I had to laugh. Darrick Rainey, the editor of L.A. Weekly, called me with notes on this piece. “You need to say what UnCabaret is. Right up top. Your story is too conversational.” “Well, Darrick,” I said smiling, “that's exactly what UnCab is. Conversational.” But of course I knew what he meant, and here it is.
UnCabaret is the original so-called “alternative comedy” show. It's a place where comedians set aside their acts and tell stories ripped from the headlines of their lives. They do risky, intimate sets about how they're changing — raw, unpolished stories, rants about the zeitgeist. It's a place where comedians explore ideas they will polish and develop elsewhere, or just let go of.
UnCabaret is also a loosely knit collective of aligned and brilliant comedy voices in conversation with one another. The mind-blowingly talented original group includes Patton Oswalt, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, Dana Gould, David Cross, Scott Thompson, Julia Sweeney, Margaret Cho, Tim Bagley, Mike McDonald, Terry Sweeney, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Karen Kilgariff, Merrill Markoe, Ellen Cleghorn, Taylor Negron, Moon Zappa, Judy Toll, Blaine Capatch, Paul F. Tompkins, Henriette Mantel, Warren Hutcherson, Michael Patrick King, Bob Goldthwait, Laura Milligan, Andy Kindler, Greg Behrendt, Rick Overton, Andy Dick and Jeff Garlin. Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K. and Bill Maher all dropped in. It's more female and gayer than most comedy shows. And we've always had a sense of urgency rather than of fooling around and killing time.
UnCabaret is about stories, so people often ask if it's like the Moth. Yes, but tilted wildly toward comedy. And, also, having one's notes onstage is no problem at UnCabaret. Because if comedians are willing to get up and find the funny in things like confronting a creepy uncle, braving the dildo of radiation, escaping Scientology or getting busted on location, then I have zero issues with a notebook, scrap of paper, index card or even a hand covered in Magic Marker notes as a map. Also, UnCabaret isn't like the Moth because it started before the Moth.
It was the late '80s. The comedy boom was on. Seinfeld and Roseanne were on the verge of becoming blockbusters. Clubs were littered with comedians doing “tight 10s,” the 10-minute set that could become your late-night talk show set and ultimately, if you were luckiest, a sitcom. But even comedians who didn't get their show were making decent bank on road work, writing gigs and holding deals.
And me? I was new in town. An idealistic, willful, not yet ex–New Yorker, mid–cross fade from performance art to comedy. I never intended to live in Los Angeles. Or to be a comedian. I'd moved to New York, the city of my dreams, to be an artist and made something of a splash as a performance artist. But I had an are-we-really-going-to-grow-old-together feeling about my relationship with performance art. I started looking around. And I fell in with comedy. Right around the time I also fell in love with a media maven named Greg Miller.
Greg was about to launch a screenwriting career. He needed to be in L.A. We tried the difficult bicoastal scenario, then sublet our East Village pad. Bye-bye Hell's Angels. Hello City of Angels. I figured there were comedy clubs both places. No big deal. Right? So not right.
I just didn't get how completely Los Angeles was about show business, not the process of making the work. Maybe it was being a fish out of water that helped me see there was something missing in the comedy world. I sensed something unheard, untold, unknown. Dots unconnected. I was looking for this thing and there was nothing to swipe right on. It had to be conjured. But what was it? That question was the beginning of UnCabaret.
I toggled back and forth between art spaces and comedy rooms. From Beyond Baroque to the Laugh Factory. From CalArts to a one-nighter in West Covina. From Highways to the Improv.
Then, one night I'm waiting to go on at the Comedy Store. Andrew Dice Clay is onstage. He's woman-bashing as per usual. I'm hating him, hating the audience for laughing at him, hating myself for hating them. Even hating myself for hating him. And I don't do well with hate. Hate and anger make some people funnier. Not me. And then I have this thought. There has to be a better way.
I know now that the “better way” has two parts. The first is a shift in your internal state. I wasn't looking for that yet. The second part is circumstantial. That's the part I was ready to look for. There has to be a better way began running through my mind like a news ticker.
