How comedy built a home in a comic book shop: The story of the NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics
By Elise Granata
Son, when a business establishment and a group of weird artists love each other very much, sometimes they combine forces. Maybe it’s a money thing. Maybe it’s a property thing. Maybe it’s a fluke.
For Meltdown Comics and the NerdMelt Showroom, it was just a really cool idea. Meltdown Comics is an absolutely giant (largest-comic-book-store-on-the-west-coast sorta giant) comic book store in Hollywood. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a comics fan. It’s a total sensory smorgasbord. It’s 9,000 square feet of comic books, graphic novels, indie zines, collectibles, bean bag chairs, and…an 175-person alternative comedy venue in the back.
Before that venue was NerdMelt Showroom, it was a space for one-off art shows. As you’ll read below, the folks who started Meltdown always lent themselves to Frankenstinian mish-mashes of comics and art. Comics and videogames. Comics and beanbag chairs. Comics and the best alternative comedy in LA.
Today, the space is a symbiotic poster child for combined spaces. Since Chris Hardwick took over the space four years ago as Nerdist Industries, these two seemingly separate scenes have enabled each other to grow bigger than they ever could on their own. There are two weekly shows at NerdMelt: The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, a comedy showcase which recently finished its first season on Comedy Central (lots of good stories from Producer Emily V. Gordon below) and Harmontown, a talkshow featuring Dan Harmon (creator of Community, co-creator of Rick and Morty) and Jeff Davis (Whose Line is it Anyway?) which just wrapped up a US tour for director Neil Berkeley’s recent documentary about the show. On top of this, the NerdMelt calendar is packed weekly with comedy in all formats: improv commentary on hip hop videos, Horrible Movie Night (it is what it sounds like), a comedic spelling bee.
Here’s our current reality: No space is sacred. Art in laundromats! Youth orchestras in noise venues! Every punk show you’ve ever been to in a coffee shop! But here’s the nice Shyamalan/softserve twist: Each one of these spaces is more sacred for it. By pushing the boundaries of what we’ve come to know as single-use spaces, we grow in ways previously unimagined. We connect with friends who would have left as strangers. And, in best case scenarios, it’s just a lot more fun.
So where does NerdMelt’s story fit in? Back in August, I had a frantic caffeinated conversation with Emily V. Gordon (NerdMelt’s first Program Director, current Producer of the The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail) and Danielle Kramer (NerdMelt Program Director at the time of the interview back in August) about their part in transforming the NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics into the hub for comics and comedy it is today. And tomorrow. And most nights during the week.
You should absolutely read both of these interviews in their entirety because they are completely awesome, but here’s a handy quick-guide if you are interested in specific parts:
Interview with Emily V. Gordon
First Program Director at NerdMelt, Producer of The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, former couples and family therapist, writer for Rookie Mag
–Comedy in a comic book store? But how?
–Starting scrappy: The art of taking microphones from comedians
–Nerdist Industries & adding structure
–Curating comedy shows
–Filming The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail
–Transcending what “nerd” can mean
–The natural life-cycle of potentially selling out
–How therapy can informs comedy producing
–Making space for hardcore fans as you grow
Interview with Danielle Kramer
Former Program Director at NerdMelt Showroom, talent producer at JASH comedy collective, archivist
–Comics, comedy: It’s an entertainment crossover
–How to be stable and experimental
–NerdMelt Membership program
–Curation: it’s about diversity of format
–How the physical space of the store transforms your experience
*Note: Since interviewing Danielle, she and her husband Aaron have stepped down from the NerdMelt Showroom. Hannah Crichton and Nolan Fabricus are now Program Director and Stage Manager respectively. Sad! Cool! Sad and cool! NerdMelt life cycle!
*Second note: Thanks to Pia Barnett for the completely brilliant and hilarious illustrations to go along with this piece. I am so excited. Are you excited? Expect more of this kind of magic from them in the future! So cool!
Interview with Emily V. Gordon
First Program Director at NerdMelt, Producer of The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, former couples and family therapist, writer for Rookie Mag
So…Meltdown is an amazing space. I had been a fan from afar for a while, and I was really surprised that the vibe of the Showroom reminded me of a lot of showspaces I go to for music. The physical space for the Showroom had always been there and was used for art shows before comedy started happening in that space. Why do you think a comic book store had a space for art beyond their comics in the first place?
The owner of the store, Gaston [Dominguez-Letelier]– who is totally punk rock and badass– he had been in the space for 20 years with his wife and his brother. He had so much room, and wasn’t going to put comic books everywhere. So, this weird gallery space just kinda opened in the back. At first they were doing comic-book-related art shows for a while. And then when I came upon it, they were doing shows there randomly but they weren’t curated. Those were for whoever had money and were interested and could do whatever they wanted back there. There was no real unification whatsoever. You would come in one afternoon and the mics would be in one place, and then the next week they would be in a completely different place.
I went to a show there when I was visiting because I was friends with Jonah [Ray] already. And it just felt like home. It felt good. There’s something about the smell of it…there’s something about it that reminds me of the punk rock coffee shops I used to hang out in in North Carolina when I was a teenager, for godssakes. That really got me. And I kept wanting to go back. I ran a show at a bookstore in New York when I was living there at the time. I wanted to do something similar at Meltdown, but there were already things going on there and I didn’t want to take over. So, it worked out great when it turned out that Jonah wanted to do his show weekly and needed help.
