LOS FELIZ—If you’re at all familiar with comedy in Los Angeles, you’re probably aware of the big name clubs that line Sunset Boulevard, like The Laugh Factory or The Comedy Store. If improv or sketch comedy is more up your alley, names like Groundlings, Second City, or Upright Citizens Brigade should ring a bell. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that the underground comedy scene of the city is diverse and robust; with open mics and independently produced shows happening non-stop in cafes, bars, the back of comic book shops, and even the top floor of a Chinese restaurant.
That’s What She Said: Ladies Night, formerly known as The Lady Jam, is a weekly comedy show at The Clubhouse, an underground improv theater tucked into an unsuspicious Los Feliz strip mall. It was started by Diana Varco, Stephanie Bentley Pollard, Lara Zvirbulis, Carmen Angelica, and Colleen Butler about three years ago. The women met in an improv class at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the comedy theater that opened after the success of the Comedy Central show of the same name, famous for launching Amy Poehler’s career. “We formed an all-female improv group…We would perform around town and sometimes do sketch shows, sometimes at UCB, but sometimes at all the other indie nights around town. We became great friends,” Diana Varco told Canyon News. They called their improv group “That’s What She Said”, which went on to become part of the weekly show’s name.
She continued, “At that time, we found that there wasn’t a lot of female-centric shows and that it was more of a boy’s club, so we wanted to create a show that really highlighted and supported female artists.” In its nascent phase, it was more of a cathartic discussion group than a show. “At first it kind of was a question/answer session about different struggles we’ve had in the improv scene or what to do in certain situations; what our comedy is like, versus the male viewpoint,” she said. Diana and her fellow organizers wanted to have an “improv jam” as part of the show from the beginning, which she describes as “[getting] up and [doing] a bunch of scenes, and sometimes you’ve worked with the people, sometimes you haven’t…it’s always very fun.” And thus, the “The Lady Jam” was born, its name taken from a similar show in New York.
After putting on The Lady Jam for a year, the women behind the show wanted to showcase their often multi-talented performers in different ways. The name of the show was changed to “That’s What She Said: Ladies Night” to express that it was now all-encompassing; instead of just an improv jam, each show features “standup, improvisers, character work, sketch work, comedic song, honestly anything that a woman wants to get up and perform.”
Despite the show’s focus on women, men are more than welcome to attend. “We love having men in our audience, and we always take the suggestion for the jam from the men, to say thank you for coming,” Diana explained. Generally, improv scenes start with an audience member’s suggestion – the performers ask for any word and someone in the audience yells it out, and a scene is created based on whatever ideas the word gives performers. At any time, a scene can take an unexpected turn, depending on how creatively a performer can respond to the others.
I attended last Thursday’s show, which featured stand up from Valerie Tosi, who told a hilarious story about her stoner mom, and Sasha Feiler, who did her set from the perspective of a ghost lamenting the struggles of the afterlife (dressing the part in a dress blotted with fake blood). Two improv troupes also performed, one of which came all the way from Chicago. The show gives a nod to its origins at the end, when all the women in attendance are invited to come up on stage and “jam” together. Even I was invited to participate, though I chose just to observe the first time around. When I told Diana that I had never done anything like an improv jam before, she told me, “My belief is that everybody is funny, everyone is interesting, everyone has a great story and perspective…and sharing that without any fear of judgement or [worrying] ‘Are people going to think I’m stupid?’ is really hard, so we try to just support whatever anyone thinks and wants to do.” I must say, I was tempted to get on stage and join in with the performers because the environment was so positive and welcoming. Maybe next time.
That’s What She Said: Ladies Night happens every Thursday at 10 p.m. at the second floor of The Clubhouse at 1607 N Vermont Ave. The show is free (as are all of the shows at The Clubhouse), but donations are encouraged. There is plentiful free parking. The lineup for each week’s show can be found on Facebook. If you’re a woman who is interested in performing, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.