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“For me, stand-up comedy is a lot like sex,” says the freckled comic behind the microphone at Dupont Circle’s Townhouse. He pauses while a few people chuckle at the crowded bar. “It’s super awkward for everyone involved, you’re going to laugh at me the whole time, and it’s only going to last about three minutes.”
This has been Leo Lytel’s opening joke for a while. It’s a little cute, but give the guy a break. He’s only 14.
With the aggressive encouragement of his parents, David and Jayne, Leo has pursued a career in comedy for about a year. So far, the eighth-grader at Alice Deal Middle School has gone further than some performers twice his age. He’s done open mics at the Hyatt in Bethesda, Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, Science Club, and Penn Social. Last fall, he graduated from the DC Improv’s Five Minutes to Funny class. In November, he and his mother got an audition with the executive producer of America’s Got Talent in New York. Jayne Lytel wore her “stage mom” baseball hat while they stood in line. (They’re still waiting for a response.)
Leo’s age makes him a novel presence in the D.C. stand-up scene. But he’s not alone. In fact, he has a peer.
Her name is LizaBanks Campagna, and she’s also a 14-year-old comic. Unlike Leo, she has almost no support from her family, which is her choice. “LB,” as her varsity basketball teammates call her, is a big striver. She’s on multiple committees at the prestigious Episcopal High School in Alexandria, where she’s a freshman. (“John McCain went there,” she says. “I have a joke about that.”) LizaBanks’ school gives her a balance of points that allows her only a certain number of outside trips off-campus. She worked out a deal so her gigs don’t lose her points; the school counts her gigs like a sport commitment.
“I’ve done a couple jokes about how I go to boarding school in my hometown,” LizaBanks says. “Like, my parents hate me slash don’t trust me, so much that they sent me to boarding school two blocks from my house.” She says that one kills.
LizaBanks—it’s a Southernish double first name she attributes to her mom, who grew up in Alabama—tends to shy away from jokes like Leo’s bawdy opener. “I did one joke that was kind of vulgar and someone was like, ‘It just makes people uncomfortable.’ So I don’t do it anymore,” she says. But she has a long, involved riff on refusing marijuana at a party, not because she opposes it, but because she’s too lazy to go through all of the steps involved. She has another joke about what she calls the “philosophy of 14-year-olds.” Among those philosophies: “What if there really is free candy in the van?”
LizaBanks’ real philosophy might be more mature than that, though. She’s met Leo, and she’s familiar with his work. You’d think two kids working the same teen-comic angle might want to rip out each other’s intestines. But they don’t think of themselves as competitors. “Leo is really good and he’s strong,” LizaBanks says. “I think it’s more like we’re in this together.”
Leo, for his part, sees the humor in it all. “What’s better than one 14-year-old? How could we possibly top that?” he deadpans. “With two!”
* * *
Teenage prodigies aren’t new to comedy. The late Bill Hicks started at age 16. Dave Chappelle got behind a mic when he was still a student at Duke Ellington High School. (His mom had to chaperone at clubs, too.) D.C.-bred stand-up comic Brandon Wardell, who recently moved to Los Angeles, began about four years ago at 17. He celebrated his 21st birthday as a performer at the local Bentzen Ball comedy festival in October.
Not that being a kid in the scene isn’t kind of annoying. Leo and LizaBanks sometimes have to perform at bars with big X’s on their hands, often after waiting outside for their turn. But their progress does speak to the open-door policy of D.C. comedy in general. This is a town where everyone gets a shot.
Leo and LizaBanks have their advocates, too. They probably wouldn’t have gotten on at places like Big Hunt or Velvet Lounge without older, more established comics vouching for them, like Sean Joyce, curator of the Underground Comedy series, who negotiated with Big Hunt in order to get Leo three minutes there. LizaBanks says local women comics in particular have taken her under their wing.
Sometimes those mentor/mentee relationships come with sibling-like teasing. Leo says that sometimes, “Sean gets a joke that kind of falls flat, and he mumbles into the microphone, ‘Hi I’m Leo Lytel and I’m a 14-year-old standup comic.’” Leo thinks it’s hilarious. “He’s making fun of me. A lot of people have done that.”
There was an MC who roasted Leo just for being a kid in the crowd—before he knew Leo would be performing. His family talks about that incident at length. The host was Rahmein Mostafavi, a comic who runs the series Cool Cow Comedy at venues in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Mostafavi remembers seeing Leo with his parents in the audience at the Bethesda Hyatt one night in August last year.
