Clubby Goes To Brooklyn
A friend and fellow comic found me on Facebook (an easy place to find people who often have to be in states where they don’t know anyone) and he was bummed out. He had just bombed hard.
There’s nothing worse than bombing for a comedian. It’s all the self doubt you constantly feel after choosing this insane profession concentrated into one series of excruciating moments you have to live through in real time. It’s a complete rejection of the sum total of your creative efforts by the very people you are trying to please. And the best part? Stand up performance has an effect where it feels like time slows down. You are making so many decisions in lightning fast intervals that it seems like minutes take five minutes. So you get to experience this rejection of your life’s work for twice as long as it took.
Whatever you’ve done in the past doesn’t matter when you’re bombing. Life is only the present moment. And in the present moment, you are terrible. That is why we have such dire names for the act of bombing. The most common in 2014 is “I ate it.” The “it” is kept vague, so the listener can imagine whatever would be most horrible to them. Sometimes you go for specificity. “I ate shit.” The Spinal Tap-esque “I ate a shit sandwich.” “I died” “I took a shit up there.” In the HBO special “Talking Funny”, Jerry Seinfeld talks about a set that “went right in the toilet.”
So when a comedian comes to you with a bombing story, your heart goes out to them. A little bit of you feels how awful they felt by osmosis, just hearing about it. Even comics who are deliberately edgy and provocative hate bombing. Sara Silverman may have material that part of America is bound to find offensive, but SHE thinks its funny, and feels bad when the audience she has presented it to disagrees. Anthony Jeselnick knows that half the tables may hate his dark jokes, but he wants the other half to love them, and when they don’t, he feels as bad as anyone does who just failed at the thing they have been working on their entire life. Even in horrible situations where you are almost bound to fail (and I disagree with Mr. Seinfeld when he says there are no bad audiences, of course there are) it sucks. I bombed hard in a corporate banquet hall in Canada. After-wards I could tell myself that the lights were on, the people were eating and didn’t know there would be a show, and I was in the center of a massive room with no stage, and it would all be true. But my mouth went dry and my armpits turned into lakes while it happened regardless.
“It’s worse,” my friend went on. “I bombed in an alt room. I always bomb in alt rooms and it’s fucking me up!” This is a real and consequential worry in today’s comedy world. As the great Moshe Kasher says, “your act has to be smart enough that you do well in an alt room, and strong enough that you do well in a club.”
My friend went on, “A lot of the people I started with ran the room and I just felt like a road hack asshole.”
If you are not a comedian or an aspiring comedian, those last few quotes may have been incomprehensible, at least the parts that weren’t about feeling like an asshole, to which anyone can relate. An “alt room” is the 2014 shortened jargon for a room that features “alternative comedy,” a 90’s term first coined for the comedy of Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garofolo, Blaine Capatch, and other like-minded comics who were going against the tired formulaic cable-television mode of the comics of the late 1980’s. And a “road hack” is a damning comedy insult describing comedians who take lowest common denominator unoriginal comedy to bars and comedy clubs outside of major cities.
He went on, “What do I have to change to do well in alt rooms?” It’s a question I get asked a lot. And rightly so.
In 2014 I did standup comedy at the Meltdown Show in the back of a comic book store on Sunset Boulevard, at Whiplash at the UCB improv theater in New York, at the Littlefield Theater and Canyon Gallery in Brooklyn, at the Hot Tub show in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Theater in Portland, and the Grawlix show at the Bug Theater in Denver. You cannot get more “alt” than these shows. I don’t say this to brag. There are at least 300 comedians who can all say the same thing. I mention it because in the same year I made most of my living in standard comedy clubs in places like Kokomo, Indiana, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I did essentially the same act I did in Brooklyn. Are there certain references I don’t bother with in the Midwest? Sure. I have a bit about hipsters that I don’t do outside of big cities, but only because the reference would be obscure enough to them to make the bit a waste of their time, just as I wouldn’t do in depth material about Los Angeles in Montreal. But are there pandery bits I would do in Indiana that I would hide from the city folk? No.
But man did there used to be. When I came up as a comedian, from about 1998-2002, there was a TON of stuff I wouldn’t do in a hip comedy room if I was given a court order. I let the whims of the front row of Best Western hotel bar crowds dictate what I did every night. If they liked it, it was in. Did it matter that I got in to standup because of the avant-garde comedy of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, The Christopher Guest movies, The Larry Sanders Show, and Mr. Show with Bob and David? No. It mattered that I didn’t want a day job, these were the gigs I got, and I didn’t want to lose them.
