Does the world need any more jokes about bad haircuts, airplane food or 7-Elevens? The answer, from a growing number of talented, offbeat stand-up comics, is an emphatic no.
Just as punk rockers gleefully gutted the excesses of arena rock, and as small, furry mammals celebrated the demise of the dinosaurs, the performers of the alternative comedy scene are happily deconstructing business-as-usual in the world of stand-up. Their aim is to revitalize the art of being funny.
The best stand-up comedy has always led to insight as well as laughter. But since the comedy boom of the '80s, many comedy clubs across the country have tended to value conventional acts over those deemed too heavy, personal, challenging or even verbal.
Now, at upstart venues such as the Uncabaret, Hot Cup of Talk, Incognito and Think Tank, rule-bending performers have a respite from life on the road, and they're setting out to prove that audiences can have a great time thinking and laughing at the same time.
"Our motto is 'Good entertainment for a nasty world,' " says Beth Lapides, the gracious mistress of ceremonies at the Uncabaret. "For me, that means comedy that acknowledges that there's something wrong with the status quo."
The freewheeling Uncabaret has had a home since last October at LunaPark in West Hollywood, where standing-room-only crowds regularly pack the Sunday night shows. Quality comedy is the goal, but the shows unfold in a loose and irreverent fashion. Audience members may have their "Gripe of the Week" slips read by the hostess. They are also eligible for giveaway prizes, which have included old Monkees albums, plastic cake decorations and pages from Lapides' junior high school journal.
Comic stars such as Margaret Cho and Bobcat Goldthwait have taken the stage at the Uncabaret, but they must play by house rules. Polished material and character bits are frowned upon. Extemporaneous spleen-venting is encouraged. This leads to such inspired moments as Dana Gould and Andy Kindler's hilariously savage "Dueling Lenos" and Judy Toll's frenetic, channel-surfing re-enactment of scenes from "My Breast" and "The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story."
"The basic rule is that you need to be an original voice, and you can't do your regular club act," Lapides says. "We get a great mix of material, from the intensely personal to the extremely political. But it's definitely stand-up, and the point is to get the audience laughing. We're putting on a comedy show, not a therapy session."
"It may seem like the hot new thing," Gould says, "but it's really the old thing. This is what comedy clubs were like at the beginning, back in the '60s, when Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman were performing high-minded material for jazz aficionados. I'm still a big fan of regular comedy clubs, but I can do a set at the Uncabaret that kills, and at the Improv it just sits there. There's a different rhythm at these alternative comedy shows, and the audience feels more like a bunch of your friends. It's a great chance to graze with your own herd."
"It's not so jokey, jokey, jokey," Kindler says. "We're in the middle ground between Spalding Gray and the Catskills."
Toll was one of the first performers to support the Uncabaret, and she continues to cherish the opportunity to work there: "It's like a happy little mental institution. We're the underground team. The performers are really supportive of each other and that makes it so much more fun than anything else."
Comic Taylor Negron was ready to forgo stand-up to concentrate on writing and film work (he can be seen in the forthcoming "Angels in the Outfield"), but early Uncabaret shows changed his mind. "I'm very grateful for the Uncabaret. Comedy crowds have changed. They want loud. They want the Christians and the lions. Stand-up is very slight, and was never meant to be performed in a rock 'n' roll environment. It's got to be performed in small rooms to people who want to be there--not just a sea of dates in chairs killing time before intercourse."
An alternative approach to comedy is also taken at "Hot Cup of Talk," a stand-up show that ran Wednesday nights in June and will be returning Aug. 24 for a four-week run at the Groundling Theatre in Hollywood. Performers there include Julia Sweeney of "Saturday Night Live" and "Reservoir Dogs" director Quentin Tarantino as well as many of the Uncabaret comics.
Groundling Kathy Griffin organizes the shows, at least partly to give herself a comfortable venue for performing. "I love doing stand-up, but I don't ever want to do it in a club again. I respect club comedians, but I can't do it. I tend to bomb big time. But these shows are less about jokes and more about presenting material that's honest and powerful. We stay away from stuff that begins 'Hey, I was at the gym today' or 'Hey, have you seen that commercial?' . . . "
A lot of comedy is beginning to show up in intimate, somewhat unlikely settings. Alternative stand-up is presented Saturday nights as part of Klub Uvula at the Variety Arts Center. And at the Lava Lounge in Hollywood, a free show is presented every Monday night. Offering an alternate take on sketch, character and improv comedy, Dave Rath of Messina/Baker Entertainment produces "Incognito" every Thursday at the Diamond Club in Hollywood. Wednesday nights in July the Diamond Club also presents spoken word and comedy performances called "Tantrum," hosted by Laura Milligan. And comic Karen Kilgariff brought a free Uncabaret-style show, "Think Tank," to the Union at UCLA this spring.
"I've done stand-up at airport Holiday Inns," Kilgariff says, "and that's where you feel like you're doing comedy for people that hate it. At these shows the performers and the audience are equally excited about what's taking place."
The key to the alternative comedy scene is in that connection between comic and audience. Performers who might work up a flop sweat trying to entertain a random sampling of the public discover they can soar when playing to just the right mix of the hip, the smart and the maladjusted.
With 21 years of stand-up experience, Rick Overton has a keen appreciation for the sense of community and shared sensibilities at the Uncabaret. "My comedy has a kind of dimmer switch with a 'survival' setting--on the road you just leave it on 3 and hate yourself on the walk home. Uncabaret is an oasis of 'Hmm' in an ocean of 'Huh?' It's like taking a vacation."
Overton also thinks the performers of the alternative comedy scene may be part of a larger pop culture moment. "You hear about every era having a round-table of artists, and every art getting their version of that. Well, Generation X finally gets one and this is part of it."
Andy Kindler jokes that focus groups have determined his target audience to be "men, my age, who are me." But at the Uncabaret, he has found a receptive crowd. "I still feel comfortable at the Improv--there's a respect for the process there. But the target audience I want is at the Uncabaret."
Kindler also hopes that the notion of "alternative" comedy doesn't scare anybody away. "People think, 'If it's alternative comedy it must not have much of an audience,' but that's so wrong. I think there's a huge audience out there looking for this kind of comedy. There's tremendous talent among this group of comics. We're stretching the form, but we still want to entertain and get the laugh. I may be an 'alternative comic,' but I'd have to admit I'm still a Don Rickles fan too."