It’s kind of funny given their prodigious knowledge and love of music coming out of the first few decades of the 20th century that both Roger Neill (who composed the music for The Beastly Bombing) and Itelman are former punk rockers.
Itelman still plays bass and some harmonica in a surf garage band, the Tulsa Skull Swingers, with Craig Anton and Ron Lynch. Itelman also has a second band, Stigmeta, which he describes as Christian heavy metal. “I’m a Jew, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
His detours into experimental music have led to Itelman’s interest in people making sounds that have never been heard before. In particular, he likes music created on a Moog synthesizer and Tuvan throat singing — an art that features singers who can split the voice into two octaves and harmonize with themselves. Itelman has also booked circuit benders — “people who can break into an old Casio [keyboard] with a soldering iron, distort it and then create new sounds out of a seemingly innocent instrument.”
Over at Upright Citizens Brigade, Morris notes that even when acts don’t employ music, alternative comedy that he sees (and books) has a sensibility that transfers more easily to rock clubs than to comedy clubs. “It’s a subculture,” he explains. “There’s a huge crossover between the indie music scene and the alternative comedy scene. Patton Oswalt took his hit show, Comedians of Comedy, on tour to rock clubs, not comedy venues. You’ll find a lot of the same people [at UCB] who shop at Amoeba. That goes for the alternative comedy scene in general.”
But Morris says he’s tongue-tied when asked to explain what’s new in alternative comedy.
“It’s such a big question,” Morris replies. “There are so many kinds of alternative standups. It’s a combination of personality-driven things, like Paul F. Tompkins and Oswalt, who tell stories about their lives, or Demetri Martin, who just does one-liners. What’s new would be this attitude and venue thing for standup and sometimes sketch, taking it out of the clubs, to music venues. Somebody I know just did a backyard tour. There’s much more of a do-it-yourself aesthetic.”
Like Itelman, Seth Morris hails from San Francisco but spent the last decade in New York until coming to L.A. slightly more than a year ago to run the West Coast branch of NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade. “Three of the four founding members [of New York’s UCB: Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts] ended up living out here,” Morris explains. “They wanted a place to perform. It happened quickly.”
Among the reasons it happened quickly was that UCB rescued the Tamarind Theater (located on a tony strip of Franklin Avenue across from the Scientology Celebrity Centre) from a contractual debacle between the theater’s owners and Francesco Vitali, an ostentatious Greek impresario whose vanity-showcase ambitions almost ran the theater into the ground. Now, at least once a week, the denizens of Franklin Avenue see lines of youth curling around the block from the Tamarind, where UCB holds court.
Not that it’s easy: “One challenge is that it’s such a celebrity-driven town,” says Morris. “The shows that have done well here have a famous person attached, somehow. We’ve had Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Jello Biafra. That principle goes for New York as well, but it seems that here, people won’t come out for an interesting-sounding show as they will in New York, which is more of a theater town and an improv town. Here, there are so many more people in the industry, they’re more cynical, with an attitude like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great show but it’ll never be on TV.’ In New York, they just put on a show to put on a show.”
Morris finds this disturbing because “the ones that would never be on TV are also the funnier shows.” He cites as one example The Idiots, which featured a rivalry between the sons of Watson and Crick, who discovered DNA. “It was this cool Ernie Kovacs–style show with slapstick, but it never caught on because it never got the buzz. The big thing here is marketing, the thing that always happens before a show moves to TV. The idea of comedy for comedy’s sake is not so successful, though it is improving.”
Morris says the superstars of alternative comedy include performers such as Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. (whose Chris Rock–starring Pootytang is a masterpiece of alternative-comedy cinema) and Paul F. Tompkins, all of whom are regulars at UCB’s once-a-week experimental comedy showcase, Comedy Death Ray. “My parents don’t know who they are, but these people are pedigreed from a generation that the youngsters just worship. They’re the rising stars. The audiences here are fiercely loyal once they like somebody.”
