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Improv Lab aims to shake up traditional comedy world

Improv Lab manager Jamie Flam
Improv Lab manager Jamie Flam
Courtesy Jamie Flam

The Improv Lab is a 50-seat theater attached to the Hollywood Improv and marks an attempt by one of Los Angeles's traditional comedy clubs to try something different from the standard club formula. In an online editorial, Comedy Store marketing and development VP Alf LaMont wrote that "The Improv Lab is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape."

Improv Lab manager Jamie Flam agrees with LaMont that one of the keys is developing talent. "It really is as simple as talking to people about their shows" and providing resources, Flam says. "Just talking about the show and helping give notes and feedback." Flam says that, as someone who knows other comedians and has produced hundreds of shows, he can recommend other comedians who should be on a show and give feedback on how to promote the show and what would take a show to the next level.

Flam says that, as a performer, he's able to see the "the small details that are going to really help make a performer's show better. And I think it starts with just trying to be nice and making their experience there as nice as possible, because not every comedy club has that approach." Flam says that a lot of clubs have the attitude that you get in, do your thing and get out.

"That's why I'm trying to breed a lot of positivity," Flam added. "It goes down to experience, not just for the audience, but for the performers, for the producers, for everyone involved."

Flam says that traditional comedy clubs aren't keeping up with smaller competition. "Comedy clubs, the big ones in L.A. at least, they are kind of in a lot of ways living in the past," Flam says, "and not paying attention to the fact that, on any given night now, I can see in L.A., seriously 5 to 10 really great standup shows anywhere in the city."

At the traditional clubs, "there's not as much focus on really connecting with the talent," Flam says, "and so that's what I'm trying to change, is realizing that the talent is what makes these places, and by creating a theater, making people feel at home, you're creating a space and an environment where they want to be."

Flam says that a smaller club like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater manages to get big names and doesn't have the two drink minimum you'll find at larger clubs. "You can go and see a show for 5 bucks, 10 bucks." At traditional comedy clubs like the Improv and the Comedy Store, "It's like a 15 dollar show, and at the end of the night, you're spending 50, 60 or a hundred bucks just to see comedy." Flam says that lower prices make it easier to develop a regular audience.

Flam also notes that smaller clubs have been able to attract bigger names by creating shows that are unique. "More than just walking into a theater and seeing a few standups, I want every show [at the Improv Lab] from the moment you walk in to have some sort of magical experience."

Flam produces a show called the Be-Bop Heroin Hour that features a full jazz band and attempts to make the audience feel like they're in a 1950s jazz club. The idea is "creating more of a theme and an experience for your entire night," Flam says. "When a big time comedian is trying to think of where they want to drop in and work on their set, hopefully they'll want to go to the place where they can have a live jazz band accompanying them."

Flam listed some of his other highlights, like Comedy Slice, a pseudo-recreation of a New Jersey pizzeria open mic; Eddie Pepitone Bloodbath, a comedy showcase with big name comedians hosted by Eddie Pepitone, who Flam describes as "one of L.A.'s best comedians, one of the world's best comedians"; and Clownvis, the clown Elvis. (Yes, really.)

Flam says that the Lab has begun to have sellout shows and develop a voice. "The quality is rising every week, every month." Flam says that, for the first six months, he booked almost everything that came across his desk, producing 40 to 50 shows per month. "Now we're at the point where we've gained so much momentum that I have a stack of 50-plus additional shows that are trying to get on, so it's given me the luxury of now being able to trim the fat and focus on the shows and the producers that really want to create something."

Flam says he's looking at it as a space not just for comedy, but with great music, including cabaret and variety shows. It's a model similar to Largo at the Coronet, which Flam says is a major influence.

For the first nine months managing the theater, "A big part of my job has been to prove to the Improv that I know what I'm doing and that I can do this," Flam says. He says that he's started to get more resources to work with, but he's still the driving force behind the theater. He still books the shows, puts the shows online, does marketing, talks to people about their shows, makes sure the chairs are straight and the tech is working and even works the door. "I'm talking to every single person that walks in, getting email addresses and trying to get people excited about what they're about to see" while letting them know what else is going on at the theater.

In addition to managing the Improv Lab and producing shows, Flam continues to write and perform. It's something he's done all his life. Before the days of YouTube, Flam took a video camera and started shooting comedy sketches in junior high and high school.

Flam's been pursuing comedy professionally since 2001. He shifted from working a dot-com job at the tail end of the dot-com boom to promoting shows with friends around San Francisco, ultimately drawing around 300 people to shows that combined music, live comedy and video.

He moved to L.A. and got his first job as a theater manager, managing a new comedy theater in Santa Monica, the Westside Eclectic (now M.I.'s Westside Comedy Theater). He says he learned the ins and outs of running a theater there and began making connections in the L.A. comedy world. "For three years I just learned how to take a space and turn it into a thriving community."

Flam says he started without much knowledge of how to run a club. The first night they ran shows, "we opened the doors, and it wasn't until we opened the doors, we're 'Oh, wow, we need someone to work the door, and we need someone that runs the tech.'"

After the 2008 downturn in the economy, Flam was left without a gig. He developed a relationship with someone at the Improv, so when they decided they wanted to do something with their lab space that wasn't being used much, they went to him. He started managing the Improv Lab in January of this year.

"My goal was to take everything I had learned from building the Westside Eclectic to apply it here and build a strong community and really just try to find a voice," Flam says.

Outside of his duties at the Lab, Flam continues to perform. He performs with comedian Vanessa Ragland in a fake comedy band called the Spanglers; they recently put on a show at the Lab featuring a full country orchestra.

Flam's other projects include the Long Shot Podcast, which features four comedians at different stages of their careers, as well as a website and a soon-to-come podcast called Immaculatize taking the self-help ideas that have helped Flam and using them to help others.

Check out Jamie Flam's acting/directing reel: