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‘Toughing It Out’ for the Dream: What It’s Like to Be a Comic and Actor in L.A. Right Now

Ever wonder what it's like to be an up-and-coming comedian in LA during a global pandemic? I sat down with CJ Kelley to find out. Not even the 'rona can stop the grind!
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CJ Kelley is one of many young comics and actors currently living and working in Los Angeles. And like his peers, despite the pandemic restrictions, Kelley won’t let anything stop his grind toward his dreams.

In an interview with Kelley, I wanted to discover what keeps him so driven to pursue his craft despite the less-than-ideal conditions in his city right now. What I learned from his story further confirmed that true comedians are built to overcome hardship – what feels like a roadblock is often a step stool to success.

Kelley is dedicated to his art despite the pressures of the pandemic. To him, a little disruption in the flow of things is just par for the course.

When did you decide to pursue comedy and acting?

I grew up in a small little town called Marathon, Florida. I knew I wanted to do stand-up comedy in middle school. My dad was always the funny guy, and he told me that back in his high school and college days, people would invite him to parties to tell jokes. He’s a master at reciting “dad jokes;” I think he got them from my grandpa’s friends. But he never tried stand-up.

I used to listen to “Chris Rock: Bigger and Blacker” on the way to school, and I can probably recite the first 30 minutes still. I also really looked up to Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, John C. Riley, Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, Daniel Tosh, and Dane Cook.

My dad even took me to see George Carlin at The South Shore Music Circus in Cohasett, MA, when I was 15. I’m so grateful I got to see him live before he passed.

The list goes on, but these have been my influences since I was a teenager. They say the music you listen to in your early teens is the type of genre you like for the rest of your life, and I’d say it’s the same for comedy! 

My ultimate goal is to run my own production company and employ my friends and family for the next 30 years or longer – even when I’m old and gone.

Where did your comedy career begin?

When I was 22 I moved to Boston to get sober. My lifestyle in Florida was destructive. I probably never would have started comedy if I didn’t sober up for a bit and get a clear mind.

I had a counselor at a program in MA who helped me look up improv classes. Because it was technically a “class” of some sort, it would allow me to leave the property using a Day Pass, and I could go out into the city myself.

I started at Improv Boston and took Improv 101 – Improv 601. I had a blast doing it. At the end of 2013 I met Dana Jay Bein, and he encouraged me to take a stand-up class at Improv Boston. Dana and Gary Peterson ended up teaching that class, where I met so many other great comics I still keep in touch with.

We would all do open mics together at the infamous Middle East Bar and Lounge in Cambridge, MA. Every time I visit MA, I try to reconnect with those friends and score some spots out there. (Thank you for the spots, AJ and Pete!)

When did you move to Los Angeles, and what kind of adventures have you had there?

I moved to L.A. at the end of 2015 after saving up money for a while. I lived all over: West Covina, La Puente, Burbank and North Hollywood.

I started out just doing open mics when I could. But when I moved to Burbank, it was two to three open mics every day! I worked at a couple different restaurants and bars; some places I quit because I was moving to the next town, and some places I was fired from for being a sh*t show on the job. It had its ups and downs.

Once, I landed myself in the hospital when I was supposed to be producing a show at the HaHa Comedy Club, so I brought the show to me. I performed outside in the smoking section with no permission and no microphone. All I had was a bench as a stage.

I legitimately had an IV bag attached to my arm on a rolling stand. We got about three comics up before security shut it down. Looking back now it’s a little cringey, but hilarious. I don’t know what was going through my head at the time. But hey, it is what it is. At least I know in my heart that I’m dedicated.

What are some of your proudest creative accomplishments?

I was sick of waiting around to be booked on shows in L.A., so I started reaching out to some comedy clubs.

Flappers was booking me here and there, so I worked with them to produce a show called “This Is Boston.” It featured only comedians from Boston or Massachusetts in general. I got to put my friends on stage and meet other comics that had so much experience and wisdom to share. It felt like home.

I produced three shows like that at Flappers, then brought the concept back to the stage with my co-host, Emily Russell, at West Side Comedy Theater. That’s where we created another production called “City vs City: Hometown Brawl.” It’s my favorite accomplishment.

“City vs City” combined stand-up, improv, trivia and, of course, a physical challenge. Three comedians from one city would go head-to-head with three comics from another, and the crowd helped decide the victors.

It’s a large production with six comics, two hosts and even celebrity judges. Hopefully, the fun will continue when COVID ends.

My favorite recent role was filming the intro sketches for Eric Hollerbach’s three comedy specials that he released at the end of August. We played two jerky businessmen that do marketing for Barbie. They came out so funny, and the two of us together on set were on fire!

I’ve also done indie films for students at NYFA, plus some extra work on a few different shows, including “Silicon Valley.” One of my other favorite accomplishments was headlining for the first time at a charity event in the Florida Keys in November of last year. Being a headliner with a 45-minute set made me feel like a total boss.

What do you see for yourself – and the future of comedy and acting –amid the pandemic?

I see only good things now that I can apply myself 100%. Working with my mentor, Camden Pace, has been awesome, and I can’t wait to see what we’re capable of doing together!

I see myself going on more auditions and filming more short sketches and other funny content during the pandemic, because live shows are scarce. But they are out there, so keep your ears to the streets, people.

I’m also working on a special I hope to film soon called “CJ Kelley: Adorable Scumbag.” I have no idea when it’s going to come out – I don’t want to rush it. I always pictured it in a theater of sorts, but with COVID…well, you know. I guess I could do it outside, but that’s not my vision right now.

I’m doing this for myself, but ultimately, I want to make sure my family is taken care of. I want to have such a good, funny, talented group of people with me that we can develop our own content and take it to a big studio who will want to back it. No questions asked.

As long as everyone’s responsible, distanced and wearing masks – all that jazz – then, hopefully, the stand-up shows can ramp up again soon. When it does, there will be a boom of productions starting. Roles will need to be filled. And the people that toughed it out in L.A. will be here, ready to rock and roll.