Part-owner and general manager of Mi Westside Comedy Theater Sean Casey. Photo by Westside People
Just a short distance from Hollywood, a small theater in Santa Monica represents the only real comedy club on the Westside
By David Rosenfeld
The M.i. Westside Comedy Theater might be tucked away in a back alley behind 3rd Street Promenade, but the audiences that pile in each night to this cozy venue definitely have no problem finding the place. Over the past five years, the club has gained a reputation for its eclectic mix of stand-up and improvisational acts that foster young talent and put on great shows.
And unlike most comedy clubs throughout the country, the owners are also performers. The company was founded by eight members of an improv troupe originally from Chicago called Mission IMPROVable – thus the M.i. Westside. The company not only puts on shows at the club in Santa Monica, it sends out troupes of performers across the country, mostly to college campuses and military bases. During peak times of year that means up to six different groups on the road at one time, all organized from an office off the main theater in Santa Monica.
“This is our home base,” said part-owner and theater general manager Sean Casey, who sports a handlebar mustache. “We took over the theater right before the financial collapse and we had this place that was cheap to get into. It is a converted industrial space. We don’t want to pretend that it’s not. We also couldn’t afford to pretend it’s not, so we make improvements as we can and hope that it grows along with us.”
Performers of The Grind on Thursday night include some of the company founders. Photo by Westside People
The bare rafters and stone walls still maintain the feel of the industrial setting, but they’ve upgraded considerably the lighting and included a bar that sells craft beers to Pabst Blue Ribbon. The beer is cheap and late shows on Monday, Thursday and Friday are free of charge including the weekly Grind on Thursday night that features some of the founding members.
“We try to be dive-ee but not dirty,” Casey jokes. “Dive-ee girls will still go to, dirty they won’t.”
For the thousands of comedians and actors honing their skills throughout Los Angeles, the M.i. Westside offers one of the most welcoming and professional environments around. For that reason, standup veterans like Zach Galifianakas, Howie Mandell and Bill Burr have dropped-in at times to try out new material. Neal Brennan liked the place so much he asked to host a weekly show there every Sunday. Casey said he was a bit stunned at first.
“Neal came in for the Tuesday open mic one night and said he wanted to do a weekly show and bring all his cool friends” Casey said. “I was like, ‘Ok,’ and it’s been great. I really love that show.”
It was during one of Brennan’s shows last year that he invited good friend Dave Chappelle, who performed for two hours. Talk of the show went viral on social media gaining the club more notoriety. Sold-out shows by Gabriel Iglesias the last week of June further solidified the club’s place in the comedy world. Among Los Angeles live comedy theaters, the club is alone west of the 405.
“We are very aware of the established power centers of comedy,” Casey said. “We didn’t want to do that. A number of us were on the Westside and it was a bit of a desert.”
William Crespo performs with the house team and said he’s been coming to the theater he estimates at least four times a week for the past five years, even when he lived in Long Beach and took the bus each day.
“Some might say I’m pretty dedicated,” he said with a thick Tennessee accent.
Crespo started performing as a kid, going on to do standup for nine years. It was in Chicago where he first met some of the members before coming to Los Angeles and officially getting trained more or less at the theater.
“They never gave up on me,” Crespo said. “I came here when I was pretty arrogant, thought I knew a lot more than I did, and didn’t have that much to give. And they kind of turned me into the thing I am now. This place is probably the only place I’ve ever called home.”
For anyone looking to take an idea to film, Crespo said the theater offers opportunities to connect with people who are capable of putting productions together.
“This is a place that I’ve watched consistently talk about how important it is that they are supporting the new talent that comes in,” Crespo said. “You don’t find that at other places.”
Mike Betette has been working for the company for two years in Santa Monica and previously toured with the group for the past 14 years. He said the theater really wants to think of themselves as a place to spot the next big talent.
“If we can be known as one of those organizations that someday people say they can’t believe this many people came out of this one place, that’s what we’d really like,” Betette said. “That’s why we’re trying hard to give people opportunities.”
In January and February the theater did 14 straight days of sellouts. Lately more than ever it’s been selling out during the week.
“When it’s a Wednesday night and people are waiting to get in you feel like ‘yes, we did it, ’” Casey said.
Hard to imagine for an art form that in some ways feels like the analog to a digital world. Yet nothing beats live theater, he said. “This is still a bastion of free speech and free expression,” said Casey. “This is one of the last areas where people gather to think something unexpected is going to happen and we aren’t going to limit it.”