Netflix Is a Joke made L.A. laugh for 2 weeks straight. Here's the funniest stuff we saw

In a short time (literally by year No. 2), the biennial Olympics of laughter known as Netflix Is a Joke has shined a global spotlight on the L.A. stand-up scene. Whether it was shows at our biggest venues, most respected clubs or a pop-up fun zone in the Palladium’s parking lot, the streamer-backed festival put our commitment to comedy to the test. This year, NIAJ inspired Times staffers to fan out across the city to take in dozens of shows over 12 days. Yes, we obviously had our agenda going into it for things we wanted to see — ah, how cute and optimistic we were two weeks ago. But one of the best things about this kind of sprawling fest has been stumbling onto different showcases, finding rare surprises and changing our plans at the last minute to check out something new. We stayed out late, we laughed hard (most of the time) and went all out for this smorgasbord of comedy craziness, sometimes at the expense of our brain cells the next day. Here are the highlights of the funniest stuff that caught our attention at this year’s festival.

Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan, Sebastian Maniscalco, Nate Bargatze, Hollywood Bowl, May 2, 7 p.m.

Netflix definitely wasn’t joking when the streamer decided to start the festival off with a bang (and plenty of belly laughs) at the Hollywood Bowl. The quadruple threat of Nate Bargatze, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld brought big dad energy to their stories and punchlines on parenting, marriage and current events that filled the Bowl with hoots and hollers, keeping the stage red hot despite the chilly night air setting in right after sundown. Each of these comedy juggernauts brought their own flavor to the show. Bargatze is the dry, dumb Southern dad, Mansicalco is the spastic and perpetually vexed Italian dad, Gaffigan the drunk and docile Irish Catholic dad and Seinfeld the Jewish dad who has to rant about everything and nothing at the same time. Collectively they succeeded at becoming comedy’s ultra-relatable Rat Pack –Nate Jackson

David Nihill, Dynasty Typewriter, May 2, 7 p.m.

Easily the most literary offering of the festival, David Nihill’s “Shelf Help” show revisited the Dry Bar Comedy veteran’s raucous travel experiences after immigrating to America from Ireland. Self-effacing storytelling he describes as “a bit stabby” highlighted lessons learned the extraordinarily hard way, with plenty of advice from Tim Ferriss, Malcolm Gladwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, A.J. Jacobs, Joshua Foer, Bill Bryson, Charles Darwin and others applied when most needed. The marathon hour and 45 minutes kicked off Part 2 of Nihill’s current international tour, continuing across Europe now. — Julie Seabaugh

Outside Joke, Palladium parking lot, May 3, 5:30 p.m.

Performing outdoor comedy in a public setting is one of the toughest things to pull off. Between open air noises of the city and laughs evaporating into the sky, you have to be either extremely funny or care extremely little about being funny for a crowd of strangers who’ve probably never heard of you. During Freddie Gibbs’ Cokane Comedy showcase, the beloved rapper leaned more into the latter. Though Gibbs himself has always been known as lyrically superior, he and his sidekick Sushiboy Mexico may have started partying a little too hard in the daytime before going on stage. The tipsy banter was probably more suited for a midnight set in the Belly Room of the Comedy Store.

As the night went on, Tiffany Haddish popped up to host a lineup of comedians during the show dubbed “Are You Still Listening?” She did a great job of roasting herself over her recent DUIs and assorted headline drama before things took an unexpectedly awkward turn when she began ranting against college students at UCLA protesting over the Gaza war. All I can say is anyone paying rent in the apartments surrounding this stage in the parking lot of the Palladium should get a free Netflix subscription for their troubles.

As a concept, Outside Joke’s Netflix-themed playpen in the parking lot of the Palladium has its charms. We dug all of the fun mini-fest installations from the zipline to “Squid Game”-themed mini-golf to the chance to ride the wild-bucking Hormone Monster from Big Mouth in between trips to the bar or the food court area. This was definitely a good rally point with some decent food before you headed off into a night of comedy.—N.J.