As the owner of the store, Gaston has two motivations: he wants to see cool shit happening. He also wants his store to do well. He has an enormous comic book store in a field that’s going more online everyday. So his thing has always been that he’s gotta diversify. If he doesn’t have a million things happening in the store, the store will go. It’s not gonna stick around. And he’s been so cool– both by necessity and also because he’s a really imaginative dude himself– he’ll always be the one to say “Why don’t we have classes right here? Why don’t we put these video games over here?” And then he just finds people who want to do that. There’s a regular D&D group that meets there twice a week, classes, a school that’s opened up next to it for sketch stuff, signings happening all the time– there’s always something happening in that store.
Did Gaston have a background in comedy before this?
I think he ran a record store before he ran the comic book store. He’s just one of those guys that’s like “Fuck it, why don’t we try it?” Every attitude he’s ever had is always: What could happen if we just try it?
That is so crucial to having a good space, that constant experimentation.
He’s also gotten much better over the years. He used to let literally anybody come in the door– which I have a respect for too– but there’s been a network of us that give feedback on which ideas are good and maybe not so good. So, he’s gotten a little more discerning about what he does. Like right now there’s a retro video game pop up store within the store, and this past weekend they had a Smash Bros tournament. And that’s exactly what I would want to go to as a human being.
It all makes use of the space so wisely. Clearly people who come to Meltdown aren’t into comics at the exclusion of all else, so to be able to segue nicely into those interests is smart.
For whatever reason, you will probably like something else that’s happening there. There’s a podcast studio upstairs where some people’s favorite podcasts are recorded, Some people hang out just for that. But we also try to keep it so that people who are just comic book fans still need to feel welcome as any other population that comes in, because they come in every week and spend money in the store every single week.
So in the past, was there a fee to rent the space when doing a show?
Yeah, I think so. When we set it up, we split it half-and-half. Some people paid everything up front and then let people in for free. When Chris Hardwick came along and rented that back space as Nerdist, stuff started going through him. He had his own deal with the owner of the store, Gaston. So once that happened, I was running the space but wasn’t involved in any of the financial stuff they had worked out. Our deal has remained the deal before Chris Hardwick took over, which means that we split profits with him basically.
That’s really cool. Like a cool landlord. When you stepped up, did you have a mission or a curatorial vision?
A little bit. I come from New York where there were venues and little tiny shows everywhere, and I didn’t see that in LA. They were happening a little bit; just not as much as I would have wanted. Now they’re everywhere, which is awesome. One of the first things I did was at a bar with Dan Harmon and I said “You should do a Prairie Home Companion sort of thing” and he was like “Okay” and it just started out monthly and then went weekly. I remember the first Harmontown: he wanted an element of it to be visual, so he had a laptop plugged in and was going to show something. We could not get the laptop to work at all. So when the show was supposed to start at 8PM, I was in the Apple Store two miles away trying to find the right cord, desperately on the phone. I ended up finally coming back at 8:30. The show was packed and had not started yet, and I came in and was like “Dan I’m so sorry, we just can’t” and he was like “It’s okay” and I was like *panicked breathing*.
It just became me kinda asking around our friends to see if they had any kind of weird show they wanted to do. I booked a band called Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die which is a comedy band that Harris Wittels is in– these were kinda the first shows I remember booking– and then people started coming to us. It was so funny. At the beginning, a lot of comedians go and do SXSW in Austin, and there were microphones in the grab bags the year that we opened. So I kept going around to comedians like “You don’t need your own microphone, do you? Because we really need microphones.” We just started this space, we had no money, no nothing. And everybody was like “Yeah, I don’t fucking want this microphone.” So I got, like, seven microphones just by going up to these comedians, which is amazing. And that was all we had at the beginning. We didn’t have any chairs. There was a gentleman who really liked coming to Meltdown who does not ever want to be named and I will not ever name him, who said “I want to buy you guys all the chairs that you need if you just let me in any time I want to get in.” So we had Dave Kloc design him a special lifetime pass to the space and he spent about $900 to buy us chairs. I don’t know what we would have done without him. We had nothing at first.
So there was clearly a draw there. This was essentially you and your friends’ vision. What do you feel like — in a toot-your-own-horn-way– that draws people to that?
I don’t know. I think at first I had a lot of fun comedian friends, and I wanted to see them have a little more freedom to do what they wanted. When Chris Hardwick came along and took over the space, everything got a lot more legit. We ended up having a budget to be able to buy stuff, and that kinda legitimized us in a way that people started flooding in at first. I was having a hard time getting anyone to agree to do a show there, and then that part was less hard, and then it became about: Are people going to show up? How do people know about this place? Great point. We have one show a week and it does okay, but great point. We had a show that had Margaret Cho on the lineup early on who I couldn’t find anybody to show up. And it was like, this is Margaret Cho, what are we doing here?
It was just so early, people didn’t know about it. People knew about Meltdown, the Wednesday show, but people just didn’t know about our other shows. So when Hardwick came along, rented out the space and put a structure in place, every show that came in went through him too. And he got to say “Yeah, that’s a great idea” or people would come in asking for a half hour to have a night to themselves and Chris would go, “Here’s Emily, let’s go for it.” So he always had a hand in it as well, and helped bring a lot more legitimacy to the space once he took it over. I think that helped tremendously. And it kinda snowballed from there.
And it’s not a non-profit– what’s the actual business structure?
I actually do not know. Isn’t that amazing? I do not know. Nerdist Industries and Meltdown Comics handles that. And I don’t even run the space anymore, but I’ve always been like “Let me just handle this programming part as much as I can stand, while the rest of it I’m sure I would like too.”
Do you feel like that separation made your role easier?
A little bit. I was always wanting to fill the seats and sell tickets, and it did definitely helped me to not have to worry about how we’re going to get hand lotion, or pay for towels. And since then it’s become even more legit, so the Program Director has to worry about that too. But in the beginning, it was like “You guys handle all the venue stuff, I just focus on getting people here.” And I don’t think Chris Hardwick ever intended for it to become as successful as it did. Originally, the dream was for it to become a fun little club house for a couple of nights a week. There’ll be people there. Instead, it’s become a “thing.”
