“We did a good job this season of having it be a bit more loose and a bit more chaotic,” Jonah Ray says about The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail’s second season, which starts tonight on Comedy Central. The Meltdown’s not a typical stand-up showcase: shot in the back room of a comic book shop in Los Angeles, it mixes short stand-up clips from a handful of comedians with backstage clips and conversations. It’s a rapid-fire burst of comedy, featuring four or five comics in each twenty-one minute (or so) episode, along with Ray and his co-host Kumail Nanjiani, who you might recognize from Silicon Valley and every other show you’ve watched in the last two years.
Ray, Nanjiani and producer/booker Emily Gordon have been hosting a weekly comedy night at Meltdown Comics for five years, and Comedy Central turned it into a half-hour show in 2014. With its anarchic spirit and nontraditional venue, The Meltdown is like a microcosm of how the stand-up industry has changed since Comedy Central launched in 1989. Instead of brick walls and two drink minimums, we can now catch some of the best stand-up comedians in the world in a storage room that used to be filled with longboxes filled with comic books.
Its second season promises an even more nontraditional take on stand-up. As Gordon tells us, “from watching the first season people know what the show is like, so comics brought more weird, fun, conceptual bits.” We recently talked to Ray and Gordon about both the show and the stand-up community in Los Angeles; Nanjiani couldn’t make it, because he was presumably shooting a dozen TV shows that afternoon.
Paste Magazine: How did you wind up doing comedy at a comic book shop?
Jonah Ray: It’s a space, you know? Any person involved in comedy has this weird tendency to walk into any room, any room—you could just be walking into a roadside bathroom at a truck stop and go ‘that’s a pretty good corner, you could put a mic right there, seats over there.’ There’s a weird thing that people in comedy do where they look at any space and think if a comedy show can work there. I had been to art shows and stuff in the back of Meltdown Comics, and I noticed it was perfectly set up for a good comedy show. It had low ceilings and enough space for people to sit around. It was out of the way of any kind of main traffic. And the comic book store, the owner and his son, were into it. they were really excited about it. So it just fell together, that we should put a show on here, and it worked out.
Emily Gordon: Gradually over the years we’ve made improvements. It was a pretty raw space when we started the show five years ago. It was literally a storage room. The tech set up was in the middle of the room, amongst the audience basically. Over the years we’ve made it more of a legit space. It was definitely a sound space, which is cool, but now it’s more legit. It’s still rough around the edges a bit.
JR: I still miss the days of people tripping over cords.
Paste: Did you have to empty out a ton of longboxes and back issues from the storage room?
JR: When we started, yeah.
EG: On Wednesday when all the new comics come in they would sort them in the back room and we kind of messed them up for being able to do that, because we do our shows on Wednesday.
Paste: Jonah, as a performer what do you like about non-traditional venues like that?
JR: I don’t want to say it’s more of a challenge, but it’s more interesting and more in tune with… I grew up playing in bands, and you’d just play where you could. When I started doing comedy in Los Angeles, that’s where most of the good shows were. They were in laundromats, book stores, coffee shops. Little warehouse spaces. That’s where most of the comedy I was doing was at. So it wasn’t too weird to me to even consider doing a show in the back of a comic book store because that’s just to me where shows happen. You can get away without having to deal with drink minimums or owners getting upset that nobody’s buying anything else.
Paste: I know a guy who owns a barbershop in Echo Park that’s had some stand-up shows.
JR: That’s the thing nowaways. ‘Hey, do you have an area? We should do a comedy show there.’ There’s literally a comedy show at a pet store.
EG: I like when shows at least have microphones and a PA system of some sort and something to illuminate the comedians. I’m kind of old school that way in that those are the things you need. That’s how you know it’s a show. Otherwise it’s just a random guy talking in a corner. People have done some really creative things in good and bad directions in comedy in LA.
