Everybody is suddenly buying a car wash on a Friday night at a gas station on Alvarado Street. I’m next in line, and the cashier asks the person ahead of me if she knows why “the works” is so popular right now.
“It's hard to explain,” she chuckles. “There’s comedy that happens inside your car.”
The full explanation probably would’ve sounded even more implausible: That the gas station was unknowingly playing host to Comedians in Cars Getting Washed, a first-time event in which a half-dozen comedians perform four-minute stand-up sets inside of strangers’ cars as, one by one, they go through a single-vehicle car wash in Historic Filipinotown. It was about as bizarre as it sounds, a little less awkward than you’d think, and more fun and memorable than nearly any other comedy show I’ve attended in L.A.
It’s the latest gleeful stunt from Kurt Braunohler, best known to local comedy fans as the cohost of Hot Tub at the Virgil every Monday night, but perhaps more widely as the guy responsible for commissioning someone to skywrite “How do I land?” and for leading a tubing adventure down the L.A. River. Braunohler has been putting on stand-up shows in unexpected spots for years, whether inside a box truck in Brooklyn, on a school bus in Portland or, just a few months ago, in a gondola cruising Long Beach’s canals. It was after that show that Braunohler hatched his latest concept.
“The car wash idea just came because it’s a pretty L.A. idea,” he says. “And also because if you don't like the set, at least you've got a car wash.”
So Braunohler set out on Twitter to solicit possible locations. When a follower simply replied “Comedians in Cars Getting Washed,” Braunohler asked if he could use the name, and the next thing the incredulous fan knew, it was on a poster. “No one knew I was serious about any part of this,” says Braunohler.
Skip ahead to last Friday, and he ultimately brought together a fantastic lineup of stand-ups for the event: Kyle Kinane, Rhea Butcher, Jonah Ray, Brooks Wheelan and Guy Branum, plus through-the-car-window MC duty from Billy Wayne Davis and Jane Borden—who, full disclosure, writes our annual list of L.A.’s best up-and-coming comedians, in which Braunohler was featured back in 2014. After a scrapped initial attempt earlier this summer and about 40 unsuccessful calls to car washes, lining up the comedians was a comparatively easy feat—mostly.
“I asked Anthony Jeselnik and he said, ‘You just described my worst nightmare.’ So it's either people who are into my shit or not, and I know who they are,” says Braunohler. “[Kyle] Kinane was just like, ‘Any time you do something dumb, I'll be there.’”
By the end of the night, 38 cars had played host to sets while being hosed down—save for the final two, which went off dry after the gas station eventually shut down the operation. “Most had three people in them, some had two and there were like one or two cars with just one,” Braunohler details.
“Like me. I was one of those solo riders,” I sheepishly remind him during a follow-up conversation the next day.
“Oh, I remember,” he says.
Attendees were given a very specific set of instructions before the show, so I pull into a fast food parking lot across the street and find comedy producer Katherine Leon holding a clipboard, ready to check people in. “I’ve been so stressed about this for two weeks,” she says. But from my end, the pop-up operation has all of the polish of a professional show (Braunohler thanks his producers for that, Joel Mandelkorn and Mandee Johnson at Cleft Clips). Leon hands me a shammy towel to stick on my dashboard so the comedians know I’m not a random stranger—well, I am actually a random stranger, but a ticketed random stranger. She gets a text that they’re ready for me, so I drive up Alvarado.
If I can somehow set aside that I’m idling in front of a car wash entrance, the scene starts to actually feel like most L.A. comedy shows: a bunch of stand-ups and producers are hanging out and talking shop. Kyle Kinane is standing off to the side, ready for his set. But then he jumps into a car and it crawls into the wash. And then it’s my turn to roll up to the payment-processing kiosk, where Jane Borden launches into an opening bit through my car window, punches the pin code on my receipt into the kiosk and, with all the bombast as if this was the Forum and not a Subaru, welcomes Braunohler into my back seat.
As an audience member, I watch with the standard no-talking comedy etiquette. Braunohler launches into bits about fatherhood and sleeping naked, and the only other sound is my laughter sucking up the air in the car—well, that and the wallop of spinning brushes reminding me every once in a while that, oh, right, I’m in a car wash. But as the performance goes on, it’s impossible to shake the fact that we’re just two dudes sitting in a station wagon. Yes, he’s performing his set, but it’s just for me, and we’re looking squarely at each other as I twist my neck around the driver’s seat. I know I shouldn’t respond, but would it be weirder not to? As Braunohler makes a joke about cooking soup in an Instant Pot, I muster up the meek admission that I, too, own one. And then it’s time to put the car in drive and roll through the dryer—I nervously try not to ram into a wall while ferrying one of my favorite comedians—and with a closer about Ghostbusters and the EPA, Braunohler says good night and jumps out.
It was a surreal oscillation between the traditional traits of a comedy show and the low-key hangout vibes of just sitting in a car—and that sensation seemed to be by design. “I think what's interesting about it is that, at the same time that it is more intimate, it also shines a light on the artifice of stand-up, as well,” says Braunohler. “You’re kind of forced to confront the framework of stand-up comedy, that you, the audience member, does not talk and I simply talk at you with ideas that change after every punch line.” Some stand-ups took a more conversational approach, but Braunohler stuck to his more formal routine, growing more comfortable with it as the night went on (save for an early set with two people who had no clue who he was nor had seemingly been to a comedy show before).
There’s no date set for another edition of Comedians in Cars Getting Washed, at least not yet. (“I’m definitely going to do it again, I just don’t think it’ll be like a monthly show.”) But when it does resurface, consider this your heads up that you want to partake in whatever goofy fun that Braunohler his in store. “Not to get cheesy or anything,” he says, “But a long time ago I kind of wrote myself out a reason for existence as a comedian, and that reason is to insert absurdity into strangers’ lives to make the world a better place. And I’ve been trying to do that for the past couple of years. It all comes from a place to have more whimsical strangeness in the world—it can only help people.”