What was Chris’ part in transforming the space?
He wants cool shit to happen. He’s a lot like Gaston. They want cool shit to happen. If he can have anything to do with how to make cool shit happen, he’s gonna go for it. This was never a money-maker for him, for anyone. It was always about having cool shit happen. And how amazing is it to be around human beings that their main motivation is to have that happen? It’s amazing.
One of the first things that got me excited about working in the arts was some economy report, maybe in New York. It said something like when a gallery moves into this space, it seems like it’s only generating money for themselves, but it generates some number like $25 to the economy. What’s cool is that it shows that nothing operates in a vacuum. I met someone last night who moved to LA for this space. It’s super super incredible.
Yeah! It’s not in a vacuum. I have nothing against UCB, they do amazing stuff– but that, to me personally, has always felt so crowded. There’s so many people, it’s hard to access. It’s just a lot more people wanting to do a very few amount of things, whereas we are not as popular so you have a little more freedom to hang out and be a regular at a place. Danielle Kramer, who took over running this space after me and is amazing, started doing a monthly membership that gets you into any show you want to go to. And that has taken off because these kids are coming to almost every show.
It’s interesting because that’s such a clear indicator that it is about the space. It’s about loyalty to the space, and trust in the curation that you’ll bring them the good shit. That’s something some organizations kill for. Like, oh you can actually be loyal? Have faith that we’ll do cool stuff? That’s amazing.
Well there’s been plenty of misfires we’ve had *laughs* but you kinda learn slowly, over time. And that’s the other thing some people who want to do shows in our space don’t realize. When people come to us saying that they sold out a space– but that space seats 40 people. The Showroom seats 175 people. In order to keep going, we have to be able to have a certain amount of people come in the door. And it’s getting way easier now, but in the beginning people were like “Well I sold out this space”, but that space is one-third the size of this space. Of course you sold it out.
Yeah. You look at them having history of how many people they brought in. But I also look for producers who have answers to the questions that I ask. They should have an answer for who their dream audience member could be. Like who’s the audience for this? Who are these people? How do you know how to find them? What’s your plan to market it yourself? If they can’t answer those questions, it’s the difference to me between “Well I just wanna fuck around with my friends” and “I want to put on a good show. And also fuck around with my friends.” Both are important, but you have to be able to take it seriously. Also, obviously having a name is a great way to draw. I would also ask who can you book for the show? Who do you have on tap to bring in maybe a new audience for us, too? Those were the kinds of things I looked for, but mainly I looked for people who took running a show seriously.
What about if it was a cool format, but didn’t have big names?
If it was a cool format, absolutely. At the beginning, we gave almost anything a try. Sometimes it would be too high concept to be able to explain. And then there were a couple shows that were these fantastically complicated concepts. Jon Dore, Rory Scovel– two amazing comedians– they did a thing called The Jory Hour. And I think they ended up doing three of them, and I swear to god that they were some of the craziest, coolest things I’ve ever seen. But no one understood what was happening. The first one, I think what they proposed, was to have a funeral. The entire show would be a funeral. They rented a coffin. Rented a mannequin to be in the coffin. With a penis. And then the entire show was a funeral, with serious eulogies for this person we didn’t know. How the fuck do you explain that on a flyer? How do you do that? I couldn’t figure it out. I was such a lover of this show. Everyone in this space– Zac McKeever, who’s been our tech guy from the beginning– he is the best. And I’ve known him for years, but he’s so cool because he came in this thing as friends with Francisco, Gaston’s brother. He came in like, “Yeah I’ll run tech” and I’ve watched him become a comedy fan over the years, like a discerning comedy fan. That’s been amazing. Anyway. Zac loved that show, I loved that show, we all loved the Jory Hour. But no one ever showed up. And maybe they would now, because both those guys are significantly more successful. One of the shows, they wanted to get everybody in the room into a party bus and just take them around LA. And it was like, legally I don’t know if we’re able to do that! Technically they paid to be here, so I don’t know! So I had to axe that one. That show was the pinnacle of a genius idea. The space failed them. We just didn’t have a short-term place to really promote it and really help people understand what it was. We didn’t understand what it was. We just lost it. And it was something different every single time!
I’m sure sometimes it’s weird for them. Everybody’s very diplomatic about it, but I’m sure there’s sometimes issues. The people who are coming here just to see shows might feel like “Just get these fucking comic books out of the way” whereas the people who love comic books are like “Who are these fucking people cramming my store? I’m trying to find Captain America right now.” I think we’ve gotten better over the years. At first, I think people thought this existed in a bubble. But it’s a very symbiotic relationship. They can exist without us, actually, but we can’t exist without the store. The store is our home. That is literally our home turf. Chris Hardwick provided this structure, and that’s how everybody is able to work there. So any tension that has happened has just been us adjusting to this thing blowing up more than we intended it to. But everybody that works there could not be more supportive.
It’s great. Everyone who works at the store I count as my friends. Gaston is like my family for godssakes. I’m gonna know him forever. When we were filming the TV show in February, I pulled everybody involved in our production aside and said “You guys always need to tread as lightly as possible. Think about this as a wilderness shoot. Do not fuck with the wilderness. This is their store. This is their home. I know we’re shooting a TV show and it seems like a big deal. I do not give a fuck. You do not disturb anything about this store. If someone who works at the store says something to you, that’s gospel. Don’t take that as anything else but gospel.” I said that because it’s so easy for someone involved in the production to be like “Move this, get out of here” and then the store is fucked. We don’t want that. And the people involved in the TV production were incredibly deferential to the store at all times. And that’s really important to me: they let us into their store. And sure we benefit them, absolutely, but it’s incredibly important to me that everyone understands and respects each other’s space. And that’s going amazingly. We had some hiccups in the first couple of months figuring out what everybody needed. But it’s going amazingly.