JR: Years ago there was a show at Lucy’s Laundromat in Echo Park and the microphone was between the men’s and women’s bathrooms at this laundromat. Then I guess some of the other people at the laundromat found they could do a thing there, and I remember one day I went to do some laundry and a guy had set up a Thursday night church. He was a preacher and he set up a microphone and an amp and just started his own church there.
Paste: Emily, as the booker, has there been anybody you wanted to have on the show but who found the concept weird or off-putting?
EG: For the television show not so much, because they’re all aware of what they’re getting into. For the live show, we’ve had plenty of comedians come in and spend the first few minutes of their set going, ‘where the fuck are we, what the fuck are we doing?’ Which we always love. It’s more some of the more old-school comics, who are usually a little older, who find our show because other people tell them it’s cool, and then they show up and go ‘wait a second, what is this?’ But my hope is, even if they make fun of it because it’s funny to do, that they all see that it’s a well-run show and that the audience is there for them. No comedian can resist a huge room full of people just desperately waiting to laugh at them. So ultimately they’re all really cool with it even if they’re weirded out by the environment at first.
Paste: You pack a lot into every twenty minute episode. Like four or five comics every week. How do you decide what to cut?
EG: Oh, it’s hard.
JR: It’s a tough process. Sometimes there will be a really good chunk of a comedian but it will be too long to break up, or too long to fit. That can get kind of maddening because you want to show the person in the best light you can. Everyone ends up—we make everyone look as good as we can. Even backstage moments, like a funny conversation, but it turns out there’s too much set-up, too much preamble of the conversation to get what makes the conversation funny, and then you we just have to pick this other one. It’s funny too but it’s shorter and more punchy. But it gets pretty maddening.
EG: When I’m booking the comedians for the TV show I tell them how long their set on the live show will be, here’s how long it’ll wind up being on the television show, and to keep that in mind. So instead of telling one 15-minute story that we’ll have to chop to shreds, tell a couple of good stories, or whatever you want. We don’t have any idea what the comedians will actually end up bringing to the television show, so we try to prep them as much as we can for what the final product will look like.
Paste: How long do the live shows usually run?
EG: Like an hour and a half. Sometimes if we have drop-ins it can run up to two hours.
Paste: Who are some of your dream guests for the show?
EG: For the television and the live show, I love Craig Robinson so much. I love his band, the Nasty Delicious. That energy and that band’s energy and as a performer, he would absolutely tear the roof off our venue, and I’d love to have him on. He’s a big dream guest of mine.
JR: Mel Brooks.
EG: Always with the Mel Brooks. Any time we have anything he’s always ‘ah let’s try for Mel Brooks!’ Which would be a dream.
JR: Mel Brooks is my hero. I’ve always had this fantasy—our production company, Red Hour, one of the guys who works there used to be Mel Brooks’ assistant. So once I found that out I couldn’t get it out of my head. We should have Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks on stage doing ‘2000 Year Old Man.’ Of course he’s not really in the business of doing a small set cable comedy show. But yeah, Mel Brooks. And Albert Brooks. All the Brookses.
EG: Obviously Chris Rock. I feel like people have told us he might stop by and that has not happened but Chris Rock is another absolute dream of mine.
Paste: How does the drop-in work? Do you put feelers out there to see if they’re interested or do you wait until you hear from their people?
EG: Comedians, especially ones who don’t live in LA, when they visit LA they want to know what good shows are happening so they can go and perform. They’ll ask around and usually someone will mention us. They’ll find us on Twitter, sometimes I get direct messages. I’ll get emails from managers, or emails from the people. Sometimes people just show up and ask and you look up and you’re like ‘oh Louis C.K. just walked in and I don’t think he wants to buy comic books.’ It just really depends. Drop-ins happen in a million different ways; we’re just happy that they find us.
JR: That’s one of the benefits of doing a long-running weekly show that’s always on the same day. When a comic comes to town or has a free night, they can just ask what shows are tonight, and people always know to say Meltdown on Wednesday nights. Just go there. They come to rely on it, and it just permeates throughout the community.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.