“I roasted the ever-loving something-or-other out of him,” Mostafavi says. “I crushed his mom, too. It was fun. I made some jokes that we had all been tricked into being part of his bar mitzvah.”
Michael Foody has been doing standup in D.C. for about eight years. He believes every comedian has to begin with some hubris. “I would say it’s almost essential when you’re starting out as a comic to go through a period where you’re completely delusional about how good you are. That seems entirely essential. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it twice,” he says. “It’s like little kids who all think they’re going to be baseball players. Even being decent at it is a long shot. And you need to be wrong about it to keep going. You need to be delusional.”
That may be the true advantage of starting out so young. LizaBanks says she once got some good advice from Late Night host Seth Meyers after seeing him perform at the Warner Theatre. She says he advised her to “get all the failure out now.”
“I figured out I wanted to do it when I was like, 12, so I thought, I read all these things and I listened to all of these podcasts [with comics] saying, ‘I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I’m just now making it,’ and I started when I was 13,” LizaBanks says. “So I figured when I was 23 I could be making a living out of it. It’s insurance almost. I’m very paranoid.”
LizaBanks’ first open mic was at the Comedy Spot in Ballston. Since then, she’s been a regular at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue’s comedy shows. She’s managed to meet Amy Schumer, Marc Maron, Ted Alexandro, Judah Friedlander, and Louis Katz. “I would get there like an hour early, and I would sit in the front row,” she says. “I would wait till the end to meet them so I would have more time. Amy Schumer, she noticed me in the front row and she was like, ‘How old are you?’ I was like ‘13,’ and she kind of flipped her shit. And was like, ‘Where are your parents? Do we need to call child services?’”
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Except for a somewhat awkward encounter with one of her former basketball coaches— who happened to be at the U Street NW bar where she was performing one night—LizaBanks rarely invites people to come see her. “I’ve said [to my family] you can’t go, and it took them a while to accept that, but now they kind of understand,” LizaBanks says. “It was kind of like, ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t think I’m good enough to show you.’ People are always saying, ‘Oh send me a video, send me a recording, let me watch.’ I’m like, ‘I’ll do that when I’m on Letterman.’”
Meanwhile, for the Lytels, comedy is a family interest. Leo’s dad, David, collects comedy recordings for his son like some fathers buy their sons model-airplane sets. (Leo is especially fond of George Carlin, Stephen Wright, and Mitch Hedberg.) “Comedy is extracurricular. It is my club. My thing,” Leo says. “I’m not signed up to any programs. I’m not a peer mediator or [on the] debate team…They’ve got some pretty stupid clubs that you’ve got to hear on the announcements every day.”
Yet the Lytels probably never imagined this future for their kid. At age 2, Leo was diagnosed with autism. His mom wrote a lengthy piece about it in the Washington Post in 2008 and published a book that same year called Act Early Against Autism: Give Your Child a Fighting Chance From the Start. The cover shows a toddler Leo, shirtless, blindingly blond, and peering into a mirror. By the time he was 9 years old, Leo’s diagnosis had been reversed.
Jayne Lytel has dabbled in comedy herself—around 2008, after she found success with her witty recession blog, Girl on the Brink, which was covered by NPR and the Post. In November, David tells me a story about sneaking into see his wife do stand-up one night. According to him, she bombed.
Then again, the Lytels were going through a divorce at the time.
All of that—the autism diagnosis, the divorce—could find its way into Leo’s act one day. But for the most part, LizaBanks and Leo both come from fairly stable upbringings. Have they experienced enough self-doubt, humiliation, and misery to truly excel at their craft? LizaBanks thinks so. “Everyone’s always secretly unhappy at some point all the time,” she says. “And also the fact that I’m a teenager, I have a lot of [anger] and unhappiness, [and] frustration that has to do with that.”
In fact, there’s at least one way to truly frustrate LizaBanks. Ask her a dumb question like, “Are you really 14?” LizaBanks rolls her eyes. “No. My whole set was a lie.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
The article contained two reporting errors. It originally gave the wrong venue where Rahmein Mostafavi roasted Leo Lytel’s family; it was at the Hyatt in Bethesda. And it gave an incorrect location for Episcopal High School, which is located in the Seminary Hill neighborhood in Alexandria.