By Michael Goldstein
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By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
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By LA Weekly
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It’s kind of funny given their prodigious knowledge and love of music coming out of the first few decades of the 20th century that both Roger Neill (who composed the music for The Beastly Bombing) and Itelman are former punk rockers.
Itelman still plays bass and some harmonica in a surf garage band, the Tulsa Skull Swingers, with Craig Anton and Ron Lynch. Itelman also has a second band, Stigmeta, which he describes as Christian heavy metal. “I’m a Jew, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
His detours into experimental music have led to Itelman’s interest in people making sounds that have never been heard before. In particular, he likes music created on a Moog synthesizer and Tuvan throat singing — an art that features singers who can split the voice into two octaves and harmonize with themselves. Itelman has also booked circuit benders — “people who can break into an old Casio [keyboard] with a soldering iron, distort it and then create new sounds out of a seemingly innocent instrument.”
Over at Upright Citizens Brigade, Morris notes that even when acts don’t employ music, alternative comedy that he sees (and books) has a sensibility that transfers more easily to rock clubs than to comedy clubs. “It’s a subculture,” he explains. “There’s a huge crossover between the indie music scene and the alternative comedy scene. Patton Oswalt took his hit show, Comedians of Comedy, on tour to rock clubs, not comedy venues. You’ll find a lot of the same people [at UCB] who shop at Amoeba. That goes for the alternative comedy scene in general.”
But Morris says he’s tongue-tied when asked to explain what’s new in alternative comedy.
“It’s such a big question,” Morris replies. “There are so many kinds of alternative standups. It’s a combination of personality-driven things, like Paul F. Tompkins and Oswalt, who tell stories about their lives, or Demetri Martin, who just does one-liners. What’s new would be this attitude and venue thing for standup and sometimes sketch, taking it out of the clubs, to music venues. Somebody I know just did a backyard tour. There’s much more of a do-it-yourself aesthetic.”
Like Itelman, Seth Morris hails from San Francisco but spent the last decade in New York until coming to L.A. slightly more than a year ago to run the West Coast branch of NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade. “Three of the four founding members [of New York’s UCB: Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts] ended up living out here,” Morris explains. “They wanted a place to perform. It happened quickly.”
Among the reasons it happened quickly was that UCB rescued the Tamarind Theater (located on a tony strip of Franklin Avenue across from the Scientology Celebrity Centre) from a contractual debacle between the theater’s owners and Francesco Vitali, an ostentatious Greek impresario whose vanity-showcase ambitions almost ran the theater into the ground. Now, at least once a week, the denizens of Franklin Avenue see lines of youth curling around the block from the Tamarind, where UCB holds court.
Not that it’s easy: “One challenge is that it’s such a celebrity-driven town,” says Morris. “The shows that have done well here have a famous person attached, somehow. We’ve had Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Jello Biafra. That principle goes for New York as well, but it seems that here, people won’t come out for an interesting-sounding show as they will in New York, which is more of a theater town and an improv town. Here, there are so many more people in the industry, they’re more cynical, with an attitude like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great show but it’ll never be on TV.’ In New York, they just put on a show to put on a show.”
Morris finds this disturbing because “the ones that would never be on TV are also the funnier shows.” He cites as one example The Idiots, which featured a rivalry between the sons of Watson and Crick, who discovered DNA. “It was this cool Ernie Kovacs–style show with slapstick, but it never caught on because it never got the buzz. The big thing here is marketing, the thing that always happens before a show moves to TV. The idea of comedy for comedy’s sake is not so successful, though it is improving.”
Morris says the superstars of alternative comedy include performers such as Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. (whose Chris Rock–starring Pootytang is a masterpiece of alternative-comedy cinema) and Paul F. Tompkins, all of whom are regulars at UCB’s once-a-week experimental comedy showcase, Comedy Death Ray. “My parents don’t know who they are, but these people are pedigreed from a generation that the youngsters just worship. They’re the rising stars. The audiences here are fiercely loyal once they like somebody.”
UCB’s programming is divided into thirds: standup, improv and sketch. In practice, Morris says, it’s more inclusive than UCB New York’s almost entirely improv lineup, much of which stems from its improv classes.
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