Feb. 3 2015 05:23 PM

Local jokesters say the scene is bigger than ever, but can it take them only so far?

From left: Jimmy Callaway, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Lauren O’Brien, Jesse Egan
Photo Credits (left to right): The American Comedy Club, Michael Schwartz, Lauren O'Brien/YouTube, Chris Brake photography

Jesse Egan remembers the first time he retired from standup comedy. Actually, he just remembers bits and pieces.

"The first time I ever really performed stand-up was at a place called Poppy's in Claremont," Egan recalls, sitting in his office at Winstons bar in Ocean Beach. "It went well, and I invited my friends to come back and see me the next week, and they were, like, ‘Well, do you have new jokes?' They didn't want to see the same act again. So, I wrote a bunch of new stuff that was terrible. It was all based on me growing up in the '80s. Like, everything was about The A-Team and stupid shit like that. And I drank a bunch of Rumple Minze and got really drunk and just bombed terribly. I also got into a fight in the bar and got thrown out."

One would expect Egan to laugh about that night in hindsight, as he's since made quite a name for himself locally. However, the local comic, promoter, podcast personality and winner of last year's "San Diego Funniest Person" competition still doesn't like to think about it, even though it was almost a decade ago.

"It was horrible," he says. "It was, like, the worst night of comedy ever. It was probably, like, 2005 or 2006. I didn't do standup again for two years."

These days, Egan doesn't see retiring from comedy until—well, until it's time to retire. After all, it seems to be an exciting time for the San Diego standup and improv scene. Egan points out that when he first started, there was only one major comedy club and maybe a few coffeehouse open-mics that welcomed comedians. Nowadays, nearly half a dozen comedy clubs in San Diego attract big-name acts. Bars like The Wood in Pacific Beach, North Park's Seven Grand and Downtown's The Tipsy Crow all have regular comedy nights, and two major annual comedy festivals happen within a month of each other (the San Diego Comedy Festival, which just wrapped up, and the San Diego Improv Festival, which runs Feb. 19 through 22).

"I think standup comedy is having this renaissance," says Jill Dawsey, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the main force behind the museum's most recent La Jolla exhibition, Laugh-in: Art Comedy Performance. "There's so much going on in the standup world. I've noticed that there are more formally inventive acts and more experimental acts, and it seems likes it's become more inclusive—more diverse voices and acts that are more like performance art."

(The Laugh-in exhibition tackles comedy-as-art-form head on, with video installations, sculptures, paintings and photography. There'll also be shows tied to the exhibition, with comics like Neil Hamburger, Eric Andre and Dynasty Handbag playing at The Casbah on Feb. 11.)

Dawsey speaks about comedy's "inclusiveness" in broad terms, but talking with many local comics—some club veterans and some just starting—it seems San Diego's particularly friendly and welcoming scene is one of the main reasons, if not the biggest reason, that it's become as big as it is.

"A scene like L.A. is very large and unwieldy," says Jimmy Callaway, a local comic who says he performs every day but Monday and whose day job is working the box office and doing social media for the American Comedy Co. in the Gaslamp Quarter. "There are lots of people trying to make it, and it seems like it would be tough to crack. Here, I've found it to be very supportive."

Some local comics, like Mark Christopher Lawrence, get the best of both worlds by commuting back and forth to Los Angeles for auditions and standup appearances.

"I wouldn't say it's easy; I think there was definitely a struggle to it," says Lawrence, who's appeared in shows like Seinfeld and Chuck, in addition to acting in films and theater. "I mean, there were months where I thought, Well, you know what, maybe this is not for me, and then all of a sudden, there's another job. So, it's just a matter of being persistent."

Still, Lawrence admits he might be lucky, since he started out in L.A. and already had a solid foundation of contacts and credits to his name before moving to San Diego in 1999.

Just as with music and visual art, San Diego has a long history of breeding comics who've gone on to do great things, from Whoopi Goldberg perfecting her act at the Comedy Store in La Jolla to, more recently, Scripps Ranch native Kyle Mooney going on to become a breakout star on Saturday Night Live.

So, though it's possible to live in San Diego while also commuting north for auditions and open-mics, most comedians know they're much more likely to make a name for themselves by moving to L.A. entirely.

"Personally, I am just so thankful that I started in San Diego and honed my chops in a smaller market," says Lauren O'Brien, who spent nine years here working in clubs and improv theater and as a radio cohost on The Mikey Show.

O'Brien moved to L.A. in 2013 and sparked a lot of attention late last year when her YouTube video "My Impressions of Celebrities Stuck in Traffic" went viral, with more than 5 million views so far.

"I think if I had never lived in San Diego and been on the radio, that video wouldn't have caught fire," she says. "However, because I live in L.A. now and I've built up a little bit of experience in the acting world, I have been able to get some applicable opportunities from it."

Taylor Tomlinson, 21, is based in Temecula and is now getting regular standup gigs in both L.A. and San Diego, but she admits that San Diego might not be enough for her.

"I think I'm probably going to have to move to L.A. eventually," Tomlinson says. "I wish I could move to San Diego, but, unfortunately, you kind of hit a wall there where you can't go any further."

But for the comics who do stick around, they find there's often more than enough standup work to keep them busy, even if many of them still have to work regular day jobs.

"I always thought standup would be an inroads into aeronautics and the space industry," Callaway jokes. "Look, there are obvious career paths that you can take, but if you want to be a touring standup and make money at it, you can certainly do that from here. I was always under the impression that you had to move to L.A. to make a living at this, but I think the scene is big enough here now to where you don't."

For Jesse Egan, who'll be defending his "San Diego's Funniest Person" crown starting this month at Downtown's Mad House Comedy Club, he says his L.A. friends will continue to tell him to move north, but he likes what he has going here.

"I don't want to lose my good job here, my life here that I love, and gamble on something that is like hitting the lottery," he says. "Being a star in L.A. is very unlikely. Sometimes it's easier being a big fish in a small pond, but sometimes I think I'm pussing out. But I think it has made me a lot better comedian. I don't know if staying here has held me back, as far as being a star or something, but my approach to comedy has always been that I want to try to be the funniest I can possibly be and maybe the rest of the stuff will fall into place. I'm gonna stick with that."

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