When the COVID-19 pandemic brought live events to a virtual standstill, Jake Cotler and Jam in the Van co-founder David Bell panicked. Not only did they work at live events, but their entire business model revolved around booking acts to play and record in vans. “Our bread and butter went everywhere, bringing people together in close quarters and filming bands,” recalls Cotler. “And you couldn’t do that for a minute there.”
Founded in 2011 with investor Louis Peek, Jam in the Van had grown from a grassroots backyard project into a full-fledged content studio, hosting artists from across the country in a hippie-esque mobile recording studio. (Think NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series, but more music festival drum circle vibes.) Since its inception, JITV has welcomed more than 1,000 bands and even “Van” events at South by Southwest, Coachella , Bonnaroo, Americanafest and Life Is Scheduled Beautiful and Telluride Blues & Brews.
However, all of this ground to a halt in early 2020. Like other live music outlets, JITV quickly transitioned to live streams and charity fundraisers. “We kept ourselves relevant for about six to eight months,” says Cotler. They held socially distanced concerts in the backyard of their Los Angeles headquarters on Pico Boulevard. Though some musicians like Suzanne Santo and Guapdad4000 were willing to perform in person, Jam in the Van found an unlikely savior in comedy.
The program shift began harmlessly when Cotler noticed that YouTube personality Andrew Callaghan enlisted the help of his social media followers to turn an RV into a studio. Cotler and Bell had done just that in 2011: Their very first JITV RV was a Craigslist junker-turned-recording studio that Cotler parked in his Venice backyard. “I was like, ‘Yo, why don’t you respect us? We’re the boys!’” Cotler laughs as he remembers inviting Callaghan to the next outdoor jam in the Van Night. Not only was he in attendance, but Callaghan brought along local comedian Ali Macofsky. “As I was talking about studios, I was like, ‘Ali, do you want to do a stand-up show here?’ And she put on a comedy show,” says Cotler.
After Macofsky’s stand-up set, Cotler and Bell realized they might be up to something. With most comedians unable to tour, LA was teeming with unemployed comics starving for stage time. “I’ve just started contacting people like Neal Brennan and Iliza [Shlesinger]’ says Cotler. “Comics was all about that. They have this disease where they have to be on stage. she to need list. Musicians have really been more shaken by the pandemic. Our music shows cooled down [and] It was a lot harder to get musicians to come out and play these socially distanced shows.”
Bell also points out how unusually pleasant it was to connect with and book comedians. “With musicians, we were dealing with their agents. We are dealing directly with comedians. They were so much more grateful. So much less hassle. It opened our eyes to a more comfortable world, to be honest.”
Cotler and Bell have come a long way since their early days when they just wanted a van to pack into for their annual pilgrimage to Bonnaroo, which they’ve been attending since college. “Dave and I started running RVs with our group of friends,” says Cotler. “We would fly to my parents’ house in North Carolina and drive the RV from there, drive to Bonnaroo and have a big party in the RV. We did that for a couple of years.”
The couple eventually ended up in California, where Cotler attended law school and Bell worked at a production company. While chatting online, they talked about renting or buying an RV for their next Bonnaroo trip. “Rating an RV doesn’t come cheap, but Dave started Googling ‘RV’ on Craigslist. He said, ‘Hey, let’s do this. Let’s bring the festival to us.’”
Initially, they mainly found inspiration in The Black Cab Sessions, a UK-based franchise that sees musicians perform and record songs in the back of a cab. After procuring a used 1983 RV (with failed brakes), Cotler and Bell converted the interior into a fully functional studio and welcomed musicians to record there. It remained parked in the backyard of Cotler’s Venice home, although he eventually managed to drive it to local venues like the Satellite and eventually South by Southwest in Austin. (He died on the return journey.)
Over almost 10 years and multiple vans, Jam in the Van has hosted musical performances from countless acts, from emerging to well-known names: Wyclef Jean, Milo Greene, Gary Clark Jr., Lukas Nelson, The Revivalists, Deer Tick and Cherry Glazerr, to name but a few just to name a few. As their live music vehicle grew in local popularity, Cotler and Bell secured sponsorships with alcohol and marijuana companies and launched a YouTube channel that now has nearly half a million subscribers.
From the start, Bell and Cotler wanted Jam in the Van to be not only an unconventional venue for bands, but also a source of music discovery for audiences: “We knew what we wanted, but more importantly, we knew what we wanted Not want to carry on when we started,” says Bell. “We booked Mt Joy when no one knew who Mt Joy was and now stadiums are sold out. … I think we did about four or five sessions with Marcus King – we even joked that he’s our house band.”
Cotler and Bell also planned to bring comedy into the van from the start, although it didn’t work out at first. “We always had the idea of having comedy involved, back when it was just the backyard sessions in my backyard. In 2011 we invited Mo Mandel, Erik Griffin and Theo Von. That was before [Griffin] was famous for “workaholics”. We had a comedy roundtable in the van.” Cut to 2020, and Cotler and Bell started calling comedians in earnest, shocked by how quickly they had to expand their space. “We were the only place in the world that had live comedy that winter,” says Bell.
As the pandemic progressed, “this little bungalow lot became too small,” Cotler continues. “I remember we had a Neal Brennan show one night and these kids rented the lot next door. They decided to throw a party the night of Neal Brennan’s show. He had Ali Wong out and Blake Griffin in there and James Blake. And those kids were making so much noise. So the next day we called their landlord and said, “Hey, what are the odds you want to kick those kids out and let us rent the property?” So we took over this other space, tore down the fence, and doubled the size of ours property. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. Then we moved into the space we are in today because we received a good handful of noise complaints.”
The founders also enticed comedians with a top-notch Green Room that featured a substantial amount of weed, a full bar, ping-pong, foosball, and video slots. “We’ve really gone to great lengths to ensure that the Green Room is very hospitable and has a lot of amenities for the comics,” says Cotler. “That’s how we’ve always endeared ourselves to bands, even when it was 2011 in the back parking lot in Venice. I had my buddy make pizza rolls and made sure the cooler was stocked with beer.”
Today, live music has bounced back and Jam in the Van hosts weekly events in Austin and Los Angeles; After all, the founders want to book events in Nashville. They also hybridized Jam in the Van programming to be a mix of music and comedy. Upcoming is Skyler Stone and Sarah Silverman playing back-to-back sets on July 29 at 7pm and 9pm. Later, on August 27, Jam in the Van organized Comedy for a Cause with Shlesinger; Ticket proceeds go to the National Abortion Access Fund.
Sometimes Cotler and Bell encourage comedians to explore their musical sides. “We just started a podcast with Pauly Shore where he interviews musicians – he just had Jesse [Hughes] Eagles of Death Metal and Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit in,” says Cotler. “In fact, Pauly just did a session with his band The Crustys, where Pauly is standing on instruments in front of a group of senior citizens. It’s quite a routine and it’s fantastic. We are ready for anything.”
In a big comedy marketplace like LA, Bell and Cotler ultimately want to highlight the uniqueness of their venue. “It’s a unique experience,” says Cotler. “Craig Robinson will come in and just play songs and karaoke with our engineer all night. We’re not trying to be the comedy store. We’re trying to be Jam in the Van. And we pretty much figured out what Jam in the Van is.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-05/comedy-issue-jam-in-the-van LOLs on Wheels: How Jam in the Van’s mobile music hub became a comedy heavy-hitter