Then one night, driving home after a particularly unsatisfying gig on a comedy stage in Encino, I remembered how, as a hospitalized 5-year-old, I freaked out because the other kids were playing doctor. We were in the hospital. Couldn't we play anything else? School, house, astronaut? I remembered thinking, “There has to be a better game.” And I realized I'd come full circle. I'd never suggested a different game at 5. But now I had another chance. So like countless smitten lovers, rather than walk away, I decided to try to change the object of my affection, flummoxed though I was as to how.
After a gig at the legendary Women's Building one night, I was doing postshow chat, pumped up with adrenalin. The crowd had been beyond receptive — they seemed starved for laughter. “When was the last time you laughed?” I asked. “We don't laugh,” they answered. “We're women, we're artists and we're lesbians. At comedy clubs they make fun of us.” “I'll make you a comedy show,” I said. “It will be unhomophobic, unxenophobic, unmisogynist. It'll be the UnCabaret.” It was a download. One of those ideas that feel different from other ideas. Like God, the Big Thing, whatever you call it, is speaking directly to you and through you.
So UnCabaret was conceived conversationally. But what was it exactly? I only knew these three awful things it wasn't. And a fourth, unnamed in the moment, unhacky.
We did a few shows at the Women's Building, experimenting. Then they lost their funding and I moved UnCabaret to Highways, where we gestated. I got more specific, booking just Judy Toll and Taylor Negron. Taylor was so L.A. Born and bred. Filled with contradictions. Known for his over-the-top film and TV roles and also so dada. Poetic. And on the sexually ambiguous spectrum. Judy was confessional. Emotional. I tended to be conversational, heady and new age–y. We were all friends. The DNA of UnCab was formed.
I took a break to run my historic campaign to make first lady an elected position during the '92 election. Afterward, I knew it was time to get UnCabaret back up. America was changing. There was a lot to talk about. So I started looking at clubs, theaters, art spaces. Nothing seemed right. Then Jean-Pierre Boccara called. Jean-Pierre was the impresario who'd created both Lhasa Club and Cafe Largo. He had an even bigger vision now.
In his beautiful Parisian accent he asked me if I'd like to do something in his new venue, LunaPark. Yes, please. I'd like to do this comedy show, UnCabaret. “Will it be funny?” he asked. “No,” I joked. We booked it for three Sunday nights. It ran for seven years.
The decision to do UnCabaret on Sundays was intuitive. Lucky. Sunday proved to be the perfect night. Sunday is the day we expand. The big Sunday newspaper, church, family, naps. And on Sunday night, industry suits come out but sans the actual suits. I wanted UnCabaret to be real — a show, not a showcase. Of course I see now: Everything is a showcase for something else.
The venue was ideal. The restaurant and outdoor lounge made it easy to hang out after the show. And there were two great showrooms, both almost always filled, creating a vibe of happeningness. David Byrne talks about how the architecture of CBGB helped shape the music. The same is true for LunaPark and UnCabaret.
You'd walk through the chic restaurant and open a door into a stairwell, beginning to put the rest of the world behind you. Then down a flight of stairs, to face yourself in an enormous mirror. The comforting “look check.” Big, elegant crystal chandelier overhead. At the landing, you turned away from your reflection, from ego, and walked down another flight of stairs to the basement. The subconscious. Then into the showroom, which was womblike. Smallish with low ceilings, perfect for comedy.
It was in this room Bob Odenkirk met his wife, Naomi. Julia Sweeney told the stories that would become God Said Ha! on Broadway and beyond. It's where I came to understand that for me, gifted funny people talking about their now is the best kind of funny. Not always the funniest kind of funny. But sublime in a way that sure-fire material just can never be.
UnCabaret, though rebellious, was at the same time very Hollywood. Our ambitious performers were all navigating the choppy waters of fame culture. So, along with stories of romance, friendship, family and sex, there were uncensored stories, as they were unfolding, from the belly of the beast. In this way it was a uniquely L.A. show. Bob Goldthwait on tour with Kurt Cobain. Greg Behrendt on a set with Tom Cruise. Mike McDonald on the phone as Faye Dunaway's comedy coach. Julia Sweeney at the SNL reunion. Kathy Griffin trying to find a manager. Margaret Cho in post–All American Girl recovery.
