CRASH TEST in the NY POSTMar 18, 2015
SURE, anyone can turn on cable to watch a club-circuit comedian offering his top line, but how many can say they played a drinking game with one of them?
At How to Kick People, a literary-focused comedy room that celebrates its two-year anniversary show in February, co-hosts Bob Powers and Todd Levin make sure that comedy fans are experiencing something they can't see anywhere else, including a game of 'I Never' with the entire audience.
Visit one of several emerging and established independent comedy rooms in the city on any given night, and you're bound to see the next big thing - or the next really great little thing - just about everywhere you look.
'I feel like this happens every few years,' says Powers, who finds his own career taking off with a book deal and a visit this March to HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. 'The alternative scene peaks and dies down for a little while. Right now it's at a peak.'
Within the scene, comedy fans can find several performers seemingly on the verge. Take 25-year-old Baron Vaughn ('Actor, Comedian, Negro') who is also seeing his years of performing paying off with an upcoming showcase at the respected Aspen festival. The busy performer is also launching a new room called Comedy Is for Humans! at Mundial, in the East Village, on Wednesday.
'One percent of all comics ever reach the level of a Chris Rock or a Jerry Seinfeld,' Vaughn says. 'When audiences come to the underground rooms, they have a chance to watch the process that happens along the way - and see the comedians grow.'
At Invite Them Up, a popular showcase co-hosted by Eugene Mirman mixing stand-up, video shorts and the occasional 6-foot-long sandwich, comedians often come up with bits that then make the leap onto a bigger stage. Co-host Bobby Tisdale developed an obsessive Southern character that later ended up in the sleeper movie hit Junebug, and Daily Show correspondent Demetri Martin is a frequent visitor to the Wednesday room.
'You get to see first versions of material that often goes to television,' Mirman says. 'Demetri constantly tries out various things and a week later will be doing it on Carson Daly.'
Other times, smaller rooms such as Aziz Ansari's Crash Test at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre serve as launching pads for material that reaches its own level of Internet notoriety. Who could forget the viral hit of the world's worst mixtape video, whereby the comic was forced to walk around the city rocking out to Gloria Estefan and the Dawson's Creek theme on a giant boombox? (Check out: /movies/Aziz+Ansari.)
'The mixtape was developed for the show, and it's been passed around all over the Internet,' Ansari says. 'It's just helped my career in general to have that kind of presence.'
There's also a practical element to visiting the smaller underground rooms, points out Best Week Ever favorite Christian Finnegan, who will perhaps forever be remembered as the white guy on Dave Chappelle's ' 'Mad' Real World' Comedy Central sketch.
'It is comedy for other New Yorkers,' concludes Finnegan. 'You can do 10 minutes on the G train if you want.'
Essential comedy shows, all the way to 11:
1. Tell Your Friends
What you missed: Onion head writer Todd Hanson previewing his stories. Christian Finnegan practicing for 'Friday Night With Greg Giraldo.' Todd Barry running through his full half-hour Comedy Central Presents before taping.
What you will see: More musical guests, more sketch, and on Jan. 30, Letterman favorite Jim Gaffigan.
Feels like: A comedy iPod.
Sounds like: 'I'll admit I've never been a woman's first time. Once or twice I was told that I was a woman's last time.'
Looks like: 75 percent young, attractive women in the audience.
What you need to know: Mondays at 8 p.m., the Lolita Bar, 266 Broome St. Free with suggested drink purchase.
- Answers from Liam McEneaney
2. Giant Tuesday Night of Amazing Inventions and Also There Is a Game
What you missed: A production of Shakespeare's Hamlet performed by an entirely drunk cast. Dead celebrity charades. An impromptu jog-off.
What you will see: Upcoming shows include an all knock-knock joke show on Jan. 31, and a murder mystery. Drunken Macbeth is also being considered.
Feels like: The Muppet Show meets Merv Griffin meets The Price Is Right meets Star Trek.
Sounds like: 'I am from Boliviguay, where the national language ees English, but with a Spanish accent.'
Looks like: Young, hip nerds abound.
What you need to know: Tuesdays, 8 p.m., Rififi, 332 East 11th St. Free with one drink minimum.
- Answers from Andres du Bouchet
3. How to Kick People
What you missed: The drinking game 'I Never' performed with the entire audience. A mini-musical about the friendship between a squirrel and a rat. A duet via cellphone.
What you will see: On Feb. 22, in honor of the show's two-year anniversary, the hosts are staging their own funeral.
Feels like: A literary show for people who still enjoy Mad Libs.
Sounds like: 'I come from a very long line of cowards. In fact, my family crest features a picture of a lion disappointingly eating a meal it didn't order.' - Todd Levin
Looks like: Expect to see bold and stylish eyewear.
What you need to know: Last Wednesday of every month, 7:30 p.m., Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, 34 Avenue A. $8.
- Answers from Bob Powers and Todd Levin
4. Variety Shac
What you missed: Matt Higgins pushing the envelope talking on his cell phone onstage, then turning his bit into a lecture. Jon Glaser pretending his father was the lost member of ZZ Top. A dream about a gorilla that you will never forget.
What you will see: Unforgettable guest spots including Cory Arcangel displaying modified Nintendo game cartridges where everything from Super Mario Bros. has been removed but the blue sky and clouds.
Feels like: Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Laverne & Shirley.
Sounds like: 'TGIF! Danceparty! Friday! Friendship!'
