Four years ago, Harris Wittels was just another alternative-comedy nerd with big dreams, the kind of guy who started doing stand-up in junior high, revered the sketches on HBO's "Mr. Show" and could recite the late comic Mitch Hedberg's bits from memory. Now the 25-year-old tours with Louis C.K., hangs out with alt-comedy princess Sarah Silverman and writes for NBC's Amy Poehler comedy "Parks and Recreation."
This is what success looks like inside today's comedy pipeline. It starts in the small theaters of L.A., places like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Largo at the Coronet and ImprovOlympic -- today's version of the Catskills of the '40s -- where a comic like Wittels can be playing to small crowds and quickly end up reaching millions of fans on prime-time TV and the cineplex in one exhilarating ride.
Wittels' leap up the comedy food chain says as much about his talent as it does about the changing appetites of the American audience. What once was primarily the domain of self-proclaimed intellectuals and artists is becoming the new mainstream. When an oddball like "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis is a bankable movie star, College Humor.com is owned by Barry Diller and the Internet absurdity of Funnyor Die.com is soon to be an HBO show, something has clearly shifted in the collective idea of what's funny.
"In comedy alternative is the path to the mainstream," noted B.J. Novak, a Harvard grad whose offbeat stand-up bits landed him on TV.
Or, as Silverman said: "It used to be that alternative comedy was alternative to something. It really isn't anymore," added Silverman, whose shock comedy launched her from stand-up at Largo to a hit Comedy Central show to a $2.5-million book deal with HarperCollins last year. Years ago, someone with Wittels' dark, twisted sense of humor --with jokes about date rape and Megan's Law -- was likely to be the product of a poor, lonely childhood who spent years bombing at open mikes from Tampa to Barstow. Instead, Wittels is a doctor's son who grew up in Houston, watching MTV's sketch comedy show "The State" -- "That was my Monty Python," he said -- and whose parents booked 200-seat performance halls so Wittels and his friends could put up their sketches. Not exactly the school of hard knocks.
Indeed, this darkly ironic, scathing, scatological and subversive humor actually disguises a more pragmatic point of view: Comedy is a savvy career move. And though serious comics have always been creatures of New York and Los Angeles, more and more of them end up here for the work. Yes, success is still a longshot and demands slavish devotion, but the opportunities -- and the ethnicities of the comics themselves -- are far more diverse than they've ever been.
Study the credits of NBC's prime-time shows, for instance, and you'll find a whole crop of young comics like Wittels, an unassuming guy who looks like he just moseyed off the college quad, which is no coincidence: TV executives noticed alternative comedy selling out university campuses and generating millions of Web hits, and it got them to thinking.
"We love the fact that we can go toward some of these comedians who 10 years ago may have felt narrow, maybe harder for the entire country to get behind," said NBC's head of comedy, Jeff Ingold. "But because of the commercial success of these guys, we're finding it's OK to put them in our TV shows."
With more and more young TV viewers migrating to the Web, TV executives are trying to lure them back with the same awkward-ironic brand of humor that drew them to the Internet in the first place. But as Novak, costar, co-executive producer and writer of "The Office," points out, this isn't exactly groundbreaking strategy. Every successful mainstream comic has initially been labeled alternative, he notes. It's often just a matter of time before the mainstream catches on.
"Judd Apatow for years was synonymous with brilliant-but-canceled alternative programming, and now he is synonymous with the most mind-blowing mainstream success in comedy you could imagine. I don't think he would have been a success if he hadn't been alternative.
"Comedy is meant to be an alternative. It's an alternative to your expectation and the mainstream and the predictable. That's what the whole joke is of comedy itself."
What struck Silverman the first time she saw Wittels perform was his willingness to take something ordinary -- in this case, a fast-food order at Burger King -- and turn it into something ridiculously epic.
He was opening for her that night, a big coup for a guy still working a day job as a nanny. But Wittels had laid the groundwork. Rather than work more mainstream clubs like the Improv and the Comedy Store where more traditional stand-up acts still dominate, he went the alternative route, sending his stand-up video to Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. That got him a spot on the theater's "See You Next Tuesday" stand-up night, which led to a spot in its hottest show, "Comedy Death-Ray," which got the attention of Largo owner Mark Flanagan, who booked Wittels.
Wittels now says his "Have It Your Way" joke was so "performance-arty" that you really had to be there. "It's impossible to type," he wrote in an e-mail, when asked to reproduce the joke. "So it does not exist in print."
Three months after that night, Silverman offered Wittels a job on her Comedy Central show.
A big tent
There's no one definition of "alternative comedy." It covers Demetri Martin's sweet-natured riffs on New Jersey furniture chain Futon World ("A magical place that becomes less comfortable over time"), Galifianakis' belligerence in the Web series "Between Two Ferns" and even the pedophile sketches by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on their Adult Swim show "Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!"
