L.A. Comedy Trip: The Meltdown with [Jonah and] Kumail

The Meltdown is a weekly show co-hosted by Jonah Ray (absent last night shooting a Bing commercial) and Kumail Nanjiani (a warm host, funny and wry, who did some great work on a Harry Potter bit I hope to write about in another post) in the back of Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard. It’s a dark room about the size of a racquetball court, but with a very low ceiling and a unisex bathroom. Meltdown packed the chairs in like proverbial sardines. Is this what made it, easily, the most generous room I’ve seen so far? Every comic killed, but I want here to talk about two who stood out: Anthony Jeselnik and Matt Braunger.

Jeselnik‘s on what Meltdown’s billing as a “summer fling”, which I think means that he’s been booked each week. He told us that every week he writes about 50 jokes and brings the best 25-30 to try out on the room. He held some stapled sheets of paper in his hand. Those that killed would get a check. Those that did not would be X’d out. Some jokes were X-worthy and some got checked. “Three weeks out of the year I run a summer camp for kids about to get molested,” got maybe his biggest laugh of the night. Check plus.

What was fascinating about the act was that reports on how well, to Jeselnik’s ears, the jokes landed would be kind of jokily delivered to us after the jokes had landed in the very room we were sitting in. “I like a change of pace…check-minus that one.” “You see what I was going for there, just wasn’t funny.” Of course, these reports on the jokes’ statuses often got more laughs than the jokes themselves. It’s like the decision comics make to address heckling or other discomfort in the room. You can always get a laugh out of it. Jeselnik tours around the country, has been on a couple Comedy Central roasts, and just taped a one-hour special, so it was great to watch how a comic can use a small and generous room of thinky comic nerds to work out new material for a future larger audience. Oh, and don’t miss his Dane Cook impression.

Oh yeah, Paul Scheer showed up, but the as-yet-aired episode of NTSF:SD:SUV he brought to screen for us had technical problems so he just did some welcome banter with Nanjiani on stage about piss porn and other dream-killing jobs.

Matt Braunger you’ve seen maybe in commercials or as neighbor Gene on Up All Night. We know the old saw about comedy and timing so well it has its own Wikipedia entry, but Braunger’s comedy is so gorgeously timed. Maybe all gorgeously means here is speedily. Braunger doesn’t let the room get silent before a bit has been completely and thoroughly milked. He’s like the opposite of Tim Hammer, who will let a room titter away to nothing before he drops his next line. The only silence you hear in Braunger’s act is when he moves from one bit to another. Otherwise he’s presenting a premise—as in an extremely funny bit about the combination of “a gulp, a sigh, and a swallow” that forecasts vomiting—clowning/acting the premise out, providing examples, and developing little narratives about the premise manifested until he gets to the climactic line. Then he lets the room rest and picks us back up again with a new premise — “Yeah, I get heckled every now and then” — and we get ready for another round. An ecstatically fun act to watch.

Two more things here. Tim Williamson’s second bit of his set was looking to the back of the room and asking, “How much time do I have left?” The earliness of the question being much of the joke, helping to establish his neurotic persona. It felt a little hacky, and then I realized I’d heard it before, just this week. Blaine Capatch, featured comic for Patton Oswalt’s Improv show, at least twice popped in during moderate between-joke laughter to ask “How’m I doin’ on time?” Then he’d laugh that old gag off quickly and move on to his next bit. It’s such an old gag I’ve seen poets do it during readings. It always gets a laugh. Every time. It’s surefire.

Sean O’Connor headlined last night, in that he had the longest set (but not the last set, which was given generously to TV producer Dan Pasternack, who while amiable with the audience was maybe the one comic of the night who didn’t kill), and part of it was a funny bit about haunted houses in LA. Apparently LA is the only place in the world with $70 haunted houses. But they’re also great, he says, in that LA is the only place in the world with this many out-of-work actors. That, plus a funny example, was the extent of the bit, and so it was completely different from what the Walsh Brothers did with their haunted house bit Tuesday night, which was a much longer story with many micro-bits stuffed inside.

This isn’t some kind of Mencian jokestealing I’m getting at. It’s just interesting to see how topics get handled by comics of different stripes. What it means is there’s no shortage of good jokes out there, even (let’s hope?) ones about airplane food.

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