By Meagan Snyder
Last December, I travelled to NYC to see three-man comedy group Stella perform at Nokia Times Square Theatre. I’ve been a huge fan of the group for years, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them on what could be their final tour (according to Michael Ian Black’s fantastic blog). On that trip I ended up seeing not only Stella, but Mike Birbiglia with Zach Galifianakis, the Stepfathers at UCB, and two amazing ASSSSCAT shows at UCB that proved the degree of tragedy in SNL’s underuse of Bobby Moynihan. It was a dream trip. But, despite this oddly lengthy, link-filled introduction, that’s a subject for another column.
After I came down from that trip, and after post-Christmas letdown (to quote Charles Schulz) set in pretty deep, I wanted more. Did I have the money for more?
Did I have the time for more?
But those two facts didn’t stop this devoted (read: delusional) comedy nerd, and plans quickly came together to fly to San Francisco for one weekend of the two-week long eighth annual SF Sketchfest at the end of January. Sketchfest is a fantastic festival that brings together sketch and stand-up, veterans and new blood. This was another dream trip, and since now I REALLY don’t have the money or time to take another one anytime soon, I will re-live it by describing it to you, dear readers, over three rambling, braggy columns.
Night 1: Invite Them Up at Cobb’s Comedy Club
Invite Them Up was once a weekly comedy showcase put on by NYC comics Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale at the since-closed (and mourned) Rififi Club on the Lower East Side. Here, the city’s finest stand-ups came to practice new material in front of other comedians and comedy fans alike, and for new stand-ups to get their names out there. Outside of NYC, Invite Them Up may be best known for the excellent 3CD album of showcase highlights released in December 2005 on Comedy Central Records. The album features sets from some of the best stand-ups out there, both then and now, with contributions from David Cross and Jon Benjamin, Michael Showalter and Zak Orth, Aziz Ansari, Demetri Martin, Mike Birbiglia, Todd Barry, Chelsea Peretti, and, of course, Mirman and Tisdale. After practically memorizing the album, it was a thrill to see it reincarnated at Cobb’s.
Bobby Tisdale got things rolling with a short-but-sweet set — he also hosted the evening. Imagine a really tall, overbearing Southern grandmother with ADHD talking about cat-human sex, wearing tinted aviators. And I mean that in the best possible way. Tisdale is an excellent host, keeping the crowd wanting more of his bountiful energy, inclination towards whoopee cushions, and tendency to shriek joyously at every opportunity.
I was excited to see Seth Herzog perform after watching him for years as part of Stella’s repertoire of actors and comedians. Herzog is an active comedian, hosting SWEET, NYC’s longest-running comedy show, every Tuesday at the Slipper Room. Herzog is also known for his amazing dancing abilities, documented in Stella’s Saturday short and numerous YouTube videos. His set included way less dancing than I’d hoped, but it was varied and entertaining, including his take on Benjamin Button (why wasn’t there a seven-foot baby at the end?), and on-the-streets-of-NYC anecdotes infused with physical comedy. He was at his best when outside of himself, demonstrating his knack for taking on the unique ridiculousness he sees in other people.
I had never heard John Mulaney’s comedy before, and was snobbishly skeptical when a wafer-thin high school student stepped onto stage. While much of Mulaney’s hilarious set touched on the misunderstandings and awkward moments during the transition between boyhood and manhood, Mulaney is older than he appears, and his set is much more refined than one might expect (if that expectation is, like mine, based purely on appearance). Highlights included plenty of delightfully self-deprecating anecdotes, featuring a particularly funny bit about inadvertently chasing a woman down a subway tunnel.
I had no idea what to expect from The Sarah Silverman Program’s Tig Notaro. Truthfully, I didn’t even know she did stand-up. Luckily for me, my ignorance led to what can only be described as the sheer joy of finding someone else who makes me laugh. Her set was the highlight of the night for me — she had me laughing in that way where you’re hardly able to breathe, and you KNOW your face is stuck in some hideous contortion, but you just don’t care. Notaro’s comedy was completely original (I’m trying not to use the word “refreshing”), at once pointing to her own eccentricities (her deadpan nature, her obsession with those woolly cardigans that dads wore in the early ’80s), and commenting on the world around her. Most enjoyable was her take on Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”, assuming the position of the invisible person on the other side of Luka’s harrowing monologue. Equally memorable may have been a very, very risky holocaust-related joke. There’s no way I’m repeating it.
I am a huge fan of Brooklyn’s Eugene Mirman, who might now be best known for his role on Flight of the Conchords, but who has been touring the U.S. for ages with cool comics and rock bands, has put out two very funny albums, and is one of the sharpest comedians around. At Cobb’s he was funny and fearless as always, discussing his hatred of Delta airlines and his love of misleading internet banner ads. While I really don’t want to call it ‘observational humour’, Mirman has an incredibly keen eye for the most absurd of all absurdity lurking in pop culture and subcultures alike. The best part is when he inevitably takes whatever is in his sight line one step farther, writing letters, making videos, parodying, taking action! When slighted by Delta airlines, he printed thousands of hilarious hate-postcards to hand out at shows, in the hopes fans would send some to Delta, which they did (though mine is tacked on my wall). Mirman has a book coming out this month, which is bound to be funny. Amazon tells me mine shipped today, so I’ll let you know.
Todd Barry is always so good. His voice is smooth as butter, making it even easier to hang off every word than it would be if only for the hilarity. Much like on the ITU album, he had a script prepared that required audience participation. While the topic itself was funny — Barry’s desire to reinvent himself — the real beauty of the set was the interaction between Barry and the audience actors (“don’t use that voice”) and the unintended comedy brought to the already funny script by the actors (a scripted line about people wearing wool hats indoors being douchebags read to one guy wearing, of course, a wool hat indoors). Check out Barry’s lauded performance as Mickey Rourke’s manager in The Wrestler.
Janeane Garofalo closed the show. First of all, I just have to mention her Benjamin Button-style aging. The woman must have a portrait somewhere aging horribly, because she is frozen in time. I want to know what she uses on her face so I can inject it into my bloodstream. Okay, the comedy. The stand-up veteran of 28 years was, unsurprisingly, excellent — very energetic, very genuine, and at once politically savvy and intelligent while unafraid to admit to watching True Blood and TLC. In a rant of spectacular proportions, Garofalo unleashed rage towards flip-flops and poorly-conditioned long hair on men, but didn’t hesitate to show love for Spanx, the Shamwow, and the Magic Bullet (“it’s almost as if it’s a blender!”). Like Notaro, Garofalo’s set effectively said as much about herself as a comical creation (“my new year’s resolution this year was to get motivated to do ONE THING every day. Besides getting hot chocolate, there is not ONE THING I feel like doing in a day, ever”), as it said about her take on the world around her.
While seeing so many comics in one night might leave you wanting more of some and less of others, I think the great thing about a show like this is not only the chance to see so much fantastic comedy coming from a variety of places, but also the way that variety sheds light on each individual as a performer. Watching so many different takes on stand-up points a little bit to where each comic might get his/her inspiration, to what they find funny, and to how they define the craft of stand-up. Fantastic night.
Next column: Night #2: The State and Wet Hot American Summer