LOS ANGELES – Comedian Pete Lee showed no signs of nervousness before one of the most important sets of his career. But he was starving. After scarfing down a burger in the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club’s intimate restaurant, he flagged down a waiter for the bill, only to be told that it was on the house.
“That’s a first,” said the former Minnesotan, sitting beneath a portrait of Adam Sandler.
Perhaps the free dinner was the revered venue’s way of wishing the comic good luck before he faced industry bigwigs in a night designed to show off his potential.
But it also was an indication that Lee is making inroads in the cutthroat capital of comedy, a place where hundreds of standups relocate each year to see if they can make it in the major leagues. Moving to Los Angeles is a rite of passage that’s practically essential for a shot at stardom.
“You know you’re ready to be in L.A. when you’re the top dog in your hometown, when everybody is trying to be you,” said established headliner Nikki Glaser, a St. Louis native who did her close friend Lee a favor by opening for him at his showcase this past January. “It’s easy to stay on top at home, but you don’t write as much and you don’t have the hunger to be better. You need to go where you feel insecure again.”
It’s rarely an easy transition. Before relocating to Los Angeles last year, Lee was based in New York for 13 years. He established himself with numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and by becoming a crowd favorite at the Comedy Cellar, the famous venue that helped launch the careers of Jon Stewart and Aziz Ansari.
It barely mattered. In the Big Apple, Lee was performing five or six times a night. During his first three months in L.A., he stood in front of an audience only a half-dozen times.
“Right away, I knew it was going to be an ego check,” said Lee, who grew up in Janesville, Wis., but developed his act in Minneapolis between 1995 and 2005, primarily at Acme Comedy Co. “Even though I had a ton of credits, nobody knew who I was. Not only do you have to be a good comic out here, you have to wait in line.”
Lee didn’t have to struggle for long, largely due to the unique stage persona he cultivated over two decades: He’s the innocent lamb retaining Midwestern Niceness while strolling through a world of wolves.
“I have cheese in my backpack,” he said on stage at the Improv, while Blue Collar comic Ron White and “SNL” veteran David Koechner performed in the adjoining room. “I always have a look on my face like I’m holding a balloon.”
A representative from NBC was so impressed with the sunny-side-up performance that the network is developing a sitcom with Lee and Fallon’s production company. The show could land on the fall schedule next year.
Lee knows what it’s like to spend years, not months, trying to get on the radar.
Fired up after an appearance on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend,” Lee moved from Minneapolis to New York in 2005 with $10,000 in his account and a schedule packed with gigs on the college circuit.
Within two years, he was $38,000 in debt. On the road, he would occasionally sleep in his car so he wouldn’t have to spring for a motel room.
On one trip back to Minneapolis, he told his mentor, Acme’s Louis Lee, that it might be time to return to Minnesota.
“No matter how much it hurts, don’t come home,” the club owner told Lee over dinner. “You’ll never get to the point where you can go back out there again. Even if you’re not doing well, you’re still in the game. Just take your lumps and keep fighting.”
Lee eventually made a decent career for himself in Manhattan. As with so many of his peers, though, the lure of the West Coast was irresistible. If you want to star or write for a TV show — still the ultimate goal for most comics — Los Angeles remains the center of the universe.
“You get more stage time in New York, and it’s easier for poor people to get around, but L.A. is where you come for the writing jobs and TV gigs that will help you build a crowd,” said Minneapolis native Alice Wetterlund, who started her stand-up career in New York and moved to L.A. a few years ago. “But even good comics get here and throw in the towel. You spend years where everyone is telling you, ‘You’re funny, you’re funny, you’re funny,’ and now people are telling you that you’re not. In any other profession, if everybody was telling you to stop, you’d stop. You have to be insane to do this.”
Wetterlund, who was a cast member on MTV’s “Girl Code” and had a recurring role on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” shared her thoughts during a weekly brunch at a North Hollywood diner. It’s organized by Jackie Kashian, who developed her act in Minneapolis before moving to L.A. in 1999. Now she’s known as the unofficial godmother of Midwest comics.
Kashian spent her first 18 months in California sleeping on the floor of a friend’s studio, bouncing from one open mic to another, waiting for a break. It finally came — nine years later.
A network producer caught Kashian’s act — which requires keeping up with the news or, at least, using more than 8% of your brain — and introduced herself after the show.
“She said, ‘I do one favor for people I like, but you just get the one,’ ” Kashian recalled while insisting that the rest of the table try the banana bread she ordered.
“She was true to her word. The favor was a bit part on ‘Murphy Brown,’ and that got me my SAG card. It was huge.”
Kashian, who hosts two popular podcasts and regularly tours with Duluth native Maria Bamford, had loads of advice for comics thinking about making the move: Have at least $7,500 in savings. Budget for a refrigerator (many rentals don’t come with one). If you can’t find a show that will welcome you, start your own, even if it’s in your backyard. Hustle every night. Get ready to hear no — a lot.
“It’s a lot of hitting your head against the wall,” Kashian said. “Yeah, it hurts, but you’re getting somewhere. The question is: Are you still having fun?”
Relocating to Los Angeles is not in Ali Sultan’s immediate plans, but he’s starting to give it some serious thought.
Sultan works just about every Twin Cities area comedy venue, including Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis and Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America. He recently quit his day job to focus on his comedy career. And he’s just about to release his first album, “Happy to Be Here,” featuring his well-honed routines on being an immigrant from Yemen.
This past February, the seven-year veteran made his stand-up debut in Los Angeles, calling in a favor to snag five minutes at Burbank’s Flappers Comedy Club, where he performed between a supposed prostitute (with an unprintable stage name) and a character with a mad crush on Ted Bundy. Despite an audience of only 16 paying customers, Sultan was riding high as he and fellow comic Mohanad Elshieky drove 45 minutes for another opportunity to perform, this time at a bar in Santa Monica.
Elshieky is much closer to calling Los Angeles home than is his traveling companion. He’s reached the same level of attention in Portland that Lee did nearly 15 years ago in Minneapolis.
“It gets to the point when everyone asks, ‘OK, but when are you going to move out here?’ ” Elshieky said. “It makes life easier when it comes to auditions and opportunities. I like being in Portland because my base is there, but after a while, it feels like there’s nothing left for me there. Everyone knows me.”
Sultan was picking up some great career tips during the commute, but he got his most valuable education the previous night, when he sat in the audience at the Comedy Store and found himself dazzled and humbled by well-known names such as podcast god Marc Maron and Neal Brennan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.”
“I feel like I’m in the top five in Minnesota right now,” said Sultan as he and his new friend hunted for an affordable meal in downtown Santa Monica. “But if I were to watch guys like that every night, it would automatically make me feel like I’m behind.
“But maybe that’s OK. The more discomfort you have, the better you’re going to be as a comic.”
Where to catch their comedy
Pete Lee: Podcast: “Snugglestorm.” Documentary: “I Need You to Kill” (2017). (Read our review here.) Available on YouTube and Amazon Prime.
Jackie Kashian: Podcasts: “The Dork Forest” and “The Jackie and Laurie Show.” Album: “I Am Not the Hero of This Story” (2017)
Ali Sultan: Album: “Happy to Be Here” (available Fri.) Release party: 8 p.m. Sat. Sisyphus Brewery, 712 W. Ontario Av., Mpls., sisyphusbrewing.com. Club date: June 1, Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub, 109 W Superior St., Duluth, dubhlinnpub.com.