The Meltdown show has been framed almost as a documentary-style show, and the tagline is “comedy in a comic book store,” so it’s so based on that space existing in its organic state. I feel like that’s a benefit from the crew’s perspective. Do you feel like having the show at the space is a new era for NerdMelt?
I hope so. That store is so iconic…it’s been featured in the Simpsons! There’s been other reality shows that have been filmed there. The store is so cool in itself that it’s not the first time somebody’s thought to do this, but we happen to be the first one to get it on the air. And only because of Gaston being like “Yeah, let’s do this! Absolutely, let’s go for it!” Which is amazing. But maybe it will, I don’t know. A couple of people have filmed their specials there– Morgan Murphy did.
I like the idea of comedy looking more like the comedy I see every day, and not smoke machines and crazy lights and crane shots. When we first were talking about filming this show, people wanted to know where we’d film it. And I was like, what are you, an idiot? This is where the show is. And they were like, you could pretend you’re in the space. Half shots of people outside the doors, and when you get inside, it’s like this stage, right? We could have made that work. But it’s not what we wanted to do at all. And everybody teamed together so well to cram an entire television production into that space, it was great.
Is there a chance The Meltdown show can grow beyond its britches?
I don’t care if it does. We’re not going anywhere. We used to sell out Tuesday before the show on Wednesday. We now sell out by Friday when we put the tickets online on Wednesday. And that’s very new. We could absolutely fill a space twice that size, as long as the TV show’s on. I don’t care. I’m not moving it. I’ll shut it down before I move it. It has to stay the size it is, because that’s all the size we have. That’s our space. People have tried to get us to move to other venues, but it’s not happening.
Wow. That’s an amazing stance.
I mean, yeah. The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail does shows out of town in other venues, but we’ve had people be like “There’s this LA festival, why don’t you do your show in a bigger venue?” What the fuck is the point? This is where we live. We’re not trying to make a ton of money. This is just our home. This is what we want to do. So, our motivations are not to keep growing and growing and growing. We’re just happy that the space sells out every time.
At this point, it is part of the show’s identity. It’s not a gimmick. Along those lines, how do you feel the aesthetic/vibes of the space make it so that works?
There’s always something to look at. That’s something that struck me the first time I was there– that there is so much to look at. I kind of like being overstimulated in that way, where you’re constantly looking around. There’s little, tiny stickers and posters and things from years before you were there. There’s pictures of the owners’ children– I met them when they were seven, and they’re now 11 and 12. Amazing, badass kids. There’s just so much to look at. The backstage area…the floor is one of the coolest floors I’ve ever seen in my whole life. It’s this super colorful design. The first time I was there and someone brought me backstage, I was just like “Why am I not here all the time? Why would I want to be anywhere else?” Something about it just feels like home, and it clearly feels like home to a large number of people. And I don’t know what that is. I grew up in North Carolina, some people there grew up in California. Everybody feels at home. And I don’t know why.
As soon as I got there, I was like “If I lived here, I would be here all the time.” Empire Records is my favorite movie, and the Meltdown space could definitely be the alt-comedy-version of their store.
I’ll be Liv Tyler. Actually Danielle will probably want to be her. I’ll be Renée Zellweger. I just dont want to be Robin Tunney; I don’t look good bald.
And the size of the space itself, it’s intimate…
But it’s big and it’s small at the same time.
I love rooms that work like that. It’s like the Room of Requirement– when you see it empty, you wonder how can this fit 175 people? And then when it sells out and you see the crowd in there, it’s like, of course, this is exactly what this is meant for.
It is a lot like the Room of Requirement. The store they’ve set up for years has always had this vibe with beanbag chairs in the corner. You’d go sit there and read a comic book while you’re there. We all had our own ideas about what we wanted to do in the back, but that’s what the store is too. People hang out, they stand at the counter for an hour and chat with the people who work there. The store has always been like that. We’ve kinda just taken it back and made comedy shows with it, but it’s always had that vibe.
Maybe accidentally, it seems kinda intuitive for them to structure the space in this way. If you’re not buying comics, you could be sitting down, or playing a videogame, and it allows for different levels of comfort and participation. It fights against the feeling that when you walk in, you’re immediately doing something wrong.
Right, that you either need to shop or get the fuck out. It doesn’t feel like that at all.
At this point I feel like now people have this sense of what the standard is there, so it’s all sortof mixed in. My new favorite thing is this show “Can I Kick It?” Al Jackson started it. People sit around and make commentary around hip hop videos. And that’s something we haven’t had in this space before. I love that idea, and I think it’s such a fun, cool idea.
It’s been a lot of straight-up nerdy shit all the time. And Al Jackson is this incredibly buff, badass– and he’s a nerd, too– but he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would have a show in a comic book store. But the space allows for that to happen, because he’s a weirdo just like the rest of us. And I fucking love that. At first it was definitely like people who felt like they were nerdy were attracted to the space. There’s been so many comedians who have come into our shows– specifically bigger comedians– who spend the first half of their set making fun of the fact that they’re in a comic book store. The audience laughs, but they’ve heard that a million times. Do you think you’re saying anything that no one’s said before? Yeah, we know it’s weird. It’s a comic book store. Get over it. We’ve been here for four years now, let’s get over it. But everybody’s going to experience this moment of “This is weird, right?” and then they just kind of move on. But it is kind of weird. And now there are so many of these spaces popping up all over LA, which is so cool. There are backyard shows, garage shows, it’s really cool. And now it doesn’t seem as weird to not be performing in front of a brick wall at The Improv.
