"I'm glad I remembered the 'cum salad' story," is the first thing Greg Behrendt said backstage after "Iron Comic" at the UCB Theater on Saturday night.
Fortunately, we are talking about comedy. Iron Comic is an improvisational stand-up competition created by Nato Green. Behrendt and four other contestants (Louis Katz, Alex Koll, Morgan Murphy -- who won -- and Chelsea Peretti) have just been run through a creative wringer -- live, for a very receptive, sold-out house.
Green's creation (which had only been performed in L.A. once before, five years ago) tests the joke-writing skills of its contestant comics. Similar in format to its namesake, TV reality series Iron Chef, the show challenges comics to write original material on the spot. Each round starts with an audience-suggested topic being pulled from a hat. The comics then repair backstage for seven minutes, during which they all write two minutes' worth of material on that topic before returning to the stage to perform it. After three rounds are scored by guest judges, the two top-scoring comics square off in a final lightning round.
Murphy's droll, chatty, roundabout delivery and fleet handling of the lightning round led her to Saturday's win by audience acclamation. When I met the contestants backstage after the show, she said she embraces the sweaty-palm pressure of the show's format. "I almost wish someone would make me do this every day. You'd come up with so much more material."
Chelsea Peretti agreed. She did Set List -- an improvisational stand-up show with a different format -- at SF Sketchfest last month. Set List uses an overhead projector to display audience suggestions on a screen behind comics as they walk onstage; performers have to improvise stand-up on the spot, with the mic already in hand. "The amount of time it takes me to write a one-liner is longer than the amount of time we have to write [for Iron Comic], so I think this is more challenging for me than Set List," she said, presumably implying that having to write the bits for Iron Comic is more taxing than just feeling free to spit them out on Set List. "But I like both. I like that you are thinking on your feet."
Following "narcissism," the show's second topic, "salad," was received by the comics with groans. Yet each returned to the stage with strong material. Behrendt told a story about a high school bully who threatened to make his quarry "eat a cum salad." He mused over the possible contents of such a salad, then closed with, "But how would you tell it from the dressing?" (He was also able to tie back to this bit during the third round, the topic of which was -- surprise! -- "AIDS.")
Show creator Nato Green describes himself as "a political person who happens to be a comedian," which his incisive approach to contemporary politics and cultural mores makes clear. His seven-minute interstitial set drew from his participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement; Green visited seven Occupy locations late last year during a national tour.
Green co-hosted Saturday's show with fellow San Francisco native Moshe Kasher. (There's a big Bay Area contingent involved here: Peretti, who currently writes for Parks and Recreation, grew up in Oakland, and Koll and Berendt both hail from San Francisco.)
Backstage following the show, Behrendt said, "When you do things like this, you remember things and talk about things you wouldn't normally come up with and when you walk away, you might say, 'I could maybe never say that again and be pretty comfortable with it,' or, 'I could turn that into a bit.'"
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Behrendt also said the pressure of performing in a competitive setting with his peers adds a special dimension to the show. "You wouldn't be as good at doing this without Chelsea or Alex standing behind you saying, 'Fuck, that was awesome!'"
When I pointed out to contestant Alex Koll that he'd won Iron Comic twice before, Peretti chimed in with, "That's got to hurt." Koll said, "It hurts every time. Even when you win." Pressed for further sound bites from Peretti and Murphy, Koll came up with: "Everybody wins, but when I win, it's better."