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UCBT, Aziz Ansari, Brett Gelman, Nick Kroll in New York Times feature on alternative comedy

Mar 18, 2015

Seinfeld It Ain't

IT was about halfway through a comedy show at the East Village bar Rififi when an image of Hitler appeared on a screen in front of the audience, 50 or so young people packed in a small back room on a recent Thursday night.

"He was the most evil dictator the world had ever seen," a narrator declared in the melodramatic tone of a movie trailer voice-over. A picture of Andrew Dice Clay flashed on the screen. "He was the most offensive comedian the world had ever seen," the narrator said.

Image of Hitler: "He performed crimes against humanity that until then the world had deemed unfathomable." Image of Mr. Clay: "He told dirty nursery rhymes that shocked a nation."

"Hitler; Dice," the narrator continued as the two images morphed. "The two most important people of the 20th century are about to combine as one. This summer Andrew Dice Clay is "Adolph Dice Hitler Clay!"

At that point Brett Gelman, a 29-year-old comedian from Brooklyn, bounded onto the stage wearing a studded black leather vest and pompadour, as favored by Mr. Clay, and a Hitler moustache. He regaled his audience with a monologue that combined the thoughts of Hitler with the tough-guy, streets-of-Brooklyn accent of Mr. Clay.

"You know Eva's always in my ear about how come we don't make love no more," Mr. Gelman said, cocking his head and puffing on a fake cigarette, Dice-style. "'It's Poland this and Paris that. Why don't you make love to me?'"

"Shut up!" Mr. Gelman barked. "I'm conquerin' Europe over here!"

There's a decent chance that Mr. Gelman's over-the-top Hitler bit wouldn't play well among the tourists at Manhattan's traditional stand-up clubs, places like Caroline's and Stand-Up New York, a universe where Seinfeldian observational humor still reigns and the only costumes comedians wear are jeans and T-shirts. But among the young comedy fans who frequent Rififi, Mr. Gelman's gag was an unqualified hit, and he left the 10-foot-by-10-foot stage to a rousing ovation.

Bars and back rooms in the East Village and Lower East Side are overflowing these days with the likes of Adolf Dice Hitler Clay: not spoofs of Nazis necessarily, but rather a wave of young and creative comics who are branching out from straight stand-up to eccentric sketch and character-based humor that owes more to Da Ali G Show" than to George Carlin. They may not have created an entirely new form of humor, but collectively they form a cohesive and happening new comedy scene downtown, one with an urbane sensibility and a vibe that is different from the established stand-up joints. The rooms are small. Shows are cheap, or free. And there is almost never a two-drink minimum.

"It's a really prolific time right now," said Jim Kozloff, the director of talent and creative development at VH1, which has employed a number of comics Mr. Kozloff scouted on the downtown scene. "All of a sudden there's this great new crop of funny, articulate, smart, quick comedic talent that's coming to the forefront downtown."

In an effort to get a bead on the new scene - participants call it downtown comedy or alternative comedy or, if they're feeling especially wordy, downtown alternative comedy - I embarked on a seven-day downtown comedy binge last week, timed to include Jan. 24, a day a British researcher recently deemed the most depressing of the year, because of the convergence of holiday bills, dim sunlight and broken New Year's resolutions.

All told, the binge involved eight shows and cost a whopping $18, not including beer and taxis, and the laughs were nonstop, thanks to a menagerie of bizarre characters invented for the stage.

At a Thursday night gig called simply "Thursday" at Rififi, the youthful comedian Nick Kroll played a hypochondriac 55-year-old Upper West Side widower, nursing a martini garnished with a Vienna sausage, which he called a "sausage on the beach." At a free weekly variety show, "The Giant Tuesday Night of Amazing Inventions," Andreas du Bouchet M.C.'d in the character of Francisco Guglioni - six-time entertainer of the year from the little-known nation of Boliviguay - and wielded an invention he called the Recordilator, which looked suspiciously like a calculator affixed to foam pool noodle.

There was a satire of a Christian music duo, a Nascar-loving septic tank cleaner from North Carolina named Louis Harken who had come to New York to pursue his dream of becoming a slam poet, and a character named Stanley Hope, an inspirational speaker whose claim to fame was surviving 22 suicide attempts, including a leap in front of a subway train - at the Transit Museum.

"You're paying five bucks," Mr. Kroll said after his show. "We can take some chances."

