Scott Shimamoto is a home mortgage consultant who describes himself as a “black man trapped inside an Asian, who grew up with Mexicans and is trying to make it in a white man’s world”.
Paula Johnson is a marketing consultant who has written more than 40 funny radio spots, and often infuses her client projects with humor.
Together they created The Joke Gym, an open mic night in Arcadia, California, that has presented more than 140 comics since February 2008. While both had experience planning special events, The Joke Gym is the first time either of them has managed an ongoing production. My thanks to them both for this email interview. (Photo by Two Story Building)
Tim O’Shea: Both of you started doing stand-up in 2007. What made you want to try comedy?
Paula Johnson: For me, it was an accident. I was in charge of the silent auction at charity event at The Ice House in Pasadena, California. I bid on lots of items to get the prices up. At the end of the evening, I was the winning bidder on a stand-up comedy class. It was kind of a shock because I assumed I’d be taking home a martini-making kit.
Scott Shimamoto: I was always the smallest kid in school, so it was either get my butt kicked by the big guys or make ‘em laugh. It was much easier to make ‘em laugh! Taking a comedy class was a natural next step.
Johnson: Scott and I met when we sat next to each other in class.
Shimamoto: In the front row, dead center.
Johnson: We both wanted to be the valedictorian—which they don’t actually have in stand-up school.
O’Shea: Since you started performing, do you enjoy comedy the same way as a member of the audience?
Johnson: By the third class meeting, I knew my days as happy-go-lucky comedy fan were over. I’m a copywriter, so I tend to edit and distill information anyway. Once our teacher, Bobbie Oliver, started teaching us joke structure, I started analyzing every set I saw. What’s really impressive is when a joke that should not work really kills.
Shimamoto: The comics that make me laugh out loud need to be very good, or I have to relax and get out of “comedian critic mode” when I watch them. I definitely look at comedy in a different way now. I appreciate it more, but laugh out loud less.
Johnson: Scott and I performed at The Comedy Store on a night that Chris Rock dropped by and try some new material. He went onstage with a legal pad and a pen. Watching him was a real education. The jokes that worked were spot-on, and he just crossed out the jokes that didn’t work.
O’Shea: What comedians influence your work?
Shimamoto: I don’t know about direct influences because I’m trying to develop my own style, but I definitely look up to Richard Pryor, George Lopez, Chris Rock, Rodney Dangerfield, Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Wright, Mo’Nique, Judy Tenuta, Joan Rivers, and Paula Johnson!
Johnson: You are so sweet, Scott. And such a suck-up. Scott makes me laugh when he does material about his childhood. I never thought I’d learn barrio slang from an Asian Republican USC alumnus.
I like Ellen DeGeneres and Steven Wright as well, but my heart really belongs to Bob Newhart. Oh, and Steve Martin is my pretend boyfriend.
O’Shea: How did The Joke Gym project come about?
Johnson: After driving 45 minutes in traffic to my first open mic, “comedy without the commute” became my mantra. Luckily, Scott is very well connected.
Shimamoto: I’ve been eating lunch at the same Mexican restaurant in Arcadia for years. Zapata Vive has supported many community events, including The Arcadia Relay For Life which raises money for the American Cancer Society. As the Relay for Life entertainment chair, I wanted to help Zapata Vive’s business by bringing in a nice crowd twice a month.
Johnson: Zapata Vive’s banquet room is perfect for us. It has a small stage—and we have our own waiter. The venue is the key to a good open mic. Open mics in bars where you have to compete with music or television are just not fun for anyone.
Shimamoto: Paula and I have been figuring this out as we go along. We both have pretty strong ideas about how things should be done, but we always figure out a compromise. And if something doesn’t work, we change it.
O’Shea: How do you spread the word about your shows?
Johnson: I’ve been self-employed as a marketing communications consultant for longer than many of the comics have been alive, so I just treated The Joke Gym like a client project. I got our show dates listed in all the online and print calendars and we landed a few feature articles in the local paper. I made sure we got listed on Chucklemonkey and Mr. Buttersworth, and I posted show details on Craigslist and comedy-related online forums. We also had the benefit of an email list from our alma mater, the Standup Academy.
Shimamoto: Plus, Paula created the Joke Gym website and blog to help us build a very strong following.
Johnson: Not that many open mics have websites, but we really wanted to have all the details and show dates spelled out. The blog is mostly fun—we post show photos and maintain a list of every comedian who has “worked out” at The Joke Gym. And we have a MySpace page, which is pretty much a requirement in comedy.