Steph Tolev, Comedy Store, May 3, 8 p.m.

Steph Tolev emerged on stage sporting a jumpsuit with the words “Filth Queen” emblazoned on the back, and during her 45-minute set, she proved worthy of the title. With a voice akin to a foul-mouthed Cookie Monster, Tolev loves a body humor gag: farting, pooping, ejaculating. She’s particularly adept at mining the audience for their grossest confessions during her crowd work — getting dudes to scream out their best tips on photographing their penises or sell out their girlfriends for passing gas during sex. Her comedy may not be for everyone, though, like the family of her new boyfriend, whom she described as a born-again Christian. Her partner’s mom was eager to look Tolev up on YouTube, but the comic urged her not to. “Why?” the woman asked. “You don’t cuss onstage, do you?”—Amy Kaufman

Jon Stewart, Greek Theatre, May 3, 8 p.m.

While most probably know Jon Stewart from hosting “The Daily Show” for much longer (and better) than anyone else seemingly ever will, he absolutely proved that he’s every bit as good of a stand-up comedian as he is a TV host. Among a slew of special guests including Josh Johnson, Sarah Silverman, Mike Birbiglia, Jimmy Kimmel and Gary Clark Jr., Stewart shone above all with a set largely focused around aging — his own (“Jews age like avocados”), the presidential candidates’, his children‘s — culture wars and everything else you’d want to hear the surprisingly fit old man talk about. — Josh Chesler

“LBJ: The Play,” Dynasty Typewriter, May 3, 7 p.m.

There’s a lot to unpack in Sunny Zimmerman’s layered presidential reimagining; massive prop dildos are only the start. The lone Netflix Is a Joke play turned a simple fifth-grade history talk into lesson points ranging from election theft, dirty oil money and war crimes to patriarchy, gender and the painstaking process of discovering the person one is capable of becoming. (Lady Bird Johnson’s racy “Stand By Your Man” number plus up-close-and-personal audience interactions were highlights.) Though LBJ bemoans, “This was supposed to be my ‘Hamilton!’” at class’s end, the sold-out return of an original Elysian Theater favorite proves Zimmerman’s not throwing away their shot.—J.S.

Dulce Sloan, Improv, May 3, 9:45 p.m.

Dulce Sloan’s mother was in the audience at the Hollywood club. Except — and this is important — she was holding up an amen corner. “Miss Mary” chimed in a couple of times as her daughter “Deuce” savaged her own brother, family dynamics AND the “disrespectful” family “civil rights dog.” “Dogs send people to jail,” she said, noting that there’s a reason she prefers cats. (Relatable.) Come for the laughs, stay for the lippie: Place an order and Sloan will personally pack your Giggle Gloss at her house on Sundays. She founded the makeup line with the night’s opening act (and one of Southern Georgia’s finest), Lace Larrabee.—Dawn M. Burkes

Katt Williams, YouTube Theater, May 4, 5 p.m.

Katt Williams’ special at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater was broadcast live on Netflix — only the streamers’ second foray into live comedy. The show was punctuated by a memorable opening set from Mo’Nique, who spent much of her 15 minutes lampooning Oprah and Gayle King.

Williams’ Shannon Sharpe interview earlier this year took incendiary shots at multiple comedians, several entertainers and industry figures ranging from Diddy to Joe Rogen to Harvey Weinstein, among others. By comparison his special “Woke Folk” was much more tame: he called for reparations for Black Americans, talked about Ozempic’s hold over Hollywood and how the real news of the day is stranger than fiction.

“I tried to be incog-Negro, but thanks to Shannon Sharpe’s loudmouth ass, the jig is up,” he said. “Everybody knows I’ll tell, but I don’t do no snitching. Y’all know my job: In my spare time, I infiltrate the Illuminati, look for their secrets, run back, tell y’all. And they’d kill me if they could, but I’m too fast and the Lord keeps blessing me.”