"One of the common traits," says comic Scott Aukerman, a co-creator of "Between Two Ferns" and co-host of UCB's "Comedy Death-Ray" night, "is just how far it'll go for a laugh."
The latest wave of alt comedy first surfaced in the 1990s with comics such as Janeane Garafalo, Beth Lapides of the long-running L.A. comedy show "Un-Cabaret," "Mr. Show's" David Cross and Patton Oswalt, who couldn't get -- or didn't want -- stage time in traditional comedy clubs. So they started staging shows in rock clubs, coffee shops, dive bars and odd public spaces. Those cheap seats and all-ages gigs built a grass-roots following. And once the Internet picked up speed, so did the saturation of this sensibility onto the mainstream.
By 2005, NBC had premiered the U.S. version of "The Office," Apatow had released "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and ratings spiked at Adult Swim, the late-night bizarro-thon on the Cartoon Network. 18. Within two years, Diller had bought the quirky CollegeHumor.com, shows with a more alt sensibility such as "30 Rock" had arrived and FunnyorDie.com launched.
Early last year, Will Ferrell's Funny or Die Comedy Tour, headlined by Galifianakis, Martin, Andrea Savage and Nick Swardson, visited eight college campuses -- plus Radio City Music Hall -- and sold out every show. "Is 10,000 to 15,000 people a night alternative?" asked Nick Nuciforo of Creative Artists Agency, who helped coordinate the tour.
Today's alt-comedy nerds -- the same scruffy 20-somethings who pack UCB every night -- aren't just devoted fans. They're a target demo. Or, as CAA TV agent Greg Cavic called them, "tastemaker hipsters." And when they laugh, the agents in the audience hear money.
"We're seeing how that audience reacts immediately," said Cavic, who helped bring the New Zealand comic duo Flight of the Conchords to the U.S for the HBO series that's become a cult hit and Emmy nominee. "That's a great litmus test to see who's really on to something."
In L.A., alt comedy can be found in the basement club of the Ramada Inn on Vermont Avenue and karaoke bars in Koreatown. But the de facto headquarters are at UCB, tucked between a cafe and a bookstore on Franklin Avenue. There, writers of almost every late-night talk show test monologue material and sketch groups work out ideas they hope will grab the agents and casting directors in the audience.
FunnyorDie writer Seth Morris was the artistic director of UCB L.A. in the theater's first two years and watched the sea change. Actors such as Heather Graham and Jerry O'Connell started showing up in his improv classes.
"One of the ways you knew something was happening was that good-looking people started taking comedy classes," said Morris. "And they'd been told by casting directors and managers: 'You need to know improv!' "
There's a well-worn path: Take classes at UCB. Assemble an improv group and a sketch team. Perform at UCB's "Spank" on Wednesdays and "Not Too Shabby" on Fridays, at Tre Stage's "Crashbar" and Sierra Stage's "Tuesday Night Thunder." Then corral some friends to film your sketches and post them on YouTube.
Novak's first gig was at the Hollywood Youth Hostel in 2001, following a guy impersonating Robert De Niro on the toilet. His "very collegiate, cerebral one-liners" failed to ignite much interest. But two years later, after Novak had a stint with Ashton Kutcher on MTV's "Punk'd," "The Office" executive producer Greg Daniels saw his set and hired him off of one joke: "I learned nothing in college. It was kind of my own fault. I had a double major. Psychology. And reverse psychology."
"I think comedy is about surprise and honesty," said Novak. "And ideally you surprise people with a sudden burst of honesty. And I think that's what 'The Office' did when it came on the air. And I think it's what 'Seinfeld' did. And what 'Friends' even did. People were used to comedies that were based on other comedies. Not that were based on real life. And so they stopped being funny.
"Every few years, you have, when you're lucky, a correction on television and in the movies with how people actually talk and actually think. And it feels like a revelation."
Holding down the job
FunnyorDie's Morris argues that true alternative comedy will never be mainstream. While "Arrested Development," Fox's critically acclaimed cult hit, was canceled after three seasons, CBS' broad sitcom "Two and a Half Men" is entering its seventh season with a deal for three more.
Wittels knows this clash firsthand. After he left the bawdy enclave of Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program" for the corporate environs of NBC, Wittels was in culture shock. And that delighted Silverman.
She and her writers assembled a giant collage of photos featuring Wittels flashing a very private body part for his "Silverman Program" co-writers. They had it delivered to his new office. Wittels was mortified and hid the poster.
Wittels wants to hang on to this job. "I lack some of the ambition some of those comics have," he said of his peers. "I'm comfortable going from writing job to writing job."
But he is also diligent about honing his own act. And he doesn't buy the notion that alternative comedy is an outsider art form.
"No alternative comedian wants to remain obscure," Wittels said. "Any great comedian can play both. A trap that a lot alternative comedians fall into is thinking that they are better than those Improv audiences and they hide at UCB. But the bottom line is, those are paying customers too. And it's not like an audience at the Comedy Store doesn't have a lower mandible. They can laugh."