Judy Toll used to say UnCab was “the comedy of love.” Meaning not only that we were free to talk about things we loved but also, importantly, the essential setup was unconfrontational — we were free to love the audience. Our audience is the unsung hero of UnCabaret. More than fans, they were co-conspirators. The room was filled with L.A. intelligentsia, leaning heavily toward writers from shows like The Simpsons, Letterman, Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, The Ben Stiller Show, Sex and the City and Politically Incorrect. Also directors, producers, actors, musicians and even artists. Quentin Tarantino once told me we had ruined regular stand-up for him because now he could see it was just tricks. Matt Groening compared us to the Blue Note in the '60s. The Beastie Boys came in costume. John C. Reilly, Sarah Jessica Parker, Johnny Galecki, Brooke Shields, Maynard James Keenan, Roger Corman, Dave Foley, Robin Williams, Emo Phillips — they were all there.
And the fact that people kept coming back gave rise to the infamous UnCab Rule: Do new material. It's actually beautifully ironic. We were aiming for liberation but were known for the rule. Well, boundaries create freedom, right?
The new-material rule also gave rise to one of our other defining features, the somewhat controversial “back mic.” It happened like this. I was in the back of the room, at the booth with Greg, who had thankfully jumped in to help. Greg's unique combination of journalistic, editorial and producing skills, his enthusiasm for cutting-edge work and his love of performers, made him a perfect producing partner for UnCabaret. I really couldn't have done it without him.
So Greg was in the booth. He was running the board and recording the show, and there was a mic, which we'd set up for the show intro. Someone from the show would do something funny each night. Memorably Odenkirk used to do a “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday…” thing that always made me laugh. Anyway, whoever was onstage had said something a little confusing. It happens with new material. I could feel the audience had a question. Unanswered questions prevent people from laughing. So I grabbed the “back mic” and asked the question.
Whoever it was onstage answered. It felt natural. Conversational. One of my other inspirations for UnCab had been that I always thought my friends were funnier on the phone than onstage. How could we make a show more like our phone calls, I'd wondered. Some comedians loved the back mic and begged me to do it more. Some, not so much. I tried to use it judiciously. To help whoever was onstage get to their best material, or to get them into the moment. Sometimes, I admit, I used it to get a laugh.
So we were still in our first year, trying to keep the room full. One morning, on my way out for a walk in the Los Feliz hills, I picked up the L.A. Times. And there we were. Above the fold of the Calendar section. On a Friday. When everyone still read the paper. “A New Breed of Comedians.” I'm ever grateful to Chuck Crisafulli for his championing us in that piece. And to the editors and writers who made noise about a cultural revolution happening in what was believed to be a cultural wasteland.
We exploded. Lines around the block. Second shows. Over-packed houses, a fire marshal situation. It felt like there wasn't a single breath between struggling to fill the room and struggling to fit everyone in. I had somehow, and not completely gracefully, evolved into a gatekeeper.
UnCabaret became the rhythm of my life. Sunday after Sunday. While we did the Comedy Central show and my daily radio shows. While my MTV show was greenlit and then canceled, while I was writing, while we were moving, during earthquakes and family crises. Every Sunday. Like church.
After seven years, LunaPark closed and we closed UnCabaret, too. For maybe a minute. I've closed UnCab so many times, but I keep reopening it. Or I should say, it keeps reopening. Because UnCabaret often tells me what it wants to do. It's conversational.
And along the way the stakes somehow kept getting higher. We were running at the HBO Workspace during 9/11. Everyone kept saying it was “too soon for comedy.” But it wasn't too soon for UnCabaret. Because we weren't doing jokes, and it's never too soon to tell your story.
When the HBO Workspace closed, I closed the show again. But it was a time of expanding consciousness; the shift was hitting the fan. UnCabaret told me that instead of closing, we should move in two directions at once. Really? Yes, it said. Expanding consciousness required it. So at the same time we were periodically at both the classy Skirball Cultural Center and regularly at the divey Mbar, which Michael Patrick King, writer-director-producer of Sex and The City, once brilliantly described as the inside of Bob Guccione's cufflink box. It was from these two very different vantage points and with a group that had expanded to include Larry Charles, Judd Apatow, John Riggi, Dan Harmon, Cindy Caponera, the Sklars, Jerry Stahl and Jill Soloway that we launched Uncabaret spinoffs Say the Word and The Other Network. It was an uncertain time; we were all in a state of becoming.
