Originally from San Diego, Emilie Laford started a comedy troupe in high school. It wasn’t that she was a natural-born comedian. Turned out she was much more comfortable behind the scenes. “I was horrible at performing,” Laford recalls today. “I like organizing. I like finding talent. I like developing talent. I like producing things.”
On a visit to L.A. after graduating college, she happened across an EntertainmentCareers.net post seeking an assistant at the Hollywood Improv. Laford worked her way up to booker over seven years, then in February 2015 was hired to lend her eye for talent to Sunset Strip institution The Comedy Store.
She was named talent manager when the club reopened last spring.
As The Comedy Store prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary on April 7, Laford continues developing newcomers into “passed” Paid Regulars, booking three rooms under the same roof, and bringing more diversity into the historic venue than ever before.
How has your role at The Comedy Store changed over the years?
Seven years ago I came on to help clean up the calendar and add some outside-produced shows into the mix. Adam Eget had just got promoted to talent manager and it was a tough job; anything I could take off his plate to make it easier, I did. So I started booking the La Jolla Comedy Store and all the outside-produced shows in the Main Room. And then I kept following in Adam’s footsteps until he moved to Austin during the pandemic.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you solve them?
There's a lot of comedians and not a lot of spots. And you're trying to put on the best show for everybody. You're dealing with, you know, some personalities. Which can be both fun and … interesting. But just trying to run a comedy club in the middle of a pandemic is really the biggest challenge I have. Before the world shut down, it was and still is the best comedy club in the world. We’re trying to come back and keep that momentum going as the comedy world is changing and evolving.
What is the legacy of booking The Comedy Store? Why is it such an important role?
Fifty years ago the lovely Mitzi Shore decided to make an artist colony of comedians. She was the first female booker, the godmother of comedy, the first badass lady to make stars in such a crazily male-dominated world. She discovered some of the best comedians in the world to this day. It's like I’m still walking in her footsteps, even after two men were booking before I was. I think about her every time I’m watching from the back of the room. She was always top dog. There’s so many amazing things to live up to. It’s fun, though. I do love it.
What is the new booking process you’ve implemented, and what goals are you trying to achieve with it?
Everyone has their own process, and I think everyone's process is unique to them. For me, I really like the idea of developing. I want to see how people grow. I'm not looking for perfection; I just want growth.
During the pandemic, we couldn't do any outside-promoted shows, or do our Potluck shows, which was our version of open mic where newer talent can be seen. I turned the weekend Belly Room shows into shows for comics in the development system. Instead of doing three minutes that they’d get on Potluck, they do ten minutes—a full set—in front of real audiences. That’s how you see people grow and change. One time I see them it’ll be one set. If they bring back the same set, has it changed? Or will they come back with a completely different set? I really like watching people put all their cards on the table and not be scared to try new things. I don’t mind when people fail. If someone has a really good joke that failed, and they come back next week and they worked on it and it’s better, I can see that they saw the failure, and they know how to learn from it.
For showcasing—and Adam did it, too—we put people right in the middle of a big show. The Original Room is one of the hardest rooms in the country and gets kicked off by some of our strongest comics to really set the bar high. One minute you could be following your best friend; the next minute Chris Rock could be popping in. It’s like throwing your kid in the deep end, like, sink or swim, baby! And since we were closed for two years we now have three nights of showcases instead of one, which I really like.
The Store might have been accused of having diversity issues or feeling a little male-dominated in the past. How has that vibe changed since reopening?
I mean, it was a little bro-ish. They’re all great comics, no shade, but I felt that everyone should be able to be represented on the stage. Funny is funny. I hate the term Fresh Faces, and even new blood. I need a thesaurus! Sam Jay is the first comic I passed. She’s not new, she’s been hanging out at The Store for a long time, she’s put in the work, and she’s very funny. I wanted to be the first person I passed to be someone I really loved and enjoyed, and someone who I knew really wanted to be a part of it. I think we both started hysterically crying at one point. I don’t know why I felt nervous to tell her. I guess because it meant that I’m really doing this.
How do you know when a comic is ready to be passed?
I work with the amazing woman named Jenn Kane. She's kind of like my number two. I love her. She and I watch all the Friday and Saturday Belly Room shows. We watch people grow, and you can always tell when they’ve worked really hard. It’s like picking a ripe avocado. You can feel it. That's the dumbest thing I've ever said … but you just know when you can see their progress and their growth. If they’re ready, they’ll show you they’re ready in that showcase. Some people think they’re ready, and then they get on that stage in the Original Room, they’re the most confident person on the show, and they just shit the bed. Although on the last ones, no one did bad. Nobody bombed any of the last showcases.
Are you more drawn to material? Stage presence? Complete uniqueness from everyone else?
If I really told you my personal taste I’d be fired from my job, because I really like a good fart joke. Makes me laugh harder than anything.
Confidence is good. You can tell when someone has good writing, good timing, personality. I like uniqueness. I like hearing a perspective on areas that have already been played in. Everyone can talk about the pandemic, but how are you making it unique? And how are you making it special to you? How are you making this tired premise great? I also like rule-breakers, people who totally throw the norm out the window to do something completely different.
They have to figure out the rules first and then rip then up.
I love it when people had a specific version of themselves and then something happens that completely changes them. They finally find their voice and their rhythm. They go from struggling to finally finding “it” kicking in, and I’m watching them just soar. And then get better and better and better.
What is the most frequent advice you find yourself giving newer comedians?
Don’t compare yourself to anybody else. Your career is your career. You can have heroes, but don’t compare your journey to their journey. Or to your friends, like if so-and-so got a special at a young age. It doesn’t mean you’re failing. Just means you’re on a different journey.
How does performing live comedy translate into skills like screenwriting, acting, or other creative pursuits?
Stand-up is being your raw, pure self onstage, and you're at your most vulnerable. So if you're writing a screenplay and you need to tap into a super-intense emotion, it helps you get there. If you're acting, it means you can tap into that emotion for your character. You’re also thrown into any situation. You never know what an audience is bringing into the room. It can help you work on interpersonal relationships with people, dealing with obstacles thrown at you, thinking on your feet. You have to constantly adjust. Some nights the crowd’s really tight; some nights the crowd’s really loose. Some nights they’re a bunch of babies. Don’t print that.
What are some of the things The Comedy Store is planning for its upcoming 50th Anniversary? What is its continuing legacy?
The anniversary week of shows will be fun. We're also doing stuff with the Netflix Is a Joke festival for 10 days, incorporating our 50th at the club in fun ways. Our vinyl boxed set will be a compilation of all the past anniversary shows, and we had a cool branded record player made. They’re pretty nice.
The Store is such an outlet for people and such a special place for so many comedians. Once you get passed there, you're part of this weird family, and it's never going to stop. After the pandemic, people felt like they were coming home, and they needed it. We are like a weird, fucked-up, misfit family. But it's great seeing that some of their comedy got stronger. People worked on themselves and came out of pandemic kicking the door down and just ready to crush it. Now they absolutely destroy.
*Feature Photo: Emilie Laford by Troy Conrad