I was good at it too. I hit my punchlines about Atari graphics, being high, hand jobs, and how some song lyrics don’t make a lot of sense. I sold my embarrassing bumper stickers that said, “You’re a Gayrod.” The bit was about being called that as a kid, and wasn’t on its face homophobic, but even at 25 I was smart enough to know that might not be why they were buying it. And smart enough to feel guilty about it. But not courageous enough to cut the bit. I was following guys who cracked bullwhips, did nothing but shit on their marriages, and made more Lorena Bobbit, 4 hour erection, and Monica Lewinsky jokes than Steven King has stories about writers in danger in Maine. And they would KILL. I wanted to survive.
I wasn’t the only one who felt I had a hacky act. The one room in the city that could be called “alternative,” a pool hall showcase called the Elevated, didn’t book me for years. To my scene, I was a “road guy.”
The only thing that saved me was a room in Chicago called the Lyons Den. Much has been made of this legendary open mic, so instrumental in the careers of Pete Holmes, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller, and Hannibal Buress. But the comedy there, and in its predecessor, Mark Geary’s Red Lion, was smart. It was informed by a city perspective. I would perform there once a week (I may have made my living in Cracker Barrel country, but my apartment was in Wicker Park.) I always felt intimidated by the other comics’ inventive jokes and pressure to equal them. I could comfort myself that those jokes would die in Wassau, WI, but I knew they were doing what I wanted to be doing.
Pete Holmes described the environment of the Den as “our little version of the Shire. We were all happy Hobbits creating jokes for each other. Then we would go out on the road in the Midwest and it was like Mordor. You’d come back and just hope you didn’t get any Orc on you.” I had a ton of Orc on me. One of the big ones you meet at the end of “Fellowship.” When I came back to the Den every Monday, I felt nervous and intimidated by the burgeoning comedic voices around me. I would pare down my act, and leave out the “dumb” jokes. And what hurt more was knowing that my Chicago comedy peers had the same influences I did. I was pandering.
Eventually I found a way to make about five of the Den minutes work enough on the road, and to my good fortune, those minutes became the sets that would allow me to win the comedy portion of CBS’ “Star Search” in 2003. That got me to L.A.
But even in L.A. I was a club guy. That’s what I knew. The sensibility of the club with the two drink minimum, the brick wall, and the audience full of tourists and “regular folk.” That was the crowd I was attuned to, and that was the crowd I twisted myself into a pretzel to please. In L.A. I played the Laugh Factory. In New York, the Comic Strip. Fine clubs. Great clubs. But clubs. The exact scene and sensibility the alt comics were rebelling against. I was pretty successful in this style. You can watch my “Ramen Noodles” bit from the Laugh Factory to observe it. I put on a phony swagger. I make sure my topics are all general and universal. I write what I think they want to hear, not what I want to say. I am proud of the work I did in that period, but it doesn’t accurately reflect my comic tastes or my real self. I could walk the walk in the clubs, but it wasn’t really me. And the club crowds were always going to prefer the genuine article to a Bob and David fan tying himself in knots trying to be Dane Cook. And I was miserable.
My peers were mostly comic actors. Standup was secondary to them. A means to the end of being famous. People who were in it to express themselves, who’s main focus was the art of standup comedy itself, I didn’t know where they were. Except I knew how to find out. Two of my friends from the Den days, the last time the “alt comic” side of myself felt supported, Matt Braunger and Kyle Kinane, moved to Los Angeles. The others, Pete, TJ, Hannibal, Kumail, moved to New York City, and they wouldn’t re enter my life for a few more years. Kyle and Matt hated the idea of getting “orc” all over themselves. Being a road hack was a fate worse than death to them. And they were willing to keep their day jobs to make sure it never happened. They toiled away closed captioning TV shows in the day time, and went out to the L.A. alt rooms at night. They made none of the money I did from standup, but were honing an act that was true to their own vision and no one else’s. I told Matt about my predicament in 2005. “Come to the UCB Christmas Party,” he said. I did, and it was the single best decision I made since becoming a standup. I am now performing only material I am proud of, and have a group of brilliant minds I get to create with all over the United States, and audiences who will follow me where ever I choose to go, and an act that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share with the men and women who made me a comedy fan in the first place. An act I can go back in to the mainstream clubs with, and make that same front row in Wisconsin laugh without pandering to them with hack bullshit.
So when someone says “I’m a club guy. How do you do alt rooms?” I think I’m someone you can listen to on the subject.
First of all, I think there is a false reading of the definition of “Alternative Comedy.” It’s partly just because the name is dumb. Alternative comedy? “The alternative to comedy is drama,” said Ali LeRoi to the guffaws of the club guys at the 2000 Chicago Comedy Fest.
