People often come to Hollywood to pursue a dream. Many want to be actors, musicians, or other kinds of entertainers. In hard economic times, job hunting in the city's most famous, and volatile, industry becomes even more difficult. Some attend free comedy performances to lift their spirits.
For the past three decades, the Laugh Factory, one of the best-known comedy clubs in Los Angeles, has attracted actors and comedians for its two annual holiday shows. The biggest names in the business have performed alongside some of the newest, offering free laughs and food on special days like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some audience members come for the meal, others for the humor, and many do not have homes to return to when the show ends.
Comedian Greg Wilson
Comedian Greg Wilson performed at the Laugh Factory last Thanksgiving.
"Hollywood is a land of orphans," said Greg Wilson. "People leave wherever they're from and they come to Hollywood and sometimes you just can't get home."
Wilson says people have all different reasons for coming to the show.
"There are some people you can tell are obviously homeless," he said. "And then there's a lot of people that simply didn't want to eat alone. There were a couple comedians that showed up that just wanted to eat around the comedy community."
Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada organizes these free performances. He orders the food, books the comedians, and manages the three or four shows that run each day. Masada, an Iranian immigrant who founded the club, says he never wants to have to turn anyone away.
"It breaks my heart to find so many people being out of jobs, so many people don't have no Thanksgiving, no home to go, and no Christmas, and that's the number-one thing we're trying to give back to the community," said Jamie Masada.
People come to the club for all sorts of reasons. Russ, who recently moved to Los Angeles and works in a recording studio, arrived with a friend. The pair had video-chatted with their families earlier but found themselves with little to do over the holidays.
"I've just come in to check out the show, maybe get a little free food, I don't know," said Russ, "I'm a loner out here, I have nothing else to do, nothing to do, so might as well come check out the Laugh Factory."
Many others, unemployed, are standing in line. Several people spoke of trying for months to get jobs, including Danny Russell, a self-described jack-of-all-trades who said he'd never had as much trouble finding work as he has in the past year.
"I've never spent more than two days of my life looking for a job," said Danny Russell. "I've been in 49 states, I've never had a problem getting a job until now. We do have a few groceries left in the house but we wanted something different, get out and it was kind of depressing this morning so, there weren't any presents to open this year, so."
Comedian Wilson says preparing for these shows can be difficult. A lot of his humor has to do with topical references, advertisements, or things that you might see on television. When it comes to one of the largest current events, the economic crisis, he says this is a difficult subject to joke about.
"You can ask them about the economic crisis and as far as they're concerned, the economic crisis has been on for the last 17 years," he said. "Stuff that happens to everybody is your best shot. Not stuff that relies on a media reference or a television commercial or knowledge of a football league. You want to do stuff that everybody does, like, poop."
Club owner Masada says that after 30 years of putting on these holiday shows, he has more comedians who volunteer than available slots. He says some of these successful comedians may have once sat in the audience for the free meal and the show.
"I mean I have people that have been in my line maybe 30 years ago," said Masada. "Now they're in movies, they're making 10 million dollars a picture. They write to me and they say, 'Jamie, we came in, we were almost going back home, but we came to party and you told us everything was going to work out and it worked out, thank you.'"
Kevin Nealon is an American actor and comedian who recently participated in a Laugh Factory fundraiser for a homeless family in Los Angeles. Nealon met the elderly mother of the family and her two adult sons at a gas station after they had lost their home in the economic crisis.
"And I think it's hard to see somebody like that out on the street because that could easily have been my grandmother, or anybody's grandmother, and it kind of strikes a chord, you really feel like you need to do something," said Kevin Nealon.
Nealon says that, these days, he's seeing more free shows to benefit the needy around Los Angeles.
"In this particular day and age you really don't need to be homeless to need help," he said. "With the economy the way it is, there are people without insurance or without finances to cover what they need. And it's nice, I think, to know that people are out there thinking about you, and helping you, and there for you."
Unemployed club patron Danny Russell appreciates the laughs, the company and the food.
"I feel like humanity is still decent," he said. "There still are decent people left in the world."