UCB’s programming is divided into thirds: standup, improv and sketch. In practice, Morris says, it’s more inclusive than UCB New York’s almost entirely improv lineup, much of which stems from its improv classes.
Morris books 15-20 shows a week, with three or four shows a night on Fridays. “We’re like Fugazi — cheap shows, and we include all ages. No show is over $8. We’re for-profit, but nobody makes any money. All the successful shows pay for the nonsuccessful shows.”
Morris adds that the audience is segregated into tribes: “Those who go to the standup night don’t go to the improv night. I don’t feel our audiences are integrated.”
Unlike L.A.’s most established sketch comedy institution, the Groundlings, UCB employs performers outside of its classes. “We also teach improv here,” says Morris, “but we haven’t developed a strong enough generation of young people to put up most of their shows.” Morris adds that the Groundlings are more TV-oriented, though there’s considerable crossover humor between the two clubs, and UCB New York recently signed a “first look” deal with NBC.
“We’re known for more challenging, raunchy shows,” Morris explains. “We have Offense Fest, we had Drug Month, and Fags and Retards, using the stock characters that a lot of comedians use, a purging show so that everyone could do it once and for all and get it out of their system. The Groundlings are also more stern. They don’t graduate people without an exit interview, and some of their classes have a two- to three-year waiting list. We’ve taken some people who didn’t do well at the Groundlings, or weren’t moving that well, and given them their own show.”
In UCB’s signature long-form improv show, Asscat, anchors Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh spin audience suggestions into sketches of gleeful perversity. In one, a father brings home a dead dog – the dialogue between father and son characters is delivered with a calmness that underscores the horror:
“He’s just resting,” says the father.
“But dad, it’s been three days and he hasn’t moved.”
“I promised I’d buy you a puppy and that’s what I did”
“Well, yes, technically that’s what you did.”
Air America Radio’s Marc Maron is this week’s celebrity standup, which helps pack the house. “Have you ever met a Chinese person?” he asks. “No, really. Have you ever really gotten to know one? Because you should. They’re the survivors. The food they eat, the squids and the seaweed, is going to be here long after the food we eat has disappeared. The Chinese have got the economy wrapped up. The Chinese own us. On any day, they could say, ‘America is now closed for business,’ and we would be.”
The crowd laughs.
“No, really,” Maron continues. “At any time they called in our debt, we’d be closed for business. Finished.”
The jollity has now turned icy.
“The Chinese own us. We’re outsourced by the Chinese. And our job is to buy.”
If one role of alternative comedy is to penetrate people’s armor by upsetting them, Maron’s dart just hit the bull’s-eye.
Itelman also plays the celebrity game. Harry Shearer will be headlining one of his upcoming shows, he boasts. His roster has also included Jello Biafra and he hopes to book “Weird Al” Yankovic and Stephen Perkins (drummer of Jane’s Addiction). Itelman speaks also of his fascination with the macabre. For a show called The Art of Bleeding (the theater’s Halloween show), Itelman had car wrecks towed in to the theater’s parking lot and put fake bodies inside them. The show featured an ambulance safety demonstration “with a gorilla and a scalpel and lots of blood.”
Itelman says he’s not consciously trying to be alternative by shocking or offending. “I’m just drawn to pieces that are engaging and unusual, that move the performance arts forward,” he maintains. “Within that umbrella, there have been a few tentacles, including alternative comedy. But alternative to what? I think it’s hard to identify yourself by what you’re not.”
It’s about 90 minutes later at the Steve Allen Theater. The final musician to join what’s now a crowded onstage moonscape is Itelman, holding a huge glass bottle, which unofficially transforms the orchestra into a jug band. This is an act from America’s heartland of yore. The musicians sway in unison to an oompah rhythm as Itelman drips like a dishrag, almost hyperventilating, gasping and blowing into his jug to create a muted foghorn accompaniment. The sights and the sounds of all this wacked retro-futurism reveal a heart beating with love and lunatic curiosity for where we come from. It’s alternative because it’s so rare, and you’d have to be dead not to feel its pulse.