Don’t Tell Comedy celebrates 5 years as stand-up’s next wave

One of the first suggestions Felicia Folkes found on Google when she searched for “fun jobs” was work at a comedy club.

She did when she was 19. Originally from Inglewood, Folkes applied for an internship at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. Over the course of three years, this internship morphed into hosting open mic nights and hosting improv shows. That was around the time she met Kyle Kazanjian-Amory, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Orange County in 2015 and wanted to open mics and volunteer wherever he could five times a week.

Amidst the hustle and bustle, Folkes and Kazanjian-Amory noticed certain occupational hazards in the comedy world. Folkes saw how live productions would be sorely lacking in many comedy spaces: no mics on a big stage, poorly recorded sound, people walking in front of the camera during a set. And that would happen “every day,” she says. Kazanjian-Amory, on the other hand, felt the financial strain of constant nights out, between clubs’ minimum requirements for two drinks, parking fees and ticket costs.

“It became very untenable for me to continue going to clubs to see shows,” says Kazanjian-Amory. “I’ve started meeting a lot of comedians who do stand-up, and people have been doing shows everywhere, like in their backyard. It felt like a house party vibe. It was casual, people could bring their own drinks and you got to know someone. It was so different from a club where the experience felt more transactional and less personal.”

Mike Albanese appears on the secret show Don't Tell Comedy

Mike Albanese appears on the secret show Don’t Tell Comedy

(Marcus Russell Price.
)

With an eye on a more intimate, affordable setting, in 2017 Kazanjian-Amory founded Don’t Tell Comedy, an independent series of secretive pop-up comedy shows with unannounced casts in unusual Los Angeles locations. DTC is celebrating its fifth anniversary with 40 pop-up shows taking place across the country this weekend and next – a far cry from its DIY beginnings. In the early days, Kazanjian-Amory would host secret comedy nights wherever possible: mostly in friends’ living rooms and backyards. “It was all word of mouth,” he recalls. (The exact location of each show will be sent to ticket holders at noon of the day.) “We wanted every show to be great.”

Six months after hosting shows in and around LA, Kazanjian-Amory took the franchise north to San Francisco and – once again – opened a shop in a friend’s living room. “I borrowed chairs from my father’s office,” says Kazanjian-Amory. “And it just worked. We got a report in Time Out SF and we ended up selling out the shows four weeks in advance. It outperformed LA almost immediately. Then I drove to Portland and Seattle with chairs and a PA system, again staying on friends’ sofas and relying on connections from people I knew in the area. And it just kept working.”

Since then, Kazanjian-Amory has expanded DTC’s stages from residential spaces to all types of small business venues. These days, a typical DTC show can take place anywhere from a historic mansion to a candy store, rooftop terrace, or indoor climbing gym. Sets also take place in more than 50 cities across the country, with local producers scouting locations and booking talent. Kazanjian-Amory has shifted his focus from performance to running the entire company. “I don’t miss performing because I can hang out with comedians all the time and create opportunities for comedians that I love and respect,” he says.

DTC still prioritizes small, personable attitudes, but has been innovative in expanding its visibility, both online and in person. Since a secret show only allows for so much publicity, Kazanjian-Amory has sought to cement its reputation for booking quality acts and providing comedians with a welcoming venue to meet new fans and network with fellow stand-ups.

“We create a welcoming environment for comedians and viewers,” says Kazanjian-Amory. “We stay on our track, which is outside of the traditional system. We are an organization mainly run by comedians in different cities. The most important thing is that everyone has a great experience. We are focused on creating the best possible experience for everyone.”

Though DTC has booked its share of high-profile names including Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che, SNL writer Sam Jay, Iliza Shlesinger, Ali Wong and Nikki Glaser, Kazanjian-Amory is passionate about providing a platform for emerging acts like to offer these as Folkes, who praises DTC’s production standard and has seen her social media numbers soar thanks to the organization’s YouTube channel. “The production is just next level,” she says. “They curate a great audience that wants to listen and have a good time. Their sites are always very nice, very clean and comfortable. I trust them creatively. They won’t try to make you look bad or make you do anything [you don’t want to do]. It’s really fun to work with them.”