Looks like: There are often a lot of hot guys in attendance.
What you need to know: First Tuesday, every month, 8:30 p.m., Galapagos Art Space, 70 N. Sixth St., Brooklyn. $5 donation.
- Answers from Chelsea Peretti
5. The Shark Show
What you missed: Breast puppets. 'Battle of the Shark Show Stars,' ending with a bloody nose and an empty 12-pack. An episode of 'Fraggle Rock' directed by playwright Clifford Odets.
What you will see: 'Battle of the Funny Bands' is slated for March. 'Iron Comic' comes this June.
Feels like: Verbally and visually PG-13, but 1980s PG-13, not pansy '90s PG-13.
Sounds like: An 'intellectual' quiz where contestants have to identify if the topic is about John Paul (pope), Jean Paul (Sartre) or Jean-Claude (Van Damme).
Looks like: Hipsters and hip replacements.
What you need to know: Saturdays, 8 p.m., Mo Pitkin's, 34 Avenue A. $8.
- Answers from Gabe McKinley
What you missed: A dance-off with members of the audience. A largely improvised sketch ending with two characters falling in love and going to see Brokeback Mountain. Brutal bar mitzvah tape honesty.
What you will see: The can't-miss Groundhog Show on Feb. 2 and the Feb. 16 Laugh Olympics.
Feels like: The Rat Pack in T-shirts.
Sounds like: 'We picked up these girls who were hitchhiking. One was a Portland street punk who just came back from Anarchy Camp. Nothing says 'anarchy' to me like 'registration fees' and 'lights out!''
Looks like: Intelligent folks looking for a good laugh.
What you need to know: Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., the Slipper Room, Orchard and Stanton streets, $5.
- Answers from Seth Herzog
7. The Hot Tub
What you missed: The cast of Giant Tuesday Night performing their show in 8 minutes. Juggling. Reggie Watts combining beat boxing and improv.
What you will see: New material is debuted every week with an emphasis on offbeat performers and terrific stand-up.
Feels like: Nichols and May meets Mr. Show.
Sounds like: 'OK, we're going to play a little trivia game about my life called 'Acid Trip, Paid Acting Gig, or Time I Killed an Animal at a Drive-Thru Safari?' The sad part is that these are the only memories I have.' - Kurt Braunohler
Looks like: Smart and hip.
What you need to know: Fridays, 9:30 p.m., P.I.T., 154 W. 29th St. $8.
- Answers from Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler
8. Invite Them Up
What you missed: A song set to 'Casual Encounters' from Craigslist. Bobby Tisdale blowing fire. A pinata full of money.
What you will see: The occasional appearance by David Cross. Up-and-coming comedians like Jacqueline Novak. Guest DJs like Michael Showalter from Stella.
Feels like: The A-Team meets Jethro Tull, but less stuff about religion and no land grabbers.
Sounds like: 'This credit card I signed up for allowed me to pick the question they ask me and the answer that I give them. So now when I call they have to ask me what am I wearing, and I have to respond, 'I don't think that's appropriate!''
Looks like: A mish-mash of students and writers and lawyers.
What you need to know: Wednesdays, 9 p.m. (get there by 8:15 p.m., to be safe), Rififi, 332 East 11th St. $5.
- Answers from Eugene Mirman
What you missed: Joe Franklin re-enacting a scene from 'What's Love Got to Do With It.' Maria Bamford warming up before her 'Comedians of Comedy' show. Burlesque dancers strolling through the crowd.
What you will see: Constant evolution and Jessi Klein, when she's in town.
Feels like: Really cheap, really funny, always different.
Sounds like: These are the folks behind I Love the 30s on Comedy Central.
Looks like: A bizarrely wide range of people.
What you need to know: Thursdays, 8 p.m., Rififi, 332 East 11th St. Free, one drink minimum.
- Answers from Nick Kroll
10. Midnight Pajama Jam
What you missed: The country singer 'Wyatt Trash.' A dance performed exclusively with calves. David Cross playing a rabbi.
What you will see: 'What people should know is there is a high probability they will dislike the show.'
Feels like: 'Avenue Q' meets a repressed childhood memory.
Sounds like: 'You have an anti-porn van and you travel around and preach the evils of pornography to kids.' 'That's right. We go all over the country and invite kids into our van and show them pornography to illustrate how evil it is.' - comedy duo Slovin & Allen
Looks like: 'It was supposed to be a late-night talk show for children but only two kids showed up so we quickly modified it to adults.'
What you need to know: Monthly on a Monday starting Feb. 20, 8 p.m., Scenic, 25 Avenue B. $5, check for details.
- Answers from Jon Benjamin
11. Crash Test
What you missed: Host Aziz Ansari interviewing a girl he was rejected by onstage. Scientology antics. The classic 'sh-iest' mixtape video.
What you will see: New films and excellent stand-up.
Feels like: A world where Matt Lauer would make an iTunes celebrity playlist called 'Matt Lauer's Fingerbang Mix.'
Sounds like: 'Znappy Zinger!' - Zingy McDaniels
Looks like: College crowds who are up for the late start time.
What you need to know: Most Mondays, 11 p.m. starting Jan. 30, UCB Theatre, 307 W. 26th St. Free.
UCBT, Aziz Ansari, Brett Gelman, Nick Kroll in New York Times feature on alternative comedyMar 18, 2015
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.
SHOWGIRLS Reviewed in HXMar 18, 2015
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.