For comedians, the emergence of the alternative scene has brought a welcome surprise: packed houses. Mr. du Bouchet, 34, who works as a secretary at a bank in the daytime and who creates his weekly show in e-mail exchanges with his fellow cast members, said he used to play to five people. Last Tuesday it was standing room only.

"I've been doing comedy in New York for eight years, and I've never seen the scene as popular as it is now," he said.

It's unclear whether downtown comedy is thriving as a result of logistical and economic changes in the local comedy scene, or some broader cultural need these days for laughs. The presence and growth in the city of the Comedy Central and VH1 cable channels have given comedy writers a way to support themselves without hitting the road full time, and many regulars on the circuit write for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central and for the David Letterman and Conan O'Brien shows on the networks.

But Mr. Gelman, who plays the Dice-Hitler character, said he thought there was a parallel between the political situation today and the post-Vietnam years that produced the often absurd character-based humor of John Belushi and Steve Martin.

"The world is pretty messed up," Mr. Gelman said. "People are pretty frustrated and they like to see people letting out their frustrations in an unbridled way. As far as making people feel less depressed, that in and of itself is a political act."

Any attempt to define the term alternative comedy was doomed, Mr. du Bouchet said before his Tuesday night show, but he gave it a shot anyway.

"Alternative is a catchall phrase for 'not stand-up,' " he said.

Aziz Ansari, 22 and an up-and-coming comic on the scene, elaborated. "The alternative rooms give you an outlet to explore something other than straight stand-up," he said. "You can do characters. I can bring a girl on stage that I got rejected by and interview her, or do a PowerPoint presentation or show a short film. The nature of the venues allows you to experiment."

The original inspiration for the downtown scene is the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Chelsea improv theater that for the last 10 years has churned out and educated legions of improvisational comics, along with several Saturday Night Live cast members including Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch.

For years, though, there were few other places for these comics to perform. Then in 2002 two aspiring comedians, Bobby Tisdale and Eugene Mirman, decided to start Invite Them Up, a show they named after their habit of having parties on the rooftop of their Ludlow Street apartment building. The idea, said Mr. Tisdale - an exuberant 35-year-old from small-town North Carolina who speaks with a twang- was to have an intimate comedy show more akin to an improv night at the Upright Citizens Brigade than a traditional stand-up club.

"Our goal was to have a show where you could be very experimental and where the audience knew what was going on and accepted it," Mr. Tisdale said, adding that there was but one requirement: do something new each week.

The show gradually built an audience, and spawned similar gigs. Sometime in 2004, Mr. Tisdale said, he noticed that small shows were popping up all over the place: a Friday night show called "Hot Tub" at the People's Improv Theater in Chelsea; various shows at Mo Pitkin's, including an all-women's comedy show called "Chicks & Giggles"; Mr. Ansari is the host of a regular Monday show at the Upright Citizens Brigade called "Crash Test"; Mr. Kroll, in addition to "Thursday," serves as host of the monthly variety show "Bar Mitzvah Disco."

Because the shows are mostly free and comedy zealots can afford to traipse from show to show, audiences can bond with the characters they are seeing regularly, adding an intimacy that is hard to come by in the constant churn of stand-up clubs.

The downtown scene now even has its own Boswell, in the form of a blog, , which tracks shows, comedians and comedy-world gossip.

In the week of nightly shows I encountered only one comic twice. Only a couple bombed, but the crowds were so forgiving, it hardly mattered; there are apparently no hecklers on the alternative comedy circuit. That doesn't stop the comedians from occasionally making fun of the crowd.

At Mr. du Bouchet's show, a character known as the Downtown Hipster Vampire Alternative Comic appeared onstage wearing expensive-looking denim, a Ramones T-shirt and a set of plastic vampire choppers. As he mumbled through intentionally lifeless jokes about MySpace.com, the Strokes and Evite etiquette - "I have E.R.A.: Evite response anxiety," the comic intoned. "When I get an Evite, I never know if it's cool to respond or not." - Mr. du Bouchet declared that Hipster Vampire Comic "will suck the life out of any show." The crowd, many in expensive denim and rocker T-shirts, went along with the gag.

For all the eccentric character-based comedy, there were still plenty of straight-ahead laughs as well, a few of which are even fit for a family newspaper. Erin Foley, a comedian at Hot Tub, riffed on the most depressing book she'd ever seen: Vegan Cooking for One. No meat, no eggs, no friends, Ms. Foley said.