For a special called “Woke Folk,” Williams didn’t have nearly as much to say about political correctness and cancel culture as one might expect following his viral Club Shay Shay interview, in which he called out numerous comics, including Cedric the Entertainer, over alleged joke theft. After barely acknowledging the infamous interview, the audience energy died significantly as the hour neared its end, nearly breathing a sigh of relief when Williams wrapped up his closing joke.—Sonaiya Kelley

Ali Wong, the Wiltern, May 4, 7 p.m.

There are moments when the rare bliss of sitting in on a NIAJ festival show really shines through. One of those moments was Ali Wong standing before an audience at the Wiltern in an angelic white dress grabbing her crotch and telling us a joke about having sex on her period. Wong chose this particular set to tape her hour set, which is getting the ultimate workout during her 12-night residency at the legendary L.A. venue. In front of an elegant clamshell backdrop and an immaculate stage that looked ready for an awards show, Wong’s jokes about her recent divorce and getting back into the dating scene made for a highly sexual smorgasbord of laughs with a touch of heart at the end. If there’s one set I’ve seen that I recommend rushing to when it comes out on streaming, this is it. One thing is for sure, I’ll never look at watery salsa the same way again.—N.J.

Roy Wood Jr., the Belasco, May 4, 7 p.m.

“It ain’t no coincidence that mass shootings went up when they added self-checkout.” And that’s how Roy Wood Jr. took the audience down a rabbit hole about the lack of human connection and how it corresponds to societal ills, saying, “Something between COVID and now never got fixed.” The comedian segued from how he consumes news, since he left the “The Daily Show” (preferably in the morning when the news is bright like the sunrise) to the reason that Klan robes have a pointed hood (to keep air circulating, unlike the Jan. 6 insurrectionists perspiring in full tactical gear). According to Wood — who prefers for you not to call him “Unc,” as he considers it a slur — “it all boils down to power.” And DEI scared people, displaying too much power way too fast: “It’s all the Black mermaid’s fault!” It’s a good thing Ariel got her legs because Wood deserved every bit of that standing ovation.—D.M.B.

Frank Castillo, Hotel Cafe, May 4, 7:30 p.m.

Friends, family and ride-or-die peers ensured the debut special taping from Showtime and Comedy Central’s Frank Castillo sold out early. During his show titled “No Scrubs,” the comedian unabashedly made jokes on the importance of community, the gamut of strong women in his life, unexpected relationships, cat parenting and what happens when, as Castillo described it, “You find a woman who loves you for everything that you are, and she’s gonna make you a f— better person.” Expanding the good vibes further, collaborative relationships with 420-friendly brands Alien Labs, Kalya Extracts, Puffco, Truly Red Panda and Slick Vick financed the entire production and three-story Astor Club after party.—J.S.

Gumbo and Friends, Miracle Theater, May 4, 9:45 p.m.

As both a comic and a curator of some of the best up-and-coming talent in the L.A. stand-up scene, Jeremy “Gumbo” Christian knows how to sell tickets and take the stage with equal levels of down-home finesse. His Saturday night stand at the Miracle with Gumbo and Friends was a big win not only for him but also for Inglewood, as he showcased lots of local talent from the area and brought in a live band to keep the vibes right as people piled into the packed theater munching on popcorn and sipping cocktails. The night witnessed a surprise set from Kevin Hart’s ex-wife, Tory Hart, a scorching stand-up in her own right (who just performed on tour with Katt Williams). She put her powers to use roasting Kev with and her “spoiled rich kids” who didn’t seem to appreciate that she “slept with a midget to give them that life.”—N.J.

Heather McMahan, the Montalbán, May 5, 7 p.m.

With over 350 comedians taking the mic at the festival, Heather McMahan wanted to make sure she stood out. Cue the sizzle reel that played before her set, highlighting how she’s recently hosted red carpets for E! News, filled in for Hoda Kotb on the “Today” show and made an unlikely fan out of Jane Fonda. McMahan explained her agents had encouraged her to play the promotional video because a big industry crowd would be in attendance — and “we’ve gotta make sure they know you’re busy,” she said, noting that a recent NBC pilot she filmed was not picked up. Not that the nearly all-female crowd needed a primer, anyway. They were all in on the girls night out energy “Aunt Heather” was giving as she relayed the travails of newlywed life: Contemplating her Chipotle order while performing oral sex, going a whopping six figures over her wedding budget and choking on a piece of leftover gnocchi while having sex on her Italian honeymoon.—A.K.