For some reason I have it in my head that the store was doing poorly before the Showroom came in, but I think I made that up.
I don’t think that’s the case. Obviously as comics go online more, brick-and-mortar’s tough. Anyone who buys anything from the store get in first at The Meltdown show. People know it now. You still have to buy a ticket to the show, but you get in before anyone else if you hold up your brown paper bag. And hopefully people have gotten into comics because of that. If you’re just buying comics to get in early; I don’t give a shit, it still goes to the store. Do whatever you want. But for our show, those people always get in first because we want to make sure that people are buying comics, for godssakes.
As an organizer and producer, what have your takeaways been from working in this space?
I have a therapy background. I was a therapist for six years. Group therapy was a big thing I did. I took a lot of classes and trained in that. So I like creating environments where people feel safe and also vulnerable enough to be weird. And that was big in just creating a six-person grief group, and has also been a big deal to me in doing shows. I want people to know the lights are going to work. I want people to know the mics are going to work. They’re not going to have to beg to get the show started on time. And so we’ve always tried to be incredibly fucking professional. We’re not fucking around here. But then you guys can fuck around here. That was our goal when we started. To have everything be taken care of except for the content: that’s your job. You don’t have to worry about anything else except getting up there and being funny. That’s been a big takeaway.
Also, just the fact that when you’re working in this thing where you have Chris Hardwick, and you have Gaston, and you have these comedians who want to perform, and the people who work for you–sometimes for free– it’s a lot of people, and it’s a good idea for you to do your best to keep them all happy. It’s a good idea to always be checking in with people to see what you can do to make it better for them. So I think I’ve learned a lot about keeping everybody as satisfied as possible. You can compromise and still have everybody be happy if everybody makes something that’s kinda amazing. That was a big takeaway too. I’ve never worked with so many different types of people who are in different worlds but all have to come together to do this. And the comic book store has become more discerning about comedy too over the years. They had a very different idea: whoever pays this money, we’ll let them in. But we wanted to curate a space, so we couldn’t do that. Anybody can give you money and do the worst fucking show ever. We’re trying to build a brand. If we’re trying to build a brand, it has to be that kids don’t pay-to-play anymore. It has to be about us needing specific kinds of shows. And we fuck up sometimes. We get it wrong sometimes. But if you want a unified space, then you have to have a very concrete vision and you have to keep moving with it.
Right. Because it carves out a space to be a home for that, versus a catch-all. Even though a catch-all seems like it would be more open, it’s actually doing you a disservice because you’re not speaking to any one group specifically.
Right. If I let everyone who e-mailed me to do the Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail do the show— I get 30 e-mails a day from people. Not everyone can do the show unfortunately. It’s just a numbers game, for one.
Did your curation process for the Showroom bleed over into your process for curation of The Meltdown as well?
Yeah, a little bit. I watch every single tape people send me. I look for people who have original ideas. I look for people who make me laugh. That’s basically it. It’s tough. It’s a sensitive thing, because I feel like there are people who are really funny and who are just not a good fit for this show. And that’s a hard thing to get people to understand. But if all of your material is about how people think you’re a hipster and you’re not and fuck hipsters, I don’t know if you’re the best fit for our show. You know?
It’s tough because you’re a gatekeeper, but you’re also one of the best gatekeepers because you’re also in the business of making space for other people. This is really cool dude. You’re doing important work.
Some days I think so. Some days I’m like “It’s a fucking comedy show, everybody’s going to be fine.” You have to keep an appropriate amount of perspective. It’s important, but also nothing’s that important. My problems now are much easier than my problems as a therapist for sure. I don’t have anybody threatening to hurt themselves. A good day, by my standards!
Working in the museum we say that a lot– You’re not saving lives.
You’re enriching lives!
You’re enriching lives. And you’re inspiring people. And you’re giving people a space to connect with each other, which is really important.
The coolest thing I’ve seen– for just our show, The Meltdown– the people who have become friends, the audience members, who hang out before the show. They’re people who were a little like misfit toys, and maybe didn’t always have a group of friends. And now they have a community. You want to get me to cry, that’s all I have to think about. There’s a group: maybe 10-15 people who just hang out. I’ve told all of them that I’m never going to have a Meltdown they can’t get into. If it’s sold out, I don’t give a shit. They’re our hardcore audience. And they play games with each other before the show, these weird iPhone games with each other. They go to other things together. Like, fuck! That’s a thing we can make happen? That’s amazing!
This is a super obvious question, but as a side-by-side comparison, what do you feel like makes NerdMelt stand out from places like UCB or bigger comedy clubs like Largo?
I think UCB probably has a very similar thing. I feel like they have a hardcore community, a hardcore audience. I don’t know that we’re that different from them. We’re just newer. That’s all. They’re wonderful; they do great stuff, and have amazing shows. So I don’t know that we’re that different from them. We’re different from Largo because Largo feels like first and foremost a business, and they want to bring you good comedy. But they’re in a business. They have a gorgeous theatre, and have to keep their prices up to keep that theatre up. They feel to me like they want to do cool shit. But they’re business people. I don’t know that there are people who regularly go to Largo. There may be; they may have a hardcore community of fans too. I don’t know that we’re that special. I just happen to be at the center of it, so I feel like we’re super special. And we’re new, so that feels super special to me. But UCB was at one point just like us. They were a little weird upstart that didn’t have anything, that just had the same people that showed up every week. They were just like us, they have just gotten bigger. That doesn’t make them uncool, but they’re now more legit. They’re just bigger now, that’s all. I have so much respect for them. A lot of people who work with us are also people who go to UCB and I think they’re awesome. We’re just newer.