At the same show Josh Comers, who has written jokes for The Late Late Show, told the crowd: "My roommate's gay, but I'm not. Unless I'm short on rent."

At "Thursday," Liam McEneaney explained his reasons for pursuing romance in Internet chat rooms: "I was tired of women rejecting me for the way I looked. I wanted them to reject me for who I really am."

And at "Invite Them Up," Demetri Martin, who recently began doing occasional comedy segments on The Daily Show, gave the audience advice on how to speed-read autobiographies. "I just go to the 'about the author' section," he said.

Yuks notwithstanding, perhaps the most uplifting aspect of a weeklong midwinter comedy binge was the pleasure of seeing dozens of people so enthusiastic about their work that they were willing to practically give it away. That could change. As the crowd moseyed out of his Tuesday night variety show, Mr. du Bouchet said he could see himself selling tickets someday.

"I bet we could charge five bucks," he said.
NY General

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SHOWGIRLS Reviewed in HX

Mar 18, 2015

Showgirls: the Best Movie Ever Made. Ever!
A camp classic made better

Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever! is the best show ever made. Ever! A glorious spoof of the 1995 movie that was so bad it killed poor Elizabeth Berkley's budding Hollywood career, this Upright Citizens Brigade production is laugh-out loud funny from start to finish. It's set up as an interview between the movie's famously misogynistic screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (John Reynolds) and a worshipful professor of film and gender studies (Jackie Clarke), who calls him the "Shakespeare of our time" and lauds his script's "responsible portrayal of minorities and sex workers," including Berkley's character Nomi Malone, whom she regards as "a heroine worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald." ("Know me, I'm alone," Eszterhas explains about his heroine's name.)

As humorous as the pair is - after screening a clip of one ridiculous sex scene, in which Berkley rides Kyle MacLachlan like a bronco, the professor says she's reminded of feminist Andrea Dworkin, "who correctly theorized that all heterosexual sex is rape" - it's the ensemble's live re-enactments of certain key scenes, complete with dramatically intoned stage directions, that are truly hysterical. When Malone doesn't show for her stripper gig one night, she tells her boss, "I had my period - I didn't want to get blood all over the place." Her boss replies, "I'm getting sick of your shit." Shrieks Malone, "I told you it wasn't shit - it was my period!"

Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever! , 9:30pm Thu at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, 307 W 26th St, $5, 212 -366-9176.
NY Shows

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GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! in Variety

Mar 18, 2015

Musical, the Musicals!

Tuners about tuners are nothing new -- think FolliesA Chorus Line or The Producers. But now you can get your musical with an extra helping of meta.

There's a new production in which a composer-scribe duo appears in their own show, chronicling the minutiae of the development process of a new musical.

In fact, there are two such shows.

Gutenberg! The Musical! a two-hander written by and starring Upright Citizens Brigade alums Anthony King and Scott Brown, just wrapped a successful three-week London run. Set at a backers audition, the comedy, in which King and Brown portray fictional creatives trying to sell their new tuner about the inventor of the printing press, has elicited interest in a return London engagement, and the writer-performers hope to find an Off Broadway berth for it, too.

And ',' which bows at the Vineyard Feb. 15, stars Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell as themselves, who, along with two actresses who also play themselves, reenact their frantic attempt to come up with a new musical in time to make the deadline for the New York Musical Theater Festival.

'These are shows about putting on shows on a more intimate level than, say, The Producers,' King says.

'There's something in the culture, with reality TV all over, of throwing back the curtains,' adds Bell.

King and Brown were inspired by King's internship at Manhattan Theater Club, during which he listened to countless tapes of new musicals, often performed, badly, by their own creators.

'There was a lot of pathos and a lot of bathos,' Brown says.

Both creative teams claim that the conceit of starring in their own show was mostly prompted by economics and logistics. 'We knew we were both available,' Bowen quips.

But backers auditions? Summer tuner fests? How far into your own navel can you gaze without becoming too insider-y to attract a crowd?

'No one is paying attention to the musical part,' says Bowen, who got a chance to gauge audIience reaction during a trial run this summer at Ars Nova. 'They're following the characters.'

As for 'Gutenberg,' King says, 'Our universal theme is idiotic passion.'

'Nature abhors a musical,' Brown chimes in. 'It must be forced into existence by money or madness.'
NY Shows

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