A Tribute to Sinbad, YouTube Theater, May 6, 7 p.m.

“Man, this is a special night,” host Doug E. Fresh said as DJ Trauma played him on. And so it was, with the night’s honoree, who survived a stroke four years ago, watching in the wings as his colleagues, mentees, “Different World” castmate Dawnn Lewis and “the hardest-working man in radio” (retired) Tom Joyner paid tribute to his illustrious career, one that seems that it may not be done yet. “I got more things to do,” Sinbad said, seated while speaking to the audience in a strong, clear voice and surrounded by his family and caregivers. “The thing is, comics, we can’t quit. We don’t have a band.” Peep this list and I’ll bet you wish you were there at the quarter-empty venue: Lewis Dix, Kim Coles, Chase Anthony, Chris Tucker
D.L. Hughley, Chris Spencer, Deon Cole, Tony T. Roberts, and Mark Curry.

“Barbies,” Comedy Store, May 6, 10:30 p.m.

Producer Brittany Everett had a vision: Deliver a monthly show in the testosterone-heavy Main Room that celebrates subverting traditional lineups. On Monday night at the Comedy Store, eight headlining women and a token dude (Mark Normand) went well past 1 a.m., with Store first-timers Heather McMahan and Zarna Garg establishing the gloves-off atmosphere early on — while matching the pink microphone stand in head-to-toe pink, no less. Elsewhere, special guest Atsuko Okatsuka dissected cheerleading, Sam Jay ran the light like the “Tom Brady Roast” baller she was, and Austin, Texas’ all-encompassingly brilliant Vanessa Gonzalez clarified right up top, “I am a feminist! I am pro-women: trans women, fat women, skinny women, witches. I love all of us! I do have a hard time with moms, though … ?”—J.S.

Seth Rogen Smokes the Bowl, Hollywood Bowl, May 7, 8 p.m.

Sporting a shiny black tuxedo and devilish grin, host Seth Rogen emerged with a oversized match during his aptly-named show “Seth Rogen Smokes the Bowl” to spark the three-story prop bong commissioned for the festival. As plume of smoke covered the stage, the white-tailed Hollywood Chamber Orchestra blasted “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” and opening rapper Lil Dicky challenged Roseanne Barr for the most strained “Star-Spangled Banner” rendition of all time before launching into “Freaky Friday.”

“Even I think this is a little much! Weed’s legal; what am I trying to prove?” Rogen asked onstage. From the beginning, the “almost” sold-out audience of 18,000 took happy advantage of the open-air event. A cool evening breeze grew increasingly fragrant and thick under the spotlights and trippy, rotating pastels.—J.S.

Asif Ali and Friends, Bourbon Room, May 8, 7 p.m.

Brown guy humor ruled Wednesday at the “Asif Ali + Friends” show in Hollywood’s Bourbon Room. Recognized for his Netflix stand-up special “Verified” and his work in “WandaVision,” “The Mandalorian” and “Don’t Worry Darling,” Ali charmed the packed room with a smart, hilarious set that included insight on growing up South Asian in Arizona (“My brother fronts as a Cholo”). Opener Sohrab Forouzesh joked about how he’s often mistaken for the only other guy in showbiz that fits his profile — “If you’re chubby and Middle Eastern, DJ Khaled is your only celebrity” — while Ramsey Badawi dared to mention Gaza, miraculously turning trauma into laughs. Comedian Rell Battle, who was also on the lineup, highlighted a domestic conflict by lampooning the Drake/Kendrick Lamar diss-track war.—Lorraine Ali

Wild Wednesdays, Kookaburra Lounge, May 8, 10:30 p.m.

