Dare Comedy: Shows That Put Stand-Ups in Uncomfortable Situations

In Prompter, a comedian improvises a fake TED talk, guided by a teleprompter that sometimes goes blank. Here Reggie Watts performs with audience members, who came onstage when the script called for a barbershop quartet.
In Prompter, a comedian improvises a fake TED talk, guided by a teleprompter that sometimes goes blank. Here Reggie Watts performs with audience members, who came onstage when the script called for a barbershop quartet.
Photo by Hannah Crichton

"Oh God, I hope that got a laugh, but I'll never know," Ian Abramson said, after telling a joke at the first L.A. installment of his new show, Seven Minutes in Purgatory, in January. He can't be sure because he delivered the joke from a room backstage, while wearing noise-canceling headphones. A camera streamed his set, and those of his stand-up guests, live to the audience.

Abramson and co-producer Matt Byrne launched the show in Chicago last year, as a thought experiment. "Audiences respond to a comedian, but I'm interested in how a comedian responds to an audience," he says. "What happens when you take away their ability to do that?"

Later in the show, between jokes, comic Jake Weisman muses to the camera, "I think I like it better this way. You can't tell what jokes suck, so your self-esteem stays even. 'Oh, I knew [that set] was great. It's just those audiences I can hear that had poor judgment.'"

Kyle Kinane, also on the bill, says of the setup, "It's weird, like, I just want to take my dick out. But I still have to see all these people when it's done."

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Abramson believes audiences become more aware of the role they play, and therefore participate even more with laughter and attention. "Even if a comedian is nervous," he explains later, offstage, "the crowd eats it up, because that's part of the experience."

Suddenly, there are several stand-up comedy shows in L.A. that are, as producer Troy Conrad describes it, "putting performers in a situation where things go wrong." He created the long-running and wildly popular Set List: Stand-Up Without a Net, which forces stand-ups to improvise jokes on the spot, based on a "set list" of joke titles given to them onstage.

Now he also produces Prompter, along with graphic designer Hannah Crichton and comic Greg Kashmanian, which is billed as a rejected TED Talk delivered from a broken teleprompter. Upon taking the stage, a comic sees the introduction to the talk — with titles such as "How to Bring Your Torture Room to Life" and "The Power of Positive Sedation." Then the screen goes blank and he or she must keep talking. Scrolling text appears and disappears throughout.

Another similar show, Speechless, forces comics and even professional public speakers to improvise through a never-before-seen PowerPoint presentation.

"No one has ever been bored in an obstacle course," Conrad says of his shows. "That's what this is about." His favorite Prompter moment happened at last year's Riot Festival downtown, when Jon Dore, as Conrad recalls, "somehow got two straight guys to kiss onstage during a talk where he played Iowa's top wedding photographer. Nobody will forget the laughter, cheering and confusion."

Maria Bamford in Picture ThisEXPAND
Maria Bamford in Picture This
Courtesy of Sam Varela (@SamMVarela)

One of Eliza Skinner's favorite memories from a performance of her brainchild Piano Bar happened when Guy Branum climbed on the piano and lounged there moodily, singing for the duration of his time. Piano Bar is a hybrid of stand-up and musical improv. During a comic's set, whenever Skinner and the show's pianist, Scott Passarella, are inspired, they interrupt with music. Then the comic must turn his or her joke into a song.

"It puts people on a tightrope," Skinner explains. "You see the vulnerability of the performer and how they yank themselves away from a cliff, or over it." Skinner also produces and hosts, with beatboxer Joshua Silverstein, another harrowing performance challenge for comedians: the improvised rap-battle show Turnt Up.

"I love seeing how indestructible great comics are," Skinner says. "You can throw anything at them and they don't get knocked off base."

Stand-up producer Sam Varela thinks such shows are a result of L.A.'s comedy boom leading to a comedy glut: "More shows are popping up, so people want something other than the million traditional stand-up options."

Varela offers one of her own, Picture This!, at which an animator — typically Mike Mayfield (writer/animation director on Adult Swim's Mr. Pickles) or Mike Hollingsworth (supervising director on Netflix's BoJack Horseman) — illustrates a comic's set, live, on a screen behind the microphone. "Sometimes the chemistry between the comic and the artist is electric," Varela says. "Sometimes the comedian and artist don't gel, and then it's fun to see the comic basically deal with a cartoon heckler."

Stand-up comedy typically hinges on performers maintaining total power and control. Yet these shows put a premium on experimentation and vulnerability, humanizing the comics in the process. Skinner points out that the trend extends to TV, too — shows such as @midnight and Drunk History — and wonders if the explosion of dare comedy is a result of the growing availability of video and podcasts: "Recorded stand-up loses the magic of being in the moment. These shows up the magic."

“DARE SHOWS” AT A GLANCE

Piano Bar, Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave, Hlywd.; Fri., March 20, 11 p.m., future showtimes vary. (323) 651-2583, hollywood.improv.com.

Picture This!, NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics, 7522 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd, March 21 at 9 p.m., future showtimes and locations vary. (323) 851-7223, picturethisshow.com.

Prompter, UCB Franklin, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hlywd.; Wed., March 4, 8 p.m., and the first Wednesday of every month. (323) 908-8792, promptertalks.com.

Set List: Stand-Up Without a Net, NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics, 7522 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd.; Sat., Feb. 28, 8 p.m., and the last Saturday of every month. setlistshow.com.

Seven Minutes in Purgatory, UCB Sunset, 5419 W. Sunset Blvd., E. Hlywd.; Mon., March 23, 7 p.m., future showtimes and locations vary. sunset.ucbtheatre.com.

Speechless, The Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave, Hlywd.; Fri., Feb. 20, 8 p.m., future showtimes vary. (323) 651-2583, hollywood.improv.com.

Turnt Up, UCB Franklin, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hlywd.; Tue., March 10, 11 p.m. and every second Tuesday of the month. (323) 908-8792, franklin.ucbtheatre.com


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