Thanks to a filmed DTC set at Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach, Folkes booked a spot at the recent Netflix Is a Joke festival. (DTC currently has nearly 1.5 million TikTok followers and a quarter million YouTube subscribers.) “I’ve been here for 10 years, so [DTC] really expands your reach,” she says. “Not only among the fans, but also in the industry.”

Catherine Blanford

Catherine Blanford

(Matt Misisco)

Atlanta-based comedian Katherine Blanford has also seen her fan base explode since she started doing stand-up with DTC. After Blanford posted some clips online, she received a message from Kazanjian-Amory via Instagram asking if she would be interested in performing a set for DTC in Santa Barbara. “It was a great excuse to get out of this wedding,” says Blanford, before adding, “I didn’t realize how much work they put into this stuff. I didn’t have to be there until 7:30 am but the camera crew was there all day. There are about four cameras, one camera on a dolly, they had audio guys circling the place. It’s a real production.

“My social media has exploded,” she adds. “I’m still working part-time as a nanny, but I’m getting to the point where I’ll be able to support myself entirely through comedy. People are contacting my website trying to book me for gigs that will pay my rent for the month. David Spade saw my clip and now I’m going to open for him in Jacksonville tomorrow. It’s career-changing. I did a show in New York City last night and I started a little bit and a girl yelled out the punch line because I put her online – it was one of the Don’t Tell clips.

Despite its overwhelming success, DTC was struggling to stay afloat when COVID-19 hit in early 2020. “It was brutal,” says Kazanjian-Amory. “Our whole business was live events.” Like a number of other live events organizations, DTC quickly focused on expanding its digital presence, creating online experiences aimed at engaging audiences and comics that who were also unemployed to offer opportunities. “We created this trivia format where 2,000+ people livestreamed this interactive trivia experience with comedians, creating fun videos as questions and people answering on their phones.

“And then we started getting approached by companies to see if we could host company events for team building exercises,” Kazanjian-Amory continues. “Because we were just trying to create some fun experiences during the pandemic, it opened up this very different business for us where we could accomplish a range of things, create fun experiences for people and create paid opportunities for comedians than it was.” not many were there. We still do that today because companies have shifted to working from home.”

Amid the pandemic, Brett Kushner, longtime consultant and producer of digital comedy content, has been instrumental in helping DTC thrive in the digital ecosystem. “My biggest role ended up being to help figure out how we actually make this a legitimate business with strategy and long-term planning,” says Kushner. “One thing we’ve built is the ability to connect comedians with their audiences. We tried to build some robust tools and make our show a bit more professional. After you come to one of our shows, you’ll receive an email, headshots and links to all the social contacts of every cast member you’ve seen, and even a link to their Venmo profile if you want to tip them off after the show . We’ve heard it’s been effective for people to connect with their new favorite local comic they might never have heard of otherwise. We want to make sure that’s an important part of the experience: being able to find new favorites.”

Audience at Don't Tell Comedy Show

Audience at Don’t Tell Comedy Show

(Matt Misisco)

Kazanjian-Amory and Kushner look forward to expanding their brand while staying true to their community-focused ethos as pandemic restrictions ease and DTC celebrates its five year anniversary. “My whole family works in the nonprofit world, and it’s great to use comedy as a way to give back,” says Kazanjian-Amory. “Our main focus will always be domestic and eventually global live events. The digital component helps us grow our online audience so we can expand into new cities and countries – we’ve reached out to people who have reached out to us about launching Don’t Tell Comedy in Toronto and Montreal.

“Gone are the days of playing Johnny Carson and building your career on a late-night set,” adds Kazanjian-Amory. “Now comedians are realizing that by building your social platforms, you can create opportunities for yourself. It’s almost like a democratization of comedy in a way, where comedians can now independently grow their careers outside of traditional systems. And that cheers us on because we want to help support that.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-15/dont-tell-comedy-celebrates-5-year-anniversary Don’t Tell Comedy celebrates 5 years as stand-up’s next wave

Sarah Ridley

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