Shimamoto: In working together for the past year, we have discovered that our individual talents really complement each other. The Joke Gym has continued to grow and attract new comedians.
Johnson: We have comics drive in from Orange County and the beach communities. One comedian drove in from Riverside.
Shimamoto: He likely had to leave home at noon. Poor guy.
O’Shea: Comedians get five minutes to perform. Do most of them stick to the time limit? What happens if they don’t?
Johnson: Most of the more experienced comedians know what five minutes feels like. Some of the newer comics either run short or are just getting warmed up at 4 minutes, 50 seconds. Everyone gets the red light when they have one minute left. That means “wrap it up.”
Shimamoto: I think Paula is too polite with the light. I’m more like the guy from the Apollo Theater with the hook. My thing is, if the comics run long, it means less stage time for ME!
Johnson: And for ME! Seriously, “riding the light” is considered bad manners at an open mic. Even if you’re killing at a booked show at a club, you need to respect the light.
Shimamoto: For the most part, our comics have been good about sticking to their time. No one wants to see the “big-ass red light” flashing.
Johnson: We have the biggest light in the business. I went shopping for a new flashlight, but came back with four-inch wide FlareAlert beacon that can be set to solid red or flashing red. It has a magnetized base in case I ever want to slap it on the roof of my car and zoom down the street like they do in all those police shows.
O’Shea: Looking back at the 140-plus comics who have performed at The Joke Gym, do you have favorites?
Shimamoto: Naming my favorite would be like Octomom naming her favorite kid. I just won’t do it! I give credit to everyone who is brave enough to stand on that stage! Plus, quite a few of the comics who’ve hit The Joke Gym are already established, or well on their way. Performers like Tymon Shipp, Amy Ashton and Barry Weisenberg are making a living from comedy, which is very difficult to do in Los Angeles.
Johnson: I agree with Scott—you have to admire anyone who is committed to doing the necessary work—in public—to hone material and build an act. That said, I have a soft spot for the people who go onstage for the very first time at The Joke Gym. They’re so relieved when they live through those five minutes without passing out or fainting.
O’Shea: Which Joke Gym comics are on the cusp of getting greater exposure?
Johnson: That is the million dollar question. So many of the comics are writing scripts, making short films, producing their own shows, and starting to tour, that it’s hard to keep up with everyone.
Shimamoto: Most of the comics who want to make comedy a career are ambitious and working very hard, but the competition in Los Angeles is intense.
Johnson: I would be delighted, but not at all surprised, to see any of the Joke Gym regulars on TV.
O’Shea: The show just celebrated its first anniversary, can you pick out your favorite moments of the past year?
Shimamoto: I have two. Number one is the first time I opened a show. Number two is the two groupies that I met up with after a show. The first thing happened a year ago. The second thing was about to happen when my alarm clock went off.
Johnson: Those skanks were saved by the bell! I have one favorite moment that keeps happening over and over. It’s when someone shakes my hand or sends me an email, and thanks us for producing the show. It’s like I’m living in a Hallmark card.
O’Shea: Is there any comedy that crosses the line for you? Have you ever decided not to allow a comedian to return?
Johnson: We promote the show for ages 21 and over, so performers can say anything. I tend to favor cleaner comics, but I have found that even the most distasteful subject matter can be very funny if the material is structured right. Of course, you hate yourself for laughing.
Shimamoto: We have never banned a comic from performing, and I doubt we ever will. Comics need a safe place to try new things. A complete lack of laughter is the line comics don’t want to cross.
O’Shea: Periodically the show features Guest MCs. Do the dynamics of the show change depending on who is hosting?
Shimamoto: Definitely, but regardless of personal style, all MC have to keep the energy up and keep the show rolling forward. Personally, I’m the Malcolm X of MC’s—I keep the show going forward and fun “by any means necessary.”
Johnson: We do see a difference, but that makes the show more interesting for everyone. Also, about half of our guest MCs had never hosted a show before, so it was good to offer them practice.
O’Shea: Is there anything about The Joke Gym that you’d like to share?
Shimamoto: I just want to thank Zapata Vive and all of the comedians for supporting The Joke Gym. Special thanks to Bobbie Oliver and her Stand up Academy for turning out dozens of new comedians that work it out at our show. I especially want to thank Paula being such a good business partner.
Johnson: And Scott is a great person to work with. We’re a good team.
Shimamoto: We’re kind of like parents raising our kid together, except our baby is The Joke Gym.
Johnson: And there was no sex involved. We could call it The Immaculate Production.