There is a disdain between the two camps that an outsider to the world of comedians may not know about. Club comics feel like “alt” comics could only survive in their womb-like atmospheres where they are pampered by too polite crowds. The genius club comic (who I might add does extremely well in alt rooms) Bill Burr had a famous rant on just this topic. They could never kill a club at midnight and are therefore not as good as a club comic, who has chops to survive hostile crowds. This is the same argument the Catskills comics of the late 50’s and early 60’s had about Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and the other East Village comics, who were the first to write personal material. “They only kill among college nerds. Put ‘em in Atlantic City and they’d eat a dick.” I will concede this point. I have done alt material in A.C. And sometimes dick is on my menu. The other knock on it is that if it’s so “Alternative” why isn’t it more left of center?
“I’ve seen alternative comedians,” says a typical complaint. “They’re not weird. It’s just jokes. What’s so alternative about it? There’s weirder stuff in a club.” They are missing the point. The name comes from the 90’s. Journalists ran with it because it seemed like a parallel to what was happening in music. 1980’s hair bands were out of date. The new bands were the answer to that cookie cutter mindset. They called themselves Alternative (or rather Spin and Rolling Stone called them that regardless of what Mr. Cobain and Mr. Vedder thought they were doing.) So, easy analogy. Kevin Meaney equals Journey. Patton Oswalt equals The Pixies. The Pixies are Alternative Rock. Hello, Alternative Comedy. As you can imagine, this is fucked. And this reading of the term leads to the confusion we face today.
The “alternative” in “Alternative Comedy” didn’t refer to the comedy at all. “It referred to the venue,” said Dana Gould, who is as wise and knowledgeable as a thousand rabbis, and one of the godfathers of the original 90’s alt scene. “Our shows were not at comedy clubs,” he told me. “They were at bars and restaurants and black box theaters and rock clubs, and anywhere they would let us put on a show.” They were alternative to the Comedy Store and the Improv, where the two drink minimum and the Zagat guide walk-in, and the standards of the Leno show, still dictated what was on the stage. When club comics approach the alt scene and don’t see the crazy out there performances they are expecting, some of it stems from this mistake. It is true that smashing watermelons and talking out of a puppet’s mouth are actually further from “regular” standup than most of what you would find at Whiplash, even though Gallagher and Dunham would never be called alternative. That’s because it’s not what’s on the stage that’s the biggest difference between club comedy and the alt scene. In fact, on a modern bill, there will be quite a bit of crossover between the two worlds, no matter what building you are in. Marc Maron famously starts his nights in L.A. at an alt room, and finishes them up in the Original Room of the Comedy Store, the blueprint of the modern club. It’s not who’s on stage who puts the alt in alt comedy. It’s who is in the seats.
Let’s go back to the East Village in the early 1960’s one more time. There’s an audience of college nerds and bohemian hipsters. They’re socially liberal. They like jazz and political folk music. They like smart comedy. They are watching all three in a small basement club in lower Manhattan. In between jazz acts they watch socially conscious and intellectually daring comedians who are writing personal material about their lives. As the Long Playing Record makes listening to entire performances at home possible for the first time, they make stars out of Richard Pryor and George Carlin, and the modern standup comedian (as opposed the the 1940’s Borshct Belt man making mother in law jokes that someone else wrote) is born. This left of center intellectual audience sticks with comedy through the boom in the 1980’s and they launch the careers of Steve Martin, Stephen Wright, Bill Hicks, and Emo Phillips. But then the intense sexism and homophobia of the 1980’s and early 1990’s turn them sour on stand up. Eddie Murphy yelling about “faggots” is the first blow. Then Sam Kinison screaming about “whores” and yelling at Africans for being poor, capped off by Andrew “Dice” Clay filling stadiums with comedy that was not only reactionary, but also stupid, proved that there was nothing left in standup for the hipsters and nerds and lefties and they pulled out. Good bye.
They were a huge part of the standup audience. Perhaps the most integral part. They were the people who made the entire thing possible, sitting there in the East Village and following Lenny Bruce as he traveled the American consciousness. Take them out and you get a crash, just as if you took whiskey drinkers out of country music. They were the people who loved this thing most, and they were gone.
They didn’t stop wanting to laugh, but the brick wall and the microphone represented a place where they weren’t welcome, and the ideas they heard coming out of that microphone were not worth buying two drinks to hear. So someone had to come along and make comedy for them. And they weren’t gonna do it in the clubs. So back to the theaters and bars and East Village music clubs it goes, as Patton and Janeane and Dana and Paul F. Tompkins and Maria Bamford replace the beatnik comics of the 1950’s.
