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Whole Foods — watching live standup comedy next to the kale

by Collin Friesen | The Frame

106207 full
LA's comedy scene has spread to Whole Foods' 110 & Bellevue restaurant in Pasadena. Collin Friesen

It seems standup comedy is back.  Maybe not to the extent it was in the '90s where every bar, bowling alley and coffee shop was suddenly getting into the game, but for established comics and those wanting to take their shot, these days you can see if you have what it takes almost anywhere. That includes at the Whole Foods market in Pasadena.

“It’s certainly a conversation starter,” says comedian Jason Jack Beeber as he stands on a small black riser, microphone in hand, his back to a rack of refrigerated chicken. “This is a gig I ask people to pinch me and tell me this is the real life I’m living.”

Technically he’s telling jokes at the Whole Foods in-store restaurant, called 110 & Bellevue. But with gapped glass partitions for walls, the audience can almost reach out and touch the organic produce.

The 35-seat restaurant is nice — amazing, really, by inside-grocery-store standards. But in addition to fighting for attention with the NBA and NHL on the big screen TVs, Beeber has to compete with the main goal of most of his audience: eating and, duh, shopping.

“I’m pretty sure 99 percent of the people here are picking up fresh eggs, so everything is a bonus for them,” says Beeber.

Megan Ranegar is the store’s marketing team leader and the woman who runs the comedy night.

“I was very hesitant to ask them in the first place — they’re used to doing big shows in Hollywood, and we’re asking them, 'Hey, can you do a 15-minute set in a grocery store?” Ranegar says.

According to Ranegar, there’s really only one rule about the material, but it’s one that makes the show more interesting.

“They can’t use any foul language, and nothing too inappropriate, but that’s sort of the funny part, because it’s really hard for comedians to not use bad words, and watching them trip over that is part of the whole show,” she says.

The audience is mostly post-work shoppers and friends of the comics who have a drink and hang out after the show. The store says it wants to create an overall experience for their customers, making Whole Foods more than just a place for non-GMO ice cream.

As for performers, the gig doesn’t pay all that well, but it does pay. Beeber and the others get gift cards and a free meal, which isn’t bad considering there’s no cover charge.  

“Anywhere we can get an audience that’ll listen, we will perform… comics need to tell their stories,” says Danielle Perez, the lone female on this night’s bill.  Still a relative newcomer, she says the grocery gig is just another example of how standup is exploding in L.A.

“Comedy happens in all places — basements, laundromats, and apparently now in a grocery store,” Perez says.

Culture sites like Vulture are saying we’re in the middle of the second comedy boom, crediting YouTube, Netflix and podcasts for the re-found popularity of people who want to be funny on purpose.

But OK, let’s get to the elephant in the room. Nothing against the folks who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but do people obsessed with their organic gluten-free kale chips seasoned with Himalayan sea salt really have a sense of humor about... anything?

Maybe that’s another benefit from taking your act on the... aisle. It’s easy to get a laugh when that’s what everyone is there for, but coax a chuckle from the guy at the cheese counter, and kid, you just might go places.

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