03.18.2016
culture

Trepany House Is Hollywood's Best Kept Comedy Secret

Where professional funny people go to be funny for other pros.

On a Wednesday night in the venerable Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a crowd gathers at the Center for Inquiry on Hollywood Boulevard. From outside the beige, nondescript building, you would never imagine anything exciting was happening inside. Once you walk past the gates, you’ll find the Trepany House, a hidden gem that has been putting out some of the most popular, cult hit shows in town for more than 12 years. This place may be under the radar, but the people performing are some of the world's top names in music and comedy.

Tonight is a live recording of Joe Wong’s podcast, “The Trap Set,” a show about drumming. A niche market to be sure, but Joe’s special guests include Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, who will in turn interview SNL and Portlandia denizen Fred Armisen, who will then interview Blondie’s Clem Burke.

The show runs for two hours, including a Q&A. Long by podcast standards and deathly for L.A.’s Snapchat attention span, but the crowd does not want to leave. People linger in the lobby, hoping to speak to the panelists. This is a typical Trepany audience.

Backstage, the drummers excitedly talk to each other, comparing kits and gigs and road stories. Stella hangs with friends on a couch, Joe collects stories about his favorite, Phil Collins, and Fred asks Clem about Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. It doesn’t strike you as a post interview scene, in which busy people are dying to get away from the venue and move on to an after party. These people feel comfortable here. Clem Burke, who has worked with Pete Townsend and the Ramones, but is best known as the drummer of the seminal band Blondie explains why the Trepany feels like home:

“I first performed here before on a show called CBGB’s West, put on by Kristian Hoffman from the Mumps. It’s awesome here. It’s a place for creativity. It's good for artists. It’s a good spot for workshops, but it’s also far reaching because people know about it.”

People know about it, but that group of people still seems to be those "in the know." The theater was previously called The Steve Allen, and it's housed inside the Center for Inquiry building, which can be confusing to anyone trying to find the space or look up information for tickets. Still, it remains a space major artists seek out to put up work, sometimes experimental or fringe, the type of shows that a place like the Improv, Largo, or the Comedy Central Stages might not readily accept.

“Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly walked in from the parking lot, and I thought, 'That’s right we live in Los Angeles.' " 

As Clem signs posters, Fred chats to the drummer from Samhain about Danzig’s recent turn on Portlandia. Fred knows the Trepany well. He performed in Saving The World With Charlene Yi here and explains why a guy with an insanely busy schedule chooses to repeatedly come back:

“It’s not a bar with alcohol being the main draw. It’s not a club. What attracted me to the place is that it lets you do stuff on a stage. It’s an actual theater. And I’m a fan of Ron Lynch, who performs here. I love the location; the parking is easy. It's artist friendly. Everyone I know does something here. It’s one of my favorite places.”

Comedian Ron Lynch has been a mainstay at the theater, producing and hosting his Tomorrow Show at midnight on Saturday nights for more than 10 years. Ron gained Fred as a fan and eventually Fred asked him to join him onstage at Festival Supreme, Jack Black’s yearly comedy festival in Los Angeles. Fred then cast Ron in the final season of Portlandia.

The Tomorrow show began when actor Craig Anton asked Ron and another performer, Brendon Small—creator of the animated series Metalocalypse—if they wanted to host a midnight show. Ron named the show Tomorrow. Craig recalls their first big night:

“Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly walked in from the parking lot, and I thought, That’s right we live in Los Angeles."

Not every show had a star-studded audience. Craig recalls nights where the house was light, but they continued to put up new work and try out material. The trio hosted the show for three years straight every Saturday at midnight, without missing a single week.

“If anyone other than Amit was in charge, we would’ve been tossed out on our asses. He left us alone, let us find the show, let us build it, tear it down, rebuild it, and just fuck around every weekend.”

Three years ago, when the CFI no longer wanted to fund the Steve Allen Theater, which Artistic Director Amit Itelman had been programing, Itelman founded the Trepany House as a 501c3 Arts Organization to pursue theatre endeavors as a non-profit. Itelman had a knack for attracting a wide variety of talent, ranging from booking eclectic musicians and magicians such as Rob Zabrecky, Exene Cervenka, and Janet Klein, to getting Marc Maron to tape his WTF podcast live with guests including Molly Shannon and Moby, and nabbing comic book legend Robert Crumb to draw the Trepany House logo.