It’s not the CHEESE of the 1980’s the alt comics rebelled against, it’s the REACTIONARY MATERIAL. The original fans of modern standup comedy had no use for the Rush Limbaugh Revival Meeting that their art form had devolved into, and neither did their 1990’s equivalents. It is no surprise to me that the message of Chris Rock’s “Bring the Pain,” and The Chappelle Show began the modern standup revival. Finally there was something that the people who loved the genre most wanted to hear again. It’s not Kevin Meaney equals Journey that was the problem. It’s Dice Equals Guns N’ Roses’ “One in a Million”
So that’s who’s in the seats at an alt show. The same people who were in the seats at the dawn of standup. Finally. Once again. After we drove them out, some smart comedians in the 1990’s found a way to welcome them back. The college nerds. The liberals. The bohemians. The people who got this shit off the ground. And they don’t want to see it ruined again. They don’t want to see Meltdown become The Chuckle Hut. When you perform for them, just remember the cardinal rule of comedy: entertain the people there in front of you. In an alt room, you are performing for an audience of discerning fans who love this stuff. “The treat comedy like its opera!” said a reverent Todd Glass about the Los Angeles alt scene. Are there some bandwagon jumpers? Sure. You couldn’t sell that many tickets a week to purists alone. But at the core of an alt show are smart, mostly lefty (although there are a fair amount of righty libertarian types too) people who don’t want to be talked down to. They don’t want to be told to “make some noise.” They aren’t gonna respond to “where my ladies at?” They aren’t going to appreciate jokes full of generalities. “All men are this,” “All women are that,” “Black people are this way,” isn’t going to work because they don’t see people as monolithic types that march in lockstep. Basically if a comedian is telling jokes that stem from the idea that beer commercials are right about the human genders, they will bomb in an alt room. Is there crappy comedy that makes alt crowds laugh that actually sucks? Yes! If I hear one more joke about whatever movie just came out and why it is bad, or one more 1990’s comic book reference without a joke behind it, I may knock myself out with my chair. But there is crappy stuff in every genre. Is there a lefty bias? Yeah. Will they entertain conservative ideas as long as you don’t insult them or put them down? Absolutely, as the Christian Southern club comic Nate Bargatze proves every night he goes up at Meltdown or UCB and destroys.
Is there a womb like mentality that makes it too easy to kill? I don’t know. A. I don’t see that as bad. I face enough hecklers on the road I am happy there is a shrine to comedy somewhere where they are not welcome. B. A reverent audience is a great thing. Aren’t you more excited to please the people who care the most about the thing you are doing? I’d be happy to have my music enjoyed at a state fair, but much happier to watch it go over at Carnegie Hall.
What was the joke my friend bombed with? It was about “Chick flicks being like porn for women, and crying at the Notebook being like jacking off.” None of the people in the seats see themselves as what Cosmo and Maxim put out as women and men, and this joke, even with the sexist language removed was not going to ring true in the 2014 equivalent of the East Village jazz club. It was the content of the comedy, not the form or structure, that doomed him.
Club comics unnecessarily fret that certain types of comedy are simply too mainstream for an alt room. Nonsense. One Liners work fine. Ask Anthony Jeselnick. Guitar Comedy? Garfunkel and Oates kill. Impressions? James Adomian does them to huge applause breaks. Magic? Talk to Meltdown favorite Justin Willman. There’s no genre that is inherently hacky if you find a way to present it that is your own. This is the widest and most narrow art form in the world. As long as the people in the seats do one specific thing over and over again, you can make them do it literally any way you want. It’s not the style of performance that will get a club comic in trouble in alt land. It’s the worldview of the comic they are concerned with. The opinions and the style of delivering those opinions is what will get you in trouble there.
Any comic can conquer an alt room. And countless club comics have. Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Tom Wilson, Ian Edwards, Deon Cole, Dan Levy, Mo Mandel… I have seen all of them kill. As Kyle Kinane says, “you start out comedy behind a fence, whatever fence your scene was, urban, club, whatever, but eventually you grow enough to just step over it.”
In the end, the “new adjustment” that must be made in an alt room, is the oldest rule in comedy. Make the people in front of you laugh. It’s the same rule that got me in trouble pandering to Best Western audiences so long ago. But it’s a different group of people, who care much more about the thing I do for a living.
“Well then, aren’t you just pandering to that front row instead of the Best Western front row?” you might ask. No, because one of the things the front row at Meltdown doesn’t like, is pandering. And for the most part, they’re smart enough to see it. If you treat them as people you don’t already have figured out, as people who might not be like the “typical person” the media presents, you will do fine. Because these people aren’t the “typical person.” But in the end, is anyone? The only thing you won’t sell to an alt crowd is stupidity, lazy thinking, outright homophobia, racism, and sexism. That will fail there. But shouldn’t it fail everywhere?