Welcome to California, home to the greatest mirth on Earth! With some of the most famous stand-up clubs anywhere and a host of ground-breaking improv groups, California is your best bet for a good chortle, giggle, titter, or snort. Here’s a look at top spots around the Golden State for good times and guaranteed guffaws.
The Comedy Store. For more than 50 years, this Sunset Strip institution has been the place for rising stars to prove they have what it takes and for legends to pop in to try out new bits. Everybody who is or was anybody, from Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld to Tiffany Haddish and Margaret Cho, have taken the stage at this West Hollywood institution. There’s also a second Comedy Store location in La Jolla.
Grand Comedy Club. The combination of pizza and comedy is tough to beat and that’s exactly what you’ll find at this Escondido club. The club draws top shelf talent to San Diego’s North County, including Caroline Rhea, who starred in Sabrina the Teenage Witch and several HBO specials, and Alonzo Bodden, a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.
Improv Hollywood. Born in New York, the Improv opened a second stage on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue back in 1975. The Improv, with its trademark brick wall, has served as a showcase for the likes of Judd Apatow and Jamie Foxx. Recent shows have featured SNL’s David Spade and Craig Robinson from The Office and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In addition to the flagship Hollywood club, the show goes on at the Improv’s branches in Orange County (Brea and Irvine), Ontario in the Inland Empire, Oxnard on the Central Coast, and San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area. And these other California clubs get their share of headliners. For example, Gabriel Iglesias played recent shows in Ontario and San Jose, while Whitney Cummings took the stage for sets in Irvine.
Largo At the Coronet. There’s no phoning it in at Largo. The club near the Los Angeles-West Hollywood border enjoys a reputation for innovative comedy, and performers love the challenge of proving themselves in front of Largo’s sophisticated, demanding audiences. Sarah Silverman appears regularly, and this is the place to watch Patton Oswalt and Ali Wong at the top of their game. Largo is also where Larry David performed material that evolved into Curb Your Enthusiasm, his long-running HBO kvetch-fest.
Cobb’s Comedy Club. Going back to the days when stand-up innovators such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce performed at this nightclub in North Beach, San Francisco has long been a major comedy destination. Since 1982, Cobb’s has been a top spot to see big names and maybe catch a rising star. Ellen DeGeneres and the Bay Area’s own Dana Carvey both played shows at the club early in their careers.
Punch Line San Francisco. A comedy institution since 1978, the Punch Line helped launch such comedic icons as Robin Williams. Dave Chappelle appears during both regular and pop-in gigs here, and called the Punch Line “the best club in the U.S.A.” He even led an effort to save the club during a lease dispute. Comics take to the stage at the intimate, 180-seat club in front of a colorful San Francisco mural.
Punch Line Sacramento. The kid brother to the original Punch Line in San Francisco, this club is where you can see hilarious sets by such comedy stars as Sacramento native Brian Posehn, who had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory.
High-Wire Acts: Improv and Sketch Comedy
The Groundlings. Someday this comedy theater on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles will become a national landmark. Just consider the line-up of Groundlings alumni that has gone onto shows like SNL and the movies: Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Maya Rudolph, to name a few. In addition to shows featuring members of the Main Company, the Sunday Company Show tests the skills of improv students who have recently completed training at the Groundlings’ school.
Secret Improv Society. San Francisco’s improv history began when members of Chicago’s famed Second City came west, leading to the creation of The Committee, a pioneering group specializing in political humor that included actor/director Rob Reiner and later Robin Williams. For more than a decade, The Secret Improv Society has carried on the city’s improv tradition, earning a best comedy nod from San Francisco Magazine, which described the experience in the intimate theater by saying it “feels more like hanging out in your living room with friends.” Complete with free Oreos, by the way.
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Amy Poehler of Parks and Recreation fame co-founded this improv comedy troupe, which operates out of three different Los Angeles venues (and one in NYC). Shows include Maude Night, which showcases UCB’s house sketch teams every month, and Harold Night, a long-running weekly improv show featuring homegrown teams at the top of their game. The organization also offers a diverse range of improv and sketch classes, curated for those looking to unleash their inner entertainer.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Dylan’s Comedy Bus Tour. Talk about an “Only in San Francisco” experience: Combine sightseeing with comedy on 90-minute city tours with on-board performances by outstanding comedians. The tour is BYOB, but the laughs are on them as you learn about and explore San Francisco, with stops at local landmarks.
Marrakech Magic Theater. Magician and comic Jay Alexander is in residence at this Moroccan-style venue with a speakeasy atmosphere a few blocks from San Francisco’s Union Square. Alexander is the great-grandson of a legendary vaudevillian and both a master of sleight-of-hand and comedy, guaranteeing a night of laughs and wonder in equal measure.