The freshly opened comedy club owned by comic/entrepreneur Katie Cazorla was one of the places we definitely had to visit during NIAJ as it kicked off its first shows inside Ovation at Hollywood and Highland during the festival. On a late night in the middle of the week, Carzorla’s longtime show Wild Wednesdays brought in a small crop of comedy diehards to see Kira Soltanovich, Amikr K., Jessica Michelle Singleton and Darren Carter with Cazorla hosting. The plush party spot had the vibe of a Vegas-style showroom with ornate light fixtures gold-rimmed chairs and a baby grand piano on stage that could make a good fart joke sound classy. Carter made use of the club’s subwoofers with his flashlight, putting his humorously sharp beatboxing party starter skills on display to test the limits of the Kookaburra’s sound system.

Though most of the comics compared the vibe of the late show to an AA meeting (a bar being a great location to have one of those), plenty of laughs were had, which bodes well for the club as the calendar for summer shows starts to fill up. The night also came with some surprise pop-ins from Matt Friend, Tony Woods and a special warm-up set from Malik S., who gave us a preview of some jokes from his special being produced by Cedric the Entertainer that he’s filming at the club on May 23.—N.J.

Nick Offerman & Friends Vs Climate Crisis, Wilshire Ebell Theatre, May 9, 7 p.m.

What’s the best way to support the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council, because don’t pretend like you knew that)? According to Nick Offerman and friends, it’s mostly by telling butt jokes. From Steve Agee’s hemorrhoids to Offerman’s song about analingus, no rear-based topic was off the table. While Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious tale about the Ring camera he placed by his pool may not have directly tied into the supported cause for the evening, Pattie Gonia’s standout drag performance and scientific lesson about nature being gay most certainly was. —J.C.

Tom Segura, Kia Forum, May 9, 8 p.m.
Turning the Kia Forum into his own personal bear cave, Segura is a master of knowing which lines we needed him to cross in order to get his audience to roar. On Thursday night in front of a packed house it involved a lot of World War II references, stories of legendary STD scares and his not-so-secret disdain for his children. As if all of that didn’t make this show great enough, he was never short on jokes or on cameos — included crushing sets from Amy Miller, Ryan Sickler and a filth-filled opening performance from Bay Area hip-hop god Too Short, who isn’t doing comedy, unless you count the laugh-out-loud lines of “Freaky Tales.” Watching the gobsmacked stares of the boomer fans who’d never heard an X-rated classic Short-Dog song in their lives was worth the price of admission.—N.J.

Ever Mainard, UCB, May 9, 9:45 p.m.

Nervous laughter, Texas trash fires and a father determined to love the hell out of his kid in the face of red-state bigotry. Mainard’s second one-person show “Ottis” — titled after their dad’s middle name — parallels the emotional process of gender-affirming top surgery with coming out to the people that matter most. Discomfort stands side by side with determination, meaning identity, “cool Christianity,” Van Gogh tramp stamps, state shot put matches and strap-on tips comprise a near-future special that improbably makes awkwardness uplifting and wholly heart-warming. (For the record, Mainard warns, don’t buy a Velcro strap-on. Too noisy and eventually loses all grip.)—J.S.

Nicole Byer, Troubadour, May 10, 7 p.m.

The sold-out headlining set from “Last Improv Show” troupe member, “Wipeout” co-host and “Nailed It!” goddess Nicole Byer kicked off with a tale about meeting Tom Cruise at the Producers Guild Awards. Things quickly escalated to bemoaning, “I lose the Emmy every year to RuPaul!” and marveling at the unironic wisdom of John Cena. Byer’s bouncy storytelling somehow one-ups Kathy Griffin in obsessing over reality TV and overembellishes pronunciation a la “Schitt’s Creek” matriarch Moira Rose; a capital-B Big Personality blazes when Byer’s relationship-focused crowd work and self-effacing adventures in dating keep her in the moment and “living my best life!” It might not be up to John Cena standards, but she’s clearly figured at least a few things out along her scrabble to undeniable stardom. — J.S.

