Comedians open backyard for monthly stand-up event
By Bridgette M. Redman
The last thing people needed to lose during the pandemic was laughter. Ryan Churchill and Nick Hoff hatched a plan that made sure people wouldn’t have to do without—and it gave birth to an ongoing monthly series of events at a place they call the Freeway Funk Yard.
Both are actors and comedians, and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to hone their stand-up skills as well as invite other comedians to deliver much-needed laughter to their neighbors and audiences throughout Playa Vista and Los Angeles. Every first Thursday of the month, they gather with four other comedians and put on a backyard show with free beer and wine.
Churchill used to do stand-up comedy in Chicago, but he got away from it when he came to LA and had been doing sketch and improv. He was right about to get back into stand-up when the pandemic started and clubs shut down.
However, Churchill possessed something rare in LA—a really big backyard.
“You could play baseball in it,” Hoff says.
“The Dodgers have reached out to me,” Churchill jokes with Hoff piping in to say they turned them away.
“We have comedy to do, get out of here!” Hoff says.
Churchill came up with the idea of building a stage in his backyard and decided to reach out to Hoff—someone he’d encountered numerous times because they were always showing up at the same auditions for commercials. He had no idea how Hoff would feel about it.
Hoff expressed some initial skepticism. “Oh yeah, this guy I’ve met that always gets the parts I’m going out for, let me go help him,” he says.
Bantering back and forth, Churchill insisted there were enough parts for both of them, while Hoff said he only got the back-up roles in case Churchill broke his arm.
“They’d say, ‘You just sit tight, because you’re the same person,’” Hoff says.
“We kind of are,” Churchill admits. “We’re pretty much the same guy. If you were to do a police artist sketch, we’re both going to be picked up.”
“It must have been a two-man crime,” Hoff adds.
“We’re two average-looking white guys,” Churchill says.
The idea was born and Churchill began to build the stage—claiming that Hoff helped out on only one of the days. He said if the comedy thing didn’t work out, his wife would have a sun deck. Once it was built, they began to rally the troops, though Churchill said Hoff did most of that.
“To preach about Nick, he has been a working comedian since 2008,” Churchill says. “He’s well entrenched in the stand-up comedy world. He’s much more connected than I am. He has been instrumental in getting us headliners.”
For their first show in February 2021, they had Brandon Vestal, Kira Soltanovich, Rell Battle and Jodi Miller. For their April 2022 show, they had Tre Stewart, J.F. Harris, Paul Morrissey and Brian Moses.
At first, they didn’t publish the address, instead calling it a “secret location” that people had to contact them to find. They said that while it gave it a speakeasy sort of vibe, it was also because they weren’t sure whether they were breaking a code.
Now, they said, they’re living in a lawless society post-COVID and have learned that everything they are doing is legal. It does, though, still have the feel of a secret location.
“It’s at the dead end of a street and as you open the gate, you walk into this backyard with an awesome stage and expert lighting,” Hoff says. “It’s really cool when you walk into it. It feels like a hidden gem and it’s definitely off the beaten track.”
Because the location can be hard to find, the hour-and-a-half shows keep starting later and later.
“Late start is the bane of my existence,” Churchill says. “If they know it’s starting at 8 p.m., they show up at 8:06 and it keeps getting worse. Now that we’ve done it for a year, tonight’s show will start tomorrow. It won’t begin until after the blue moon.”
“The last show had an 8 p.m. start time and didn’t start until 8:40,” Hoff says.
“One of these shows, we’re going to start with no one there and when they arrive, I’m going to let them sit there and pretend like the show hasn’t already happened,” Churchill adds.
The two of them switch off hosting duties with the other getting to do a full set when it isn’t his turn to host. What began as a creative way to survive the pandemic has grown and the two comedians hope it will become an institution.
“It started out as a necessity,” Churchill says. “Comedy had shut down and no one could do anything. There were just a handful of little sparks of light and we wanted to be one of those and give comedians a chance to perform. Without a stage, comedians are the most annoying people in the world. They have to talk. We got them off Twitter and brought them into the backyard.”
It wasn’t just comedians they were helping, but all the people who were suffering from the isolation of enforced quarantine.
“It gave people a release,” Churchill says. “People were pent up and not able to do anything. Having it masked and outdoors, it felt safe and cool. Now we’re just trying to build on that momentum.”
It is something they do more for love than money. They pay the comics who perform from the ticket sales. They have started to line up a few sponsors for their shows. Some of their neighbors have small businesses. It costs only $150 to $200 to sponsor a show and sponsors are included in all the social media postings, they’re mentioned in the show, and the comedians cross-post the posters where the sponsors are mentioned, giving them pretty wide coverage for what they pay.
While live, outdoor shows traditionally are subject to unexpected surprises, they’ve not had to deal with any of them so far.
“We have a strict no Will Smith policy—we don’t allow him in the Funk Yard,” Churchill says.
“There was a homeless contingent that stuck their head in,” Hoff says. “We’ve got some beefy security to deal with that. You’re 5’8, right, Ryan?”
They also said they had a show where one of the comics caught a bit of heckling because someone was offended. However, they said he’s a pro who is used to it and that it is always a bad idea to take on a comedian during a stand-up show.
“You don’t want to heckle your comedians,” Churchill says. “They’ve been around. It’s like going to a USC fight and jumping into the octagon. Don’t do that. We don’t want to do that to you, but we will. You’re jumping into a fight where the audience likes the comedian.”
“And you have the microphone and they don’t, so you’re louder,” Hoff adds.
While they’ve encountered minor heckling, they said that for the most part, their crowds are respectful. The closest they came to something unexpected was the night before their very first show when there was a giant brush fire behind the 90 Freeway, which runs behind the stage.
“But that was the night before, I kind of wish that had happened during the show, that would have been amazing,” Churchill says.
Hoff suggests that perhaps they should invite extremely pregnant women to the show.
“If someone gives birth during a show, that’s publicity you can’t pay for,” Hoff says. “If your due date is this week you get in free. Or if you’re late, we pay you to get in.”
While both comedians highly recommend going to comedy clubs—saying it is the best thing you can do with your evening—they also point out that what you get at Freeway Funk Yard is different from what you’ll find anywhere else in the world. The environment contributes to the comedy experience the way fireworks do to a trip to Disney.
“It’s right by the Playa Vista Runway, a super hip new area,” Churchill says. “It’s really up and coming now. They can go to dinner at Runway and then literally walk to our show. It’s a cool neighborhood.”
They also said they are really proud of the level of talent they’ve been able to get—people who are headliners. Often, they’re trying out new stuff so people attending the Freeway Funk Yard shows get to hear material that is still being developed and they might see later on Netflix. Their next show is on June 2 and tickets cost $15.
While the pandemic may be ebbing, Churchill and Hoff plan to keep riding the wave and bringing laughter and joy to their audiences at Freeway Funk Yard.
Freeway Funk Yard
5301 Grosvenor Street, Los Angeles