Rachel Rusch, at L.A.’s Unknown Theater, is a consultant for… (Photo courtesy of Axel Koester / For the Times )

Rachel Rusch, at L.A.’s Unknown Theater, is a consultant for… (Photo courtesy of Axel Koester / For the Times )

Comedy talent scouts get the joke

By Gina Piccalo For Los Angeles Times.

March 21, 2010

But finding comic talent is no laughing matter. It takes a discerning eye and ear.

One in a series of occasional articles about how alternative comedy is fueling Hollywood.

When asked what makes them laugh, comedy scouts will all give some version of the same answer: authenticity. The slick, one-two, punch-line act ripped from the day's headlines that might woo the two-drink minimum crowds in Cincinnati probably won't land you a spot on "The Office" or earn you a stand-up set at the prestigious Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.

But hop up on stage in a wife-beater shirt, hair parted down the middle, as comedian Jon Daly does, and spend seven minutes riffing in a thick Brooklyn accent on the phrase "Come on now," until your audience starts wondering whether you've lost your mind -- then, you just might get somewhere.

Comedy is subjective, of course. And the folks cherry-picking comic all-stars these days devour dark, whimsical, idiosyncratic material that's goofy in surprising ways or just plain weird. Ever wonder how a subtly subversive show like NBC's "30 Rock" landed on network TV? Puzzled over Zach Galifianakis' superstardom? Wondering how a film like the British political comedy "In the Loop" landed an Oscar nomination?

The answers lie with a tightly knit group of talent managers, show bookers, network executives, casting directors and agents. Ten years ago, their sensibility was still niche. Now "alternative" comedy is ubiquitous. And with the boom in online video, auditions are happening all the time, everywhere. Which means there's far more talent to wade through than ever. In some respects, comedy scouting has never been more dynamic and comedy itself never more competitive.

Then again, the basic rigors of this pursuit haven't changed all that much. Even with the Internet, it still demands haunting black box theaters and late-night talent showcases, on the lookout for versatile, audition-ready talent.

Here are three of the more influential scouts in the alternative comedy scene, best known for finding new talent and shepherding it into the mainstream.

The talent manager

Jennie Church-Cooper chose a seat just far enough away from the tiny basement stage to render herself anonymous. She was in fact-finding mode, "tracking" the careers of the 12 comedians who would take turns at the microphone at a Hollywood stand-up show called "Twelve Shiny Nickels."

Over the next two hours, she laughed exactly four times. Comedian Erik Charles Nielsen earned two of those low-key chuckles with "Hey! Flamenco dancers! Stop applauding yourselves!" and "I am the Michael Jordan of not being Michael Jordan." When the last comic (begrudgingly) left the stage, it was after 1 a.m. Church-Cooper's hour of "focus-time" had expired 90 minutes ago.

But she was diplomatic, even a touch maternal, about the acts she'd just endured, some of which were just plain sad. "It's nice to have your tried and true material that you know works," she said. "But I like to see people try new stuff as well. Sometimes people are doing the same jokes for two years." The worst she'd offer was the understatement of the year: "I tend to find the shows in L.A. go too long." Church-Cooper is relatively new to the business. But she possesses an innate understanding of it already. She can genuinely oblige a wounded ego while keeping one eye on her watch. She knows everyone's material. She knows who has a coveted TV credit. She knows who has been at it too long.

It's a wildly different lifestyle from the years Church-Cooper spent as an elementary school teacher in Watsonville, Calif., before her career took a U-turn and landed at the high profile Principato-Young Entertainment. But Church-Cooper, 31, has found the same slow-to-react, soft-spoken demeanor she used on her first-graders works wonders with addled comics. "It's like any relationship," she says. "You have to have that chemistry like, 'I could go anywhere with this person!' "

The casting director

Three young men in dress shirts and ironed pants paced outside casting director Allison Jones' nondescript office, their heads bent over scripts from NBC's hit comedy "The Office." Inside, Jones sat in her own crowded utilitarian space, beneath a wall papered with headshots, musing on the beauty of nerds. Jones is an expert. (And, she wants it known, a Three Stooges fanatic who leased her Sunset Gower offices solely because they once housed the comedy trio.) "I always say it's not pretty people who keep shows on the air," she said, speaking over the voice of an auditioning actor next-door. "It's funny people who keep shows on the air."

Jones certainly does her part. Her keen eye for "DNA funny" people not only keeps "The Office" stocked with oddballs, she's also Judd Apatow's go-to casting director, credited with helping people his cult hit TV show "Freaks and Geeks" and films "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Superbad" and "Knocked Up."

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