By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Morris books 15-20 shows a week, with three or four shows a night on Fridays. “We’re like Fugazi — cheap shows, and we include all ages. No show is over $8. We’re for-profit, but nobody makes any money. All the successful shows pay for the nonsuccessful shows.”
Morris adds that the audience is segregated into tribes: “Those who go to the standup night don’t go to the improv night. I don’t feel our audiences are integrated.”
Unlike L.A.’s most established sketch comedy institution, the Groundlings, UCB employs performers outside of its classes. “We also teach improv here,” says Morris, “but we haven’t developed a strong enough generation of young people to put up most of their shows.” Morris adds that the Groundlings are more TV-oriented, though there’s considerable crossover humor between the two clubs, and UCB New York recently signed a “first look” deal with NBC.
“We’re known for more challenging, raunchy shows,” Morris explains. “We have Offense Fest, we had Drug Month, and Fags and Retards, using the stock characters that a lot of comedians use, a purging show so that everyone could do it once and for all and get it out of their system. The Groundlings are also more stern. They don’t graduate people without an exit interview, and some of their classes have a two- to three-year waiting list. We’ve taken some people who didn’t do well at the Groundlings, or weren’t moving that well, and given them their own show.”
In UCB’s signature long-form improv show, Asscat, anchors Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh spin audience suggestions into sketches of gleeful perversity. In one, a father brings home a dead dog – the dialogue between father and son characters is delivered with a calmness that underscores the horror:
“He’s just resting,” says the father.
“But dad, it’s been three days and he hasn’t moved.”
“I promised I’d buy you a puppy and that’s what I did”
“Well, yes, technically that’s what you did.”
Air America Radio’s Marc Maron is this week’s celebrity standup, which helps pack the house. “Have you ever met a Chinese person?” he asks. “No, really. Have you ever really gotten to know one? Because you should. They’re the survivors. The food they eat, the squids and the seaweed, is going to be here long after the food we eat has disappeared. The Chinese have got the economy wrapped up. The Chinese own us. On any day, they could say, ‘America is now closed for business,’ and we would be.”
The crowd laughs.
“No, really,” Maron continues. “At any time they called in our debt, we’d be closed for business. Finished.”
The jollity has now turned icy.
“The Chinese own us. We’re outsourced by the Chinese. And our job is to buy.”
If one role of alternative comedy is to penetrate people’s armor by upsetting them, Maron’s dart just hit the bull’s-eye.
Itelman also plays the celebrity game. Harry Shearer will be headlining one of his upcoming shows, he boasts. His roster has also included Jello Biafra and he hopes to book “Weird Al” Yankovic and Stephen Perkins (drummer of Jane’s Addiction). Itelman speaks also of his fascination with the macabre. For a show called The Art of Bleeding (the theater’s Halloween show), Itelman had car wrecks towed in to the theater’s parking lot and put fake bodies inside them. The show featured an ambulance safety demonstration “with a gorilla and a scalpel and lots of blood.”
Itelman says he’s not consciously trying to be alternative by shocking or offending. “I’m just drawn to pieces that are engaging and unusual, that move the performance arts forward,” he maintains. “Within that umbrella, there have been a few tentacles, including alternative comedy. But alternative to what? I think it’s hard to identify yourself by what you’re not.”
It’s about 90 minutes later at the Steve Allen Theater. The final musician to join what’s now a crowded onstage moonscape is Itelman, holding a huge glass bottle, which unofficially transforms the orchestra into a jug band. This is an act from America’s heartland of yore. The musicians sway in unison to an oompah rhythm as Itelman drips like a dishrag, almost hyperventilating, gasping and blowing into his jug to create a muted foghorn accompaniment. The sights and the sounds of all this wacked retro-futurism reveal a heart beating with love and lunatic curiosity for where we come from. It’s alternative because it’s so rare, and you’d have to be dead not to feel its pulse.