Loud Comedy Night, a show every third Wednesday of the month, at Paseo Camarillo Regency.
Love has been entertaining audiences in print or on the stage since 2003, but the recent jump in interest in the county has created a dynamic he really enjoys.
“I love the Ventura comedy scene because every time I work out in Ventura County is one more day that I don’t have to drive to L.A.,” he said. “I go up three [to] five times a week, so my car hates L.A. … and the L.A. driver trying to bulldoze it from behind.”
Around the same time the comedy club started to see a boom, Ventura County’s main stage for nightlife, downtown Ventura, was finding its funny bone. In fall 2011, Bernie of Bernadette’s on Main was approached by Marty Finklestein, a resident who had just relocated to Ventura and had decades of experience managing comedy clubs in his hometown in Texas, about hosting a comedy night once a month. For the next year, the comedy night filled every seat of Bernie’s small cafe until she was forced to close her business due to failed negotiations with her landlord. But that little stage at Bernadette’s, the open mics and opening act opportunities at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, and just a general passion for standup put the wheels in motion for the recent explosion in standup in the Downtown district.
Various local comedians have now moved onto other venues and shows, most of them taking off just recently, in the last six months or so: Andrey Belikov presents the Comedy Hideaway on Wednesdays at Peirano’s (formerly at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club); Samantha Ross presents What’s Up with Merlot, every other Thursday at The Wine Rack; and Camilo Alvear and Jarred Kiel co-produce the Pre-Game Comedy Show at Bombay Bar on Friday nights. Also, in Midtown Ventura, Hypno Comics presents Comics and Comics one Saturday per month. The Keynote Lounge on the east end and Hong Kong Inn in downtown also offer open mics Mondays and Thursdays respectively. With this rapid growth, however, there has been some backlash. The owners of the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club have one strict policy — if anyone goes on to produce his or her own show or does routines at any other local shows, this person is no longer allowed to appear at the club.
“Free enterprise — that is your choice. You decide to go off on your own, then go ahead and do it,” Lubas said. But “The one thing we don’t like is disloyalty, those that have turned around and tried to compete against us, especially when it is people we have really opened our doors to.”
Lubas added, though, that even with the new shows popping up, it really hasn’t changed the way they do business.
“I don’t have any basis to think it has affected us at all,” Lubas said, noting though that the policy hasn't actually been put into practice.
This policy has created some tension in the comedy scene as the goal of most comedians is to get as much stage time as possible, wherever they can. But so it goes in the world of funny business.
Alvear, Belikov, Kiel, Ross and others have all been affected by this policy, though Kiel and Ross in particular weren’t normally performing at the club. For the most part, producing shows and performing at other local shows — unless the comedian is a headliner — is more about the stage time; most fledgling comedians don’t get paid anything for their time and that is standard at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club as well. The show, however, must go on.
“I think it’s positive, obviously, that there is more of a variety, that there are more opportunities for local talent and to have different style shows and comedians,” Ross said.
Ross, who originally got her start doing standup at Bernadette’s, recalled her first gig producing her own shows at Zoey’s in early 2013 and how important that was to her.
“It was a huge transition point for me and a huge opportunity for a newer comic, something that I would have not given up for an unpaid guest spot every couple of months,” Ross said.
On the future of comedy in Ventura County, Ross is optimistic.
“I feel that if we continue to respect the audience and keep putting on great shows, the customers will keep coming back,” Ross said.
Full disclosure: Samantha Ross is an employee of the VCReporter.
* See related story here: Improv celebrates 25 years
Top-shelf television comedy writers and performers.
Peirano’s, 204 E. Main St., Ventura, 648-4853.
Comics and Comics:
L.A.-based geeky indie standup troupe.
One Saturday per month.
Hypno Comics, 1803 E. Main. St., Ventura, 651-9767.
Glory Hole Comedy Night:
Local stand-up showcase hosted by Camilo Alvear.
Hong Kong Inn, 435 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura, Ventura, 648-3161.
Laugh Out Loud Comedy Night:
Jason Love presents standup, with celebrity headliners from Showtime,
Comedy Central and more.
Every third Wednesday of the month.
Paseo Camarillo Regency, 390 N. Lantana Road, Camarillo
Pre-Game Comedy Show:
Local standup showcase.
Bombay Bar, 143 S. California St., Ventura, 643-4404
Ventura Harbor Comedy Club:
Well-known touring stand-up comedians.
Fridays through Sundays and some Wednesdays.
1559 Spinnaker Drive, suite 205A, Ventura Harbor Village, 644-1500
What’s Up With Merlot:
Well-known indie-circuit comics. Hosted by Samantha Ross.
Every other Thursday.
The Wine Rack.
14 S. California St., Ventura, 653-9463,
Comedy Open Mics
Ventura Harbor Comedy Club
1559 Spinnaker Drive, suite 205A, Ventura Harbor Village, 644-1500,
Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
10245 Telephone Road, Ventura, 647-9390.
Mondays at 8 p.m.
Occasional Comedy Venues
The Canyon Club:
Well-known touring standup comedics
28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura, 879-5016.
Well-known touring and indie-circuit comics
99 Rolling Oaks Drive, Thousand Oaks, 446-4435.
Ventura Comedy Festival:
featuring celebrity and well-known comics,
plus a chance for anyone and everyone to compete
for the funniest person title and much more.
Throughout the city of Ventura,