The word ‘laboratory’ is thrown around a lot in terms of art spaces that allow people to experiment, and work on their best work, and then bring it out to a different audience at a larger venue. In terms of that concept, where would you guys feel like you fit in in the lifecycle of comedians, or artists?
I think we’re there. It’s funny– we’re at some point going to get to the point where we’re the big dog that says “no” to shows. I’m sure Danielle already says no to a ton of shows all the time. So I’m sure there’s people who are already like “Fucking NerdMelt, they used to be so cool and now they’re not.” And I see that now because I’ve been here since the beginning. I’ve watched us go from “Yeah! Come on! Let’s give it a try!” to “I’m sorry, but we have stuff already happening all of these nights.” I think we’re just at a point of being pretty legit, but not so legit that people scoff and point yet. But they’re gonna! They’re gonna. And that’s how it’s supposed to go. Someone will come up after us and it will be even more punk rock and badass and DIY, and they’re going to be the cool thing. And people are still going to love us, but we’re not going to be considered the new, cool space. People will think we sold out.
But you’ll also be stronger.
Yeah. I think it’s part of the natural life cycle. Unfortunately you can’t stay tiny and punk rock if you’re successful. You can’t stay tiny.
It’s not sustainable. You guys would burn out. Also in your personal background, you were into music as well. How much of that transitioned over similarly?
I was a goth kid for godssakes. *Laughs* Which in North Carolina is really all you can do. There was a punk club downtown in my hometown called Pablo’s. It was run by a guy who was barely older than me, and his dad ran a coffee shop next door. So it was a punk club in a coffee shop. It was actually my savior. It was the only place I felt comfortable. My town was so small– all the goth kids, punk kids, gay kids, raver kids– we all had to hang out together because everybody hated us, so we only had each other.
Yeah! We really were. That feeling was so awesome. And I feel like when you get to bigger cities, you can find your tribe easier so you’re not forced to interact with other kinds of misfit toys. Which is a bummer. It’s one thing I think small towns are way better at than bigger cities. We had metal kids who would defend gay kids and drag queens to their dying breath. The way I grew up, I could not have been luckier to have found that group and found that club. The idea that I could create anything that’s even slightly similar to that… maybe that’s what that smell is, the smell of NerdMelt reminds me of the smell of Pablo’s. But it’s got that same feel. The father who ran the coffee shop of Pablo’s reminds me of Gaston, now that I think about it. But again, if that club had gotten successful, I would have probably stopped hanging out there at some point. The big thing in our town was cover shows on holidays. This one show featured a Beastie Boys cover band, but for some reason it got out and people thought it was actually the Beastie Boys who were coming. So I showed up at the club I hang out at every day and there was a line around the block to get in. What are we going to do? All these people are here to see the Beastie Boys. I don’t know what the fuck we’re going to do. I ended up just leaving. I wish I could remember what happened that night. I think they just told people to leave, that the Beastie Boys cancelled. That was horrifying. I was like “I’m out. I’m not hanging out in this mess when these fucking kids realize the Beastie Boys aren’t here.”
I think you guys do a good job of intentionally making space for your core community at NerdMelt. Maybe at that point if Pablo’s had grown, there would not have been a space carved out for you in that.
It wouldn’t have mattered.
But at Meltdown it seems like even if it isn’t within the show itself, those people will always get into the show. Providing a space for people to grow with it so they’re not getting kicked off the ladder as you’re growing.
The idea of that really bothers me. Especially for our show– because I’m not there the other nights of the week– but for our show specifically, the people who have been coming for four years will always be important and always get in. We had an audience member who used to just take pictures casually at the show. He’s just become a friend of ours. And at the end of every show we say “Goodnight, Dorsey” which is us saying goodnight to him. He’s still there every week! It’s not like he’s not there. But yeah, the second week of our show, LA Times came and did a piece on us and took a photo of the audience and Dave Kloc is in that fucking photo. How crazy? We didn’t even know him! He was just an audience member. And then maybe six months later he started doing posters for us. And I was like “There you are!” Everybody’s just kinda stuck around. This is the longest job I’ve ever had. Jonah and Ed– Ed is our tech guy just for Wednesdays– they’re my family. I’m going to know them forever.
Great. It’s great. Comedians are not crazy. A lot of people think they’re depressed or crazy. That’s not the case. It’s about being able to read people and know what they need before they do. Ultimately I’m in the service industry: I’m there to make the audience and the performers comfortable and keep everything running on time. So being able to say “no” and be a bad guy, being able to appease everyone and still have a good show– those are all skills I learned being a therapist that I use here. The saying “no” thing is especially tough. I’ve gotten a lot of practice in therapy saying “No you don’t have a home visit today, I’m sorry sir. You fucked up so you don’t get to go home. Consequences.” So all those skills have translated. But being a therapist– all those things translate literally to anything you want to do. It could not have been a better career for me to abandon. It’s not that I’m better at reading people, but it is that I’ve had years of training in learning how to read people and come to a solution. I never lose track of our ultimate goal. Am I going to get sidetracked since all this weirdness is going on? Or am I going to get to this goal which is to move forward with the show?
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m excited for you to talk to Danielle because I ran it for the first year and then I was so fucking exhausted because we went from having me be the only employee to having 30 employees in that space. She was one of the people who I hired to run the house and she was just so fucking awesome, and she got it, and I could just tell that she loved the space. Her and her husband Aaron– they are fucking saviors and champion the shit out of the space. The space needed a champion. It still kinda does, but now not as much. I can’t say enough good stuff. I never felt okay about leaving this space, but I felt okay about leaving this space to her. In three years, she’s gone above and beyond what I ever did there. So I sometimes get credit because I was there first, but it’s tougher once it becomes more legit. That’s a tougher job. So she has a weight to her job that I never had.
