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The host tonight is Paul F. Tompkins, a well-respected comic whose many credits include writing for Mr. Show and a regular stint at Largo, home to L.A. comedy’s chosen ones — the Odenkirks, the Oswalts, the Proops.
Compared to Big Fish, UCB is like home field to Biloon. The paying customers are comedy fans extremely keyed in to rising talent. There’s no drink minimum, because there are no drinks. Just seats and a stage. Other comics show up to check out their colleagues, and famous names like Mary Lynn Rajskub, Sarah Silverman and Andy Kindler are just part of the gang. There is an element of support for performers to try out risky new stuff. And failing is considered part of the game. If a bit doesn’t work, nobody feels let down — like imagine if you got to see pre-fame Chris Rock totally tank.
Tompkins shares stories about his obsession with overheard comments. It’s stream-of-consciousness, but like the best standups, he makes it look so easy that you can’t tell if he’s making this stuff up or not. He could go on like this all night, but cuts himself off and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . Michelle Biloon!”
She takes the mike and returns Tompkins’ name-check repeatedly. He jogs back for more applause each time, in a spontaneous bit that’s typical of the lovey-dovey feel here.
The bit Biloon’s been working on is completely untried, and she’s been writing it up until only a couple of hours ago. Performing untried material to a discerning audience, however supportive, is the comedy equivalent of a netless tightrope. If the audience doesn’t get the concept from the get-go, there’s no turning back. Biloon, however, seems relaxed, laid back even, as she starts her act.
“I actually started a comedy school out of my apartment to make some extra money so I can buy a spoiler for my Mazda,” she starts. “And it’s amazing, because enrollment has completely blown up. So I decided I was going to take one of my own comedy classes just to see what the fuss is all about.”
The premise has been set; not a peep comes from the crowd, which is less than half-capacity.
“So I’m a little nervous, and since I’m also my teacher tonight, I’m also going to be critiquing myself.” She switches to Michelle the student. “Here’s my first joke — you can notice the change in character by just volume alone — I haven’t taken my own character course yet, so just leave me alone.
“This is my first joke: We’re close to Los Feliz, and in Spanish it means ‘The Happy.’ I wonder if in Mexico there are towns with English names for moods. ‘Hola, me llamo Michelle, vivo en The Melancholy.’
Now she’s Michelle the teacher: “Okay, that was a terrible joke. First of all, melancholy is depressing; second of all, you said ‘English,’ but you should have said ‘American’ to bring out that American pride. So this is how I think you should tell the joke: Okay, we’re really close to Los Feliz, which in Spanish means ‘The Happy.’ I wonder if there are towns in Mexico with American names for moods, ‘Hola, me llamo Michelle, vivo en ‘The Happy.’ That’s what we call in comedy the callback.”
The concept — Michelle Biloon the hack comedy teacher offering tips to Michelle Biloon the comedy student doing intentionally unfunny jokes — is a terrific one. But it’s so dry, plus the fact that she doesn’t alter the different characters’ voices — that it’s too convoluted to pull off. But she’s in the thick of it now.
“Here’s my next joke: I think my cats are trying to kill me. I found one of their balls of yarn tied into a hangman’s noose.”
As Michelle the teacher: “That was a terrible joke. No one is going to believe you. Cats don’t have opposable thumbs; they can’t tie a noose. This is what I think you should say: ‘I think my cats are trying to kill me. I came home from work and someone threw a bag over my head and stabbed me in the heart.’ I think that would be better. And how the fuck did you know that you’re dead?”
The real Michelle: “If anyone can identify if my teacher is talking or if I’m talking, you fucking get free enrollment to my comedy class.”
By now, her act has disintegrated into a nice experiment that probably won’t be repeated. But we still get it, and it’s funny nonetheless. Biloon folds up her notes and leaves the stage to encouraging applause.
It’s 11:45 p.m. She chats with Eddie Pepitone in the green room. Later, over drinks at Boardner’s, not far from her Hollywood apartment, Biloon talks about that hectic Tuesday night. She takes the Big Fish heckling experience in stride.
“As long as some people are enjoying it, I’m fine. No one’s going to hand me a development deal for a show at Big Fish. Hecklers — they think they’re being funny, that it’s their job. I’ve gotten angry before, where I jumped on somebody, and I just cannot be funny after that.”