The common denominator has been artistic freedom.

Mark Fite, whose sketch group 2 Headed Dog currently has a residency and has performed in dozens of different shows from Girly Magazine Party to the Rudy Casoni Show, believes this freedom helps the artist and theater in the long run.

Once the rest of the world catches on about what goes on behind those beige doors, The Trepany will be another hot spot on the Hollywood map.

“It gives the freedom to create anything, and a stage to try it out without having to sign contracts or guarantee big ticket sales. There have been lots of really great money-making shows there, but often it's the crazy, creepy, dirty little original weirdos that put up something that really stands out, something really original that would never have found a home anywhere else in Los Angeles. On top of that, it's right in the middle of Hollywood and has a giant free parking lot!”

As anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, a parking space can make or break a night out. Free parking for the artists for rehearsals and performances in a town that often doesn’t pay for theater performances is a godsend.

When performers grace the Trepany stage, it’s less about the bottom dollar and more about letting the artist find their voice. Original plays like Hell House and Re-Animator were given a chance to find their audience and became cult hits. Eddie Izzard workshopped his Force Majeure world tour for weeks. Coming off the drama series 24, Mary Lynn Rajskub worked on her new comedy material before going on tour, as do Bill Burr and Kate Micucci. Even renowned comedy favorites Kids In The Hall reworked their reunion at the humble space. KITH member Kevin McDonald recalls: 

“For a year before the KITH 2008 tour, we wrote and practiced our new scenes there. Then we did trial shows at the theater. Because of the theatre, we had a tour with a show of completely new scenes. Emotionally, this was important to us. It filled the void of our old Toronto theater, the Rivoli—where we worked on and performed new material in the '80s.”

McDonald also worked on his one-man show at the Trepany and continues to do shows there. He adds: “The Trepany provides Los Angeles with an outlet for all alternative comics to try out new stuff. And it provides a different kind of comedy than audiences would find at the Improv or Laugh Factory.”

“We would waste a lot of the audience’s time. Someone got their hands on a fog machine, and we would just keep filling the house with more and more smoke."

Brendon Small recalls using the space as a way to incubate his ideas into what would one day become his hit Adult Swim show Metalocalypse.

“It has on open door policy. It’s safe for experimenting, and the audience knows it’s experimental. At a place like Largo, they expect an A List comedy show that may be alternative, but at the Trepany they know they will see something different. I was putting up a show with Tommy Blancha, this show called Dumb Dildo, 10 years ago. It was stupid shit, long form sketches.”

Brendon laughs remembering it.

“We would waste a lot of the audience’s time. Someone got their hands on a fog machine, and we would just keep filling the house with more and more smoke. Within that show, I started writing sketches about my favorite metal bands. I thought: There’s a show here.”

A fierce loyalty bonds the performers who work with Itelman, some going back to the very beginning. Itelman started out working behind the scenes at the HBO Workspace, where Bob Odenkirk and David Cross presented an early incarnation of Mr. Show before landing their cult hit TV series. Odenkirk kept in touch with Itelman and has been engaged with the Trepany from the start. He headlined a charity benefit for the Trepany when it switched over to a 501c. Odenkirk then returned to develop the Birthday Boys sketch group, a show he directed and executive produced for IFC.

When Netflix green lit a new batch of Mr. Show episodes, Odenkirk called Itelman to book the Trepany for a free show, With Bob And David, to hone new material. The performances were sold out before the email blast went out. 

In a business that rides on the bottom line, Itelman insists that a sold out crowd or sold pilot is not what he's thinking about. He is glad that so many careers have been launched from the Trepany stage, but he isn’t looking for the next hit show.

“I’m focused on doing good work and creating a platform for people to develop their voice. I’m focusing on the immediate performance and the desire to put on interesting, unique, charming, and engaging theater.”

That is exactly what has the big names in comedy scrambling to perform on his stage. Once the rest of the world catches on about what goes on behind those beige doors, the Trepany will be another hot spot on the Hollywood map.

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