Interview with Danielle Kramer
Former Program Director at NerdMelt Showroom, talent producer at JASH comedy collective, archivist
*Note: Since interviewing Danielle, she and her husband Aaron have stepped down from the NerdMelt Showroom. Hannah Crichton and Nolan Fabricus are now Program Director and Stage Manager respectively. Sad! Cool! Sad and cool! NerdMelt life cycle!
So NerdMelt is the product of a super Frankensteined space. I am interested to hear from you in the day-to-day how that works and what your days look like.
Spaces are spaces. There are communities that live here. So it’s basically having these two things that wouldn’t normally come together and bringing these people together. There is quite a bit of crossover in these two worlds. Whenever they first started this space, we really had more of a goal towards collaborating much more with the comic shop and Nerdist-based programming. Then it really evolved into “Oh, all these people coming here to buy comics are actually REALLY nerdy. Like deep fans of comedy.” So we just kept giving them comedy and were able to grow in that right, rather than have everything have to have this nerd-spin. We really like the alt scene here. It’s blossomed so much. It’s been this crossover that I don’t think anyone knew would continue to grow. Everyone is flocking here for it.
Was that intersection between comedy and comics already present in this scene?
There are two separate groups of people traditionally, but they’re here in this physical space together. It took some time to see how the overall overlap worked together. There is a really deep, separate interest in most of the comic book things. We can’t really get a lot of our die-hard comedy fans to come to, like, the Nerdist writers panel for instance.
Yeah, it’s like an entertainment crossover. And a lot of people that are coming here are aspiring writers and people in the industry. That’s what’s great about this place: it’s bringing together so many different kinds of artists. My background is actually in museums and in the arts. I have a printmaking background and went to the Arts Institute of Chicago, worked in the Chicago Film Archives and The Huntington Library out here. And I have just been interested in curating collections of things and getting people to come together to see them. Having happenings around this work. Instead of just having physical objects, now I’m curating comedy. I’m bringing people together to see comedy. It’s weird in this space. That’s why I love it here rather than working in a traditional comedy club, because the interest here is wider and we have this kinda fun playground to play around. We have screenings, and not just traditional screenings, but it’ll be like horrible movie night where people are coming together to yell their best one-liners. Those shows are also about people who have this deep love for cult films so it’s another crossover and a way to bring people in.
It’s been really fun playing around with programming and seeing what people respond to over the years. If something clicks with our audience. Harmontown was a monthly show when it started and then it expanded to weekly. He’s almost quicker, and has more material, than most stand-up comedians will write in their life. He just gets up there and talks and has this whole community of people who have attached themselves to him and they were here every single show. Then we moved that to weekly and got less people. But then it kept growing and growing and growing and now it’s this like, crazy cult thing and he has a documentary and takes it on tour and people were just dying for that. And that’s a nice crossover between two worlds because they play Dungeons & Dragons every show. The programming aspect of being in this really raw, versatile space where we can kinda play around has been really rewarding. We have the freedom to do whatever we want.
Speaking of crossover, what stops you from doing more music here?
We made this space in the image of DIY punk clubs — we’re from Cleveland so we grew up seeing bands and having artists making posters for the shows and we wanted that feel because we’re already that totally grungy space. It looks like someone’s basement. It looks like some place you’d go see music. I love that culture, but we just can’t do it because of noise complaints. We have neighbors in the back. But we do try and incorporate music as much as we can, and often do variety shows where we have bands perform.
We have a very general overall programming umbrella. People know we don’t do music because of our physical space. We have just pushed and pulled to see what works. We try and keep everything really diverse; we want to make sure we don’t have a million storytelling shows or a million stand-up showcase shows, a wide variety of things throughout the month. Not just week-to-week, but month-to-month. We do have regularity in our monthly shows, and have about 20 recurring monthly shows and have a couple weekly shows (Harmontown and the Meltdown). And then I always leave open a bunch of spots so we can have these really interesting one-offs: so we can have art shows, so we can have someone who has a crazy idea who wants to drop in and do something and we can cater to that. We try to do an art show once a month. I just kinda know what our audience is looking for after all this time. We’ve put up shows and it’s like “Oh, well that really doesn’t do well in our space and maybe we’ll move on and not try that ever again.”
How do you manage your feedback? Through stories from audience members?
Yeah, the community lets us know. I mean, there are so many people here who are here just as much as I am. That’s why we started the membership program, because we have so many people who are here all the time. We want to reward those people who are just here to be a part of the community. We don’t want them to not be able to be here because they can’t afford it. Some people are on the list for forever. We encourage them to just come hang out. They’ve been a part of this space since the beginning. You’re a part of the energy here and the reason why we even exist. So, I don’t want your attendance to be cost prohibitive. There are people who have been here since the very beginning and are on the list for forever, and buy a membership every damn month just to support the space. This is their home, their family, their clubhouse and they wanna make sure it’s always here.
Anyone can buy into the membership program. It’s a 30-day membership starts the day that you buy it, and you can come to any show except for The Meltdown because it’s already over-attended and we wouldn’t be able to keep up with that. You get into every other one of our ticketed shows.
Yeah!! 1stfans! The Brooklyn Museum! I have written so many papers on all these little programs museums have. The main goal is to make this place so cool that people are going to feel like they’re missing out. You want to make sure that there’s stuff going on all the time and that it’s fun to be here and that it feels safe and welcoming. And people will come. And people have been coming. And it’s been great.
And to reward that loyalty with something is so important. It probably soothes a fear of the space growing so much that people have to fight for their space. That space is already carved out for them.
Yeah, a lot of people are just here all the time. People are here before the doors even open or if they are part of the membership program they get to jump the line and get in first and snag the best seats. They don’t get edged out.
