Here’s how to do Los Angeles if you’re a Clevelander. Get a round-trip ticket for $300 or less, and go between December and March. Pack your spring coat and count on endless sun, highs in the 60s. After you land at LAX, call the Hollywood Improv and ask if Drew Carey’s doing any stand-up while you’re in town.
The Improv is a frequent stop for Carey and other major actor-comics, who perform short sets there to try out new material. I called and discovered that Carey and edgy comedienne Sarah Silverman were appearing on the same Wednesday-night bill of a half-dozen comics. I paid $16.50 a seat for two hours of first-rate stand-up.
Soon, there he was, the every-Clevelander, just a few feet away, bringing his round-faced grin and middle-American humor to a beautiful, young L.A. crowd. Carey got easy laughs with Paris Hilton rips and Brad Pitt riffs, turned edgier with some jokes about our most dismal current events, then got back on reliable ground, debunking a bumper sticker he’d seen that claimed if women ran the world, there’d be no wars. He imagined a red-phone conversation in that estrogen-fueled future: “Hi, this is England. Why am I being invaded?”
“Oh, I think you know why!” (Comic pause.) “I saw the way you were looking at France!”
If Drew can make it in L.A., so can you. No need to be intimidated by its size, traffic or artifice. Los Angeles makes an exciting escape from our dark, lake-effect winter, not just because it’s one of America’s biggest cities, but because it’s one of our most beautiful. Surprised? If “beauty” and “L.A.” make you think of plastic surgery, consider: It’s not just an oceanside, beach-filled city, it’s a city with a mountain range running through it.
When I got off the plane last January, I was hungry for lunch and thirsting for sun. So my L.A. friend took me north to Venice, where we ate at Figtree’s Cafe, a patio restaurant on the famous Venice Beach. The menu is light and healthy — it serves all-natural cola instead of Coke or Pepsi — and we didn’t mind the comparatively high prices, since we were paying for the soothing Pacific view.
Venice Beach, a never-ending carnival of fortune-tellers and snack shops, beach bums and in-line skaters, has been an outpost of bohemia for decades — my friend pointed out a hotel where Jim Morrison of the Doors once lived. But I swooned over another part of Venice: the Venice Canals neighborhood, where waterways take the place of streets. Constructed in 1905 as part of an amusement park, it’s now home to shabby cottages and glassy million-dollar homes crowded along sidewalks and bridges. In December and January, many residents decorate their homes with wild displays of twinkling holiday lights. Couples, families and solitary strollers wander along the canals, friendly ducks quacking behind them.
A few miles north, as I-405 climbs from the coast to the mountains, one of the country’s best museums hangs from a hilltop. The Getty Center, accessible via a tram that travels from a massive parking structure, is the country’s first great 21st-century museum, a futuristic dream with several bright, sleek buildings gathered around a huge courtyard, open to artfully frame stunning vistas of the city below. Traveling through the buildings from left to right takes museum-goers from ancient times (including some cool mummy portraits) to about 1900. The last building hosts modernist masterworks, from Vincent Van Gogh’s explosive “Irises” to James Ensor’s massive, provocative “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889,” which shows Jesus waving to a crowd in the painting’s background while disturbing caricatures of carousing parade-goers confront the viewer. Ensor, who felt modern life had become so grotesque it would have transformed even Jesus’ return to earth into a rude spectacle, did not display the controversial painting until 40 years after he created it; now, the Getty gives it a secluded room all its own.
To the west lies Malibu, a sprawling, exclusive paradise. Every minute driving through it on the Pacific Coast Highway means crossing a new, sunlit hill and viewing a new vista of coast and ocean. My friend and I spent an afternoon on the highway, stopping at the California-mellow seafood shack Reel Inn for lunch. We relaxed on the Malibu Pier while gazing up at the mountains dotted with modern mansions and out at Santa Monica’s beach curving south in the distance.
If you want to see how Hollywood creates its illusions, skip the famed Universal Studios, which is basically an amusement park, and take the Warner Bros. studio tour instead. It’s pricey ($42), but it takes you onto working studio lots — my tour included a visit to the set of “George Lopez” during the actors’ lunch break and a walk through the idle interior sets of “Gilmore Girls.”
I was more fascinated by the outdoor sets: an office building that doubles as a shabby motel for shoots and several city blocks standing in for New York City and Chicago streets (distress crews spray the buildings with grime and jackhammer the asphalt to imitate 80 years of wintry wear-and-tear). Just as Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in “Sex and the City” rested her feet and lit up a cigarette in the faux New York, you can stand in the false Midwest where “ER” scenes are filmed and contemplate how Los Angeles prospered — by building a whole new left side of American civilization where the sun always shines, then holding it up like a distorting mirror to show it back to us.