And then that state of becoming accelerated for me. I needed to let my big story unfold without reporting in every week. I become interested in different un's. The unseen. Unknown dimensions. Unhappiness. And I let UnCabaret go. I didn't close it, no announcement or fanfare. I just stopped talking to it.
During that time I wrote a new show: 100% Happy 88% of the Time. I told the story of getting evicted. And how it was part of our giant eviction from a kind of unconsciousness. The story involved signs and healing, and the big conversation I was having with God. I wanted to write it as a book as well, and worked with a fancy agent on a proposal. The feedback from editors was consistent: Love her writing but nothing bad enough happens in this book. It was then that I knew in my heart: Something “bad enough” was about to happen.
And it did. I became unmarried, unhomed, undrunk and uncertain. It was ironic. In the show I'd theorized that we can't be 100 percent happy 100 percent of the time but we can be 100 percent happy 88 percent of the time if we're willing to be 100 percent unhappy 12 percent of the time. Sometime during the run of that show I realized I'd been unwilling to do exactly that. How embarrassing.
While I was writing the show, I'd connected with Mitch Kaplan. Mitch is an extraordinary musician, a writer-producer and, among other things, the longtime musical director of comedian Sandra Bernhard. We started working together and adding music to the show. It helped. Singing is vowels. Comedy is consonants. Together they were the whole alphabet. You need the whole alphabet for a good conversation.
And then a friend of Mitch's from group therapy suggested we come check out the venue where he worked. It was an unlikely source for a good room. But we both needed gigs. It turned out to be a swanky jewel box of a room, with a cool speakeasy vibe. They wanted to hire us. Mitch suggested UnCabaret. I said, “No, that show is dead to me.” “Let's just do one,” he suggested. “For your birthday. I'll do it with you. We'll add music. It'll be fun.” Maybe.
Then on the way out I saw we were on the corner of First and Hope. I'd been carrying around a card with a picture of a street sign for Hope Street and a one-way traffic sign that a friend had given me in my worst days. “But I don't believe in hope,” I told her. Hollywood had taught me it's the hope that'll kill you. The New Age insisted hope is about the future and we need to live in the now. But as we left the club I saw it was actually called First and Hope, and was on the corner of First and Hope Streets. I thought of the card. Hello. Sometimes the signs are actually signs.
So we did one UnCabaret. Then 400 more. The music changed the show in a way that needed changing. The world had become more difficult. We worked to make it explicitly uplifting. I wanted to be inspired and be inspiring. Adding music meant the comedians could go dark and we could still leave the crowd feeling hopeful, energized for Monday. And of course we expanded the group and now included Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, Justin Sayre, Jen Kirkman, Kira Soltanovich, Erin Foley, Rory Scovel, James Adomian, Julie Goldman, Jackie Kashian, Alex Edelman, Eddie Pepitone, Rachel Bloom, Lauren Weedman, Alec Mapa, Byron Bowers, Rebecca Corry, Baron Vaughn, Ali Wong, Jennifer Coolidge, Drew Droege and Sam Pancake, among others.
After seven years that showroom closed and we find ourselves at another crossroads. We're on hiatus from Sundays and are fully focused on gathering together for our 25th anniversary on Nov. 18 at the beautiful Theatre at Ace Hotel. It was originally the United Artists Theatre. United. Artists. How perfect. Love that. I'm so excited to come together for this very big conversation. With our family of choice. Right before Thanksgiving. Under the auspices of the wonderful arts organization CAP/UCLA. Just blocks from the Women's Building. It feels very full-circle. Or as I like to think of it, full spiral, because you arrive back home but at a new level.
And then? Sometimes I feel UnCabaret's completed. But then I look at the Louis C.K./Bill Cosby/#metoo landscape. I see mostly men on lineups. And some of the biggest female comedians ghettoized/liberated with vagina comedy. I wonder why Hannah Gadsby doesn't know there is a comedy that goes past the joke, and there has been for years. I want her to come and feel free with us.
So I'm asking UnCabaret what's next. And listening for answers. You know. Having the conversation.
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