How large is the program?
It’s not terribly large. To tell you the truth it’s mostly Harmontown fans because Harmontown people are here every single week. If they buy four tickets to Harmontown each month, that’s $40. As a member, it’s $30 a month so they get to go to all of their Harmontowns and check out other shows on the schedule.
Diversity. If we already have something on the calendar and there’s something that’s really great, we might have to pass on something for that reason. We’re looking for something that’s a unique experience. We don’t want to have a standard show that you can see anywhere. We’re in LA. We’re oversaturated with comedy. So it doesn’t matter how big the names are; people can see these people performing stand-up everywhere around town. So we do a lot of shows that have a unique twist: we have talkshows, variety shows, game shows. Things where you have comics interacting in a way that is different from them going up and doing their normal set. And it’s fun for comics too. It’s a challenge. One of our shows, Set List: Stand-up Without A Net is improv stand-up. They just feed you a prompt on the wall and you have to make up the set right there. It, like, scares the hell out of comedians but they love doing it. It’s super satisfying whenever they’re done.
I always try and make sure that the show will be fun for the comics to do and easy for the producers to execute because we don’t want something that’s impossible to book. That’s really important. You have to make sure that you’re not running the comics through the ringer because they’re doing this for free most of the time. It’s just supposed to be so they can exercise, work on new material and hopefully find new material. It’s also about them hanging out and having fun in the community while also putting on a really good show for fans. So yeah, we just want to make sure that it’s a unique experience and people are seeing something here that they normally wouldn’t be seeing everywhere else across town.
There are a handful of things that contribute to it. One: the set-up really works for us. We have a comic book shop out here so people can shop. If any point in time they need a break from sitting in a seat and watching comedy they can come out here and walk around. And that space also works as a social playground for people. Our talent are always out here hanging out. You go to other clubs and you’re just sitting there for the show and you never see anyone. They come in a back door, you watch the show, and you leave. And you guys never really intersect. Here, you can run into anyone. And you will run into anyone because they’re not hiding. They don’t have to hide. If they wanna hide, then they can hide and we have safe zones for them and we make sure they have the tech room and the green room for them to prepare and have a quiet zone. But at any time they can hang out. I think that’s really intriguing to people, especially in this age of podcasts when everyone is listening to every single thing that every comedian is doing. They just want more. So it’s cool for people to see these big comedians hanging out. You just see Louis CK and Aziz Ansari dropping in and you could just reach out and touch them if it wasn’t totally fucking weird for you to reach out and touch them. I mean, it’s exciting. You don’t know who’s going to be here day-to-day.
Not only is it people performing, it’s people shopping. This comic shop has been around for 20 years and everyone comes through here. I worked here for a stint; the level of talent that comes through here is insane. There’s always something going on. There’s also the podcast studio upstairs and they’re always recording so you have a regular round of guests coming through here. And we also try to foster a community outside of the show; We just started the Nerdist School in here as well. We have these students that are learning their craft right next door and they can come in and check out a show.
Improv. Sketch writing. Stand-up. Storytelling. And it’s fun. We go out after shows often. After the Wednesday show, the whole group goes to the bar and hangs out. A lot of our interns write together and make sketches together and that’s the biggest reason to be a part of this place. To meet people and to make friends. When my husband and I first moved here from Chicago, we had nothing unpacked yet. We went to see The Meltdown. And we got one of the earliest posters– the poster of Kumail and Jonah’s hair and microphone– and I remember setting that against the wall with nothing else around the house. It was the first thing we did here.
Oh it’s like the mattress and the Chinese food, the first thing you’re supposed to do in a house.
That was it. We started coming and we never stopped. It felt good. It felt like we would be able to find our community here. We’re midwestern, and midwesterners are different. And here we are plopped down in the middle of LA which is culturally different. And we found a bunch of people here who are from the midwest and have a music background or arts background. A lot of people you meet here aren’t into just comedy, they’re into a lot of entertainment and the arts. So we found a bunch of people we really connected with and we never stopped coming. I’ve never been away from this place for more than a week.
What was your transition into Program Director like?
I was an archivist before all of this and I started studying sketch writing in Chicago at Second City. I took writing classes with my husband, who’s a screenwriter, and we ended up moving out here and I started producing comedy shows because I just really loved it from Second City. My husband was one of the first interns here and just tweeted Emily and asked if they needed help right when Nerdist announced they’d be taking over the space and expanding. He was an intern, I started producing comedy shows, and I started helping and volunteering with Emily to do the PR for the first year. She and I would just go out for drinks and breakfasts and talk about what do I wanted to do because I was just bored in my job and rushing home to do all this comedy stuff for free. I was working in my day job for money, and then couldn’t wait to get home to do the free work. And I was like why am I bored in my career and enjoying all this other stuff? How can I make the fun stuff my bread-and-butter? And she was ready to go whenever I was ready to leave the Library. And then I took the leap, she was ready to leave and she passed the reigns. That was almost two-and-a-half years ago.
That’s such an incredible story. Do you have anything else to add about your growth here?
Everything that I’ve done in the past that has really come together to help create what you see here. And it’s been a big life lesson. I totally changed my career to do this, and this is what really made me happy. In the end, all my curating experience, my museum experience, my artmaking experience, my PR classes– I wrote 15 page papers on twitter. You don’t know how all that stuff is going to help you in your career. Do as much as you can. You’re doing the right thing in asking everyone, getting everyone’s experiences, trying stuff out, seeing what makes you happy. What interests you. It’s such a good thing to do whenever you’re feeling out your career. I’m so happy that I landed here. It’s been amazing. Come hang out. It’s a great spot. Let this be your home. It’s all everyone else here does.