Kill Tony, Kia Forum, May 10, 8 p.m.

The Kia Forum was lit on Friday night with the first Kill Tony show in L.A. since the pandemic hit in 2020. Ringmasters Brian Redban and Tony Hinchcliffe took their seats in front of a sold-out crowd alongside comedian Tim Dillion, “Dr. Phil,” (a.k.a. Adam Ray), superstar rapper and singer Post Malone, and pop-in surprise guests were aplenty with RFK Jr., Cheryl Hines, Ari Shaffir and past KT golden ticket winners. The crowd ate up every word from Kill Tony favorites like Kam Patterson, David Lucas and William Montgomery, while bucket pulls came straight from the audience, giving up-and-coming comics the chance to take center stage for 60 seconds. If you weren’t lucky enough to get in on the Kill Tony fun at the Forum, be sure you check it out online, because this show was unreal in the best way possible.—Ali Lerman

Anthony Jeselnik: Bones and All, United Theater on Broadway, May 10, 9:45 p.m.

How do you get hundreds and hundreds of people into a fancy old theater at a swanky (former) hotel to listen to the most morbid jokes? You give Anthony Jeselnik a late-night slot on a Friday night. The reigning king of dark humor packed the ornately decorated house for his Bones and All tour to the United Theater on Broadway (formerly known as the Ace Hotel) before it hits Netflix later this year, and (as per usual) virtually no one was safe from his macabre criticisms. His act is most certainly not for everyone, but Jeselnik’s wit is as sharp as ever — and the gothic 1920s decor felt appropriate after a while.—Josh Chesler

Irene Tu, Improv Lab, May 10, 9:45 p.m.

Irene Tu’s sold-out evening in the Improv Lab proved a slow-burn meditation on the true emotional load inherent in taking it all on, from effective activism (Hollywood Strikes, Israeli/Palestinian) to climate crisis and pronouns. “I have big ‘they’ energy,” she explains. “I’ve gotta figure my gender out soon. So I can post it online for likes.” When it comes to her traditional parents’ wishes, “’Our son is a comedian,’ is still better than ‘Our daughter is a doctor.’” Even after a gorgeous chunk on suicidal ideation — “If you’ve never thought about killing yourself, what’s wrong with you?” — it was ironically Tu’s detailed stool sample description that prompted the crowd’s loudest shrieks of existential horror.—J.S.

I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson Live!, May 11, 8 p.m.

If you’re not familiar with the sketches from I Think You Should Leave, its live show at the Greek must have been a sight to behold. Thousands of socially awkward Angelenos from all different backgrounds gathering (with many in costume) to watch a wildly disjointed performance that blends video clips of never-before-seen sketches with a 10-person late-night talk show on hallucinogens that all wrapped in a musical medley. For those in the know, it was an absolute blast, as Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin were joined by ITYSL staples like Sam Richardson, Patti Harrison (attempting to murder the others with a knife), Vanessa Bayer and Santa Claus (Biff Wiff) as well as Mark Hoppus of Blink-182. The entire thing felt like it was frequently teetering on the edge of a complete implosion thanks to the inclusion of an eager and overwhelmed new improv student, but that really just made it feel all the more like one of the show’s beloved sketches.—J.C.

Todd Glass, UCB, May 12, 7 p.m.

“We worked on this today for three hours,” scene tech whiz Beowulf Jones noted as Todd Glass took the sold-out UCB stage with a lounge septet. “And I still have no idea what’s about to happen.” Between the TG Band, blue twinkle lighting and wielding a music stand like a frenetic maestro, the alt-comedy vet orchestrated a masterclass in elevating concept comedy. Storytelling detours, call-and-response audience interaction, terrible impressions (Jerry Seinfeld, a barking dog) and lovingly butchering standards like Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Once in a Lifetime” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” kept Glass faux-fuming, “We’ve gotta tighten this up!” Even after, when the audience exited in Andy Kaufman fashion for complementary treats from Archie’s Ice Cream, Glass ensured the sidewalk party stayed swinging and entirely unrestricted.—J.S.

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