As two thirds of the famed Twelfth Night quote goes, "Some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them" and in the case of the comedy-producing team behind the alternative show Sleepaway Camp, the saying couldn't be more true.
Last July, the freshman stand-up quintet of Jay Weingarten, Austin Wolf-Sothern, Doug Freedman, Travis Rust and Ryan Schumaker were given the keys to one of the most prized comedy kingdoms: the Downtown Independent Cinema, the former home of the popular Tuesday comedy night Holy Fuck.
That show's producer and key stand-up Dave Ross decided it was time to move forward, and tipped the fivesome about his plans to vacate the space. It also didn't hurt the group that one of their producers, Wolf-Sothern, is an employee of the Downtown.
"I was doing a show at the Lyric-Hyperion Theatre when Doug and Austin came up to me and said, 'Ya know Holy Fuck is ending and we're taking over the space,'" says co-producer Weingarten, a comedian who embodies the cadence and swagger of a young Pauly Shore.
And like that, the Sleepaway Camp Comedy Show threw its gates open for business.
Nonetheless, the guys, who had formed a bond during open mikes and Channel 101 production shoots, knew they had big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of Holy Fuck's three-and-half-year notoriety for star lineups including Louis C.K., Demetri Martin and Aziz Ansari.
"We were intimated at first, it was one of the best shows in the city," says Weingarten. "We didn't want people comparing us to Holy Fuck."
So the Sleepaway gang took the road not taken, producing a balls-to-the-wall bizarre show; so absurd it's fair to say that it rivals the carnivalesque stylings employed by The Tomorrow Show at The Steve Allen Theater. Yes, there are still notable guest stand-ups like Brendon Small, Andy Haynes and Andy Kindler at Sleepaway Camp honing their material, but the entire vibe of the show is built on spontaneous irrational situations, littered with a sideshow of lunatic personalities. Not only have the pot smokers overrun the theater, but the shroom eaters, too.
Look no further than Sleepaway's zany opening Christmas pageant from their Dec. 17 show, seen in this clip below, recreating the 'Live Birth of the Jewish Baby Jesus.' Christ (Weingarten), is greeted by three Wise Guys who come bearing only the best GIFs for the Messiah: Nicolas Cage's head atop a naked woman's body, two dogs screwing until one loses its cookies, and a green peddling baby (not unlike the digitized dancing one from Ally McBeal).
Sleepaway Camp's brilliance prevails from the producers and performers' fearlessness to fail with unusual set-ups, i.e. the out-of-shape holiday dance trio Liquid Feet. They appeared hokey with their simple arm and leg moves, but earned their hysterical climax when they formed a Santa Claus with a sack, driving a reindeer (check out the tail end of the video here) at the December show. Like various offbeat elements at Sleepaway Camp, their campiness sets the show apart from the myriad alternative shows in town.
The show's name is simply derived from the title of Robert Hiltzik's 1983 cult film, a favorite of Wolf Sothern's. There is a slight 'camp' theme to the show, but not to the point of redundancy (i.e. there isn't an 'arts and crafts' segment or a 'ghost stories around the campfire'). Each show begins with the bare chested and bathing suit-clad Herculean Sage Price, tooting "Reveille" on his coronet.
"He isn't a comedian, but he acts as the shirtless lifeguard during the show who is a sexy and intimidating presence throughout the show," explains Weingarten.
Each of the producers are called counselors and rotate each week with their own thematic angle and personal lineup of performers, i.e. Weingarten's show which takes place during the second week of the month is called "When Love Meets Fear" and he plays a guru-type host who lights sage and calls the crowd to join hands in chant. During the last week of the month, all of the counselors team up to host. This was the case during their Thanksgiving (Nov. 26) performance, when they opened the show professing thanks for the most perverted things in their life, as well as the holiday (Dec. 17) show which opened with the Nativity parody.
However, what truly sets the trippy tone for each show is the montage of hysterical YouTube videos which play on the big screen as the audience files in before the start of every Sleepaway Camp. The gang acutely curates the most knee-slapping treasures from around the web with the severity of Elvis Mitchell mining rare films for a LACMA programming series. Many of the clips the counselors select draw fire at some sort of cheesy institution from their Gen Y childhood (i.e. the Olsen Twins or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) or some current day pop atrocity (Nicole Westbrook singing "It's Thanksgiving")
Two clips which continue to hysterically haunt from the Sleepaway Camp Thanksgiving show is a slowed-down version of the Olsens' "Pizza Party" rap, as seen below, and Ratboy Genius' digitized vocal "I Love Potato Knishes" - both assured to trigger hunger and pant-peeing laughter in any stoner.
Among the corny retro videos greeting Sleepaway crowds at the holiday show were Emmanuel Lewis singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" from his Christmas special with Mr. T as well as the Bernadette Peters-looking pooch ringing our ears with the song "Christmas Miracle" from the film Santa Buddies.
But amidst the seasoned stand-ups who are trying out fresh material (Small's reality TV voiceover bit during the Thanksgiving show was a total killer, making fun of the long protracted judging sequences during Food Network programs), are the vaudevillians who are the total takeaways from Sleepaway, i.e. Tony Sam aka Officer Gary Butterdick of the Fun Police who harasses the audience for clocking boring in a party zone, the punny Proppa Poppy, and the multipersonalities of America's Got Talent contestant Melissa Villasenor,who could make Rich Little blush with her spot-on imitations of Owen Wilson ("Alotta people think I sound like I want to tell them a secret!") and Kathy Griffin.
Even a heckler situation at Sleepaway Camp is prone to leave one with giddy flashbacks. One drunkenly chased this LA Weekly reporter around the theater, hell bent on destructing the writer's concentration during the holiday show. After shouting a few obscenities at Steve Hernandez, the stand-up onstage, the heckler lit up a cigarette. When asked by a Sleepaway counselor to extinguish it, the ruffian was rather perplexed by the request. With the assisted help of Hernandez, the counselors quietly escorted the ruffian out of the theater without any scene.
The whole incident served as callback fodder for the evening's final headliner Andy Haynes who exclaimed:
"Remember that bully from earlier who smoked inside the movie theater? I feel bad because I did give that guy that cigarette. 'He was like you can't smoke in the movie theater?!' That's right, time traveler -- and in the future black people are equal too."
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No matter how many crazies grace the Downtown Independent stage on a Tuesday night, what's apparent is that Main Street crowds have a need for off-kilter live comedy, a demand that the Sleepaway Camp counselors promptly delivered upon when Holy Fuck drew its curtains. Despite the stylistic handoff from Holy Fuck to Sleepaway Camp, crowds haven't dwindled. There's such a loyalty in Sleepaway's repeat business, that their audience filled the cinema's lobby to the brim an hour and a half prior to their holiday show for cookies, liquor and a photo session with a seedy Santa.
"We've been having audience turnouts in the triple digits," beams Weingarten. "When this place fills up, it's the best show environment."
Sleepaway Camp Comedy is a free show every Tuesday, 9 p.m. at the Downtown Independent, 251 South Main Street, Los Angeles, CA. Click here for more info.