On a tiny theater stage in Atwater, a group of local comics rehearses one last time before they rush home to pack costumes and wigs and catch a red–eye to New York.
What they're exporting East is a unique slice of L.A. life, Armenian style.
"There's so much comedy in the culture that I wanted to capture," says actress and writer Lory Tatoulian, who created the Big Bad Armo Show four years ago. "We take the reality of our community and we exaggerate it. So it's kind of like holding up a funhouse mirror to the community."
In the vein of sketch comedy acts like Culture Clash, the Big Bad Armos play with ethnic stereotypes. At the same time, they diffuse more serious topics by letting audience members laugh at themselves.
In one sketch, Tatoulian and actor Ludwig Manukian sing an ode to the city of Glendale and generally poke fun at the nuances of Armenian American social life as entertainers aboard the "Heritage Cruise," a fictional cruise ship.
In another, Manukian plays an Armenian immigrant landlord who's trying to evict his Latina tenant, played by Tatoulian, over her pet Chihuahua who’s defiled his favorite fruit trees. The sketch takes aim at inter-ethnic tensions and veers into uncomfortable territory, but this is what satire is for, Tatoulian says.
“It’s like here it is, I’m putting it all out there, and we’re all thinking it, and I‘m saying it," she says. "I think that has been the function of the theater for 2,000 years. That is its job in society, to put it out there, and some people might be come uncomfortable, but it sort of helps us make sense of ourselves, our world, our communities, everything.”
The sketches grew out of Tatoulian's own culture clash when she moved to L.A. as an aspiring actress eight years ago. A native of the Fresno area, where the Armenian community is generations old and heavily into farming, Tatoulian was taken with the diversity of the diaspora in L.A., where different waves of Armenian immigrants from Europe and the Middle East coexist and raise American families while trying to preserve ancient traditions.
Her characters began to develop after she took a job writing for a small Armenian community newspaper.
“Basically, I went to like 500 banquets like a week, and fundraisers," Tatoulian says. "It was a great way to collect stories and just get an intimate glimpse into the community.”
Tatoulian wrote sketches around some of the characters she met: Gossip-loving matrons, perennial city council candidates, bachelors looking for love at Armenian church picnics, nightclub entertainers.
When she and a handful of fellow actors staged their first performance at the Atwater Village Theater four years ago, they didn’t know how it would go.
"We thought it was just going to be some small community theater thing, you know, and be lucky that our families showed up," she says. "And the first night we did a show there were 250 people out the door, so excited."
Among the Big Bad Armo Show’s fans is Richard Montoya, one of the co-creators of Culture Clash.
“I saw enough universality with their work where, like, that was just funny, and funny is funny, and that was funny," says Montoya, an actor and writer. "I don’t know what this Armenian word was just now, but this is coming from the inside out. This is authentic to itself, and organic, and allowing a larger audience in.”
The troupe has continued to perform in Atwater, putting on dozens of shows a year.
"After I do a show, people always come up to me and say, I know that person," says Tatoulian, who has freelanced for KPCC in the past as a guest blogger. "I know that character, I know who that is based on. That person is in my family. And they are real."
How will they do in New York? So far, so good. They’ve sold out two performances this weekend -- and there's already talk of a return engagement.
For the uninitiated, the troupe has put together a mini-glossary of terms for audience members, including humorous definitions of the places many L.A. Armenians call home: Pasadena, Hollywood, Montebello – and of course, Glendale, described in their show program as “a beautiful city whose mountains are entirely covered with marble mansions - inhabited by Armenians.”