AltCom fest organizer Brian Joyce paced backstage at the Somerville Theater minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. showtime and tried to pump up his performers. "It's a healthy crowd," he told the comedians. "There's not a stretch of empty seats downstairs." Eugene Mirman couldn't help but laugh right away, telling Joyce his pep talk really helped. Actually, there wasn't a need to worry. By the time Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman took to the stage at 8:25 p.m. to open the festivities with their "Comedians National Anthem," fans had filled most of the seats in the lower orchestra level.
Nevertheless, Mirman felt like addressing the seating situation upfront, inviting folks from upstairs to come downstairs. "Why spread people out, unless you're different races?!" he announced with his usual absurdist flair. "This is Boston!" Mirman had plenty of fun throughout his 20-minute set, especially by poking fun at himself and his tendency to color his routine with local jokes and town names. "Now to stick it to the old Fleet Bank machine!" he said at one point. Later, he enjoyed ad-libbing a thought about a local audience member attacking a bear and yelling at it, "You're queah!" that he completely skipped over his usual punchline and tags on his bit about bears. He tailored another portion of the set for the Boston-area audience with a clever video spoof of ads for Boston.com, the Boston Globe's online portal. Mirman also included a recent observation from his 236.com-sponsored trip to Philadelphia for last month's Democratic debate, talking about anti-abortion protesters, and ad-libbing a retort to his own description of the presidential race as "Obama and the lady."
Also worth noting about Eugene Mirman: Michael Showalter followed him around offstage with a video camera (for a documentary? for a spoof? just because? we'll investigate this further), and Mirman told the other comics beforehand that he and his fellow Stand-Uppity Tour performers (Andy Kindler and Marc Maron) are looking forward to hitting the road together next week. Actually, that tour starts Sunday in Kentucky! Moving on...
Emo Philips joked with Todd Barry beforehand about Barry being limited to a 20-minute set. "If you're having fun," Philips told Barry backstage, "you'll want to fight that impulse...to stay onstage!" Barry also joked with me about the New York Times review earlier in the week of his performance opening for Flight of the Conchords, noting how reviewers often resort to lame jokes in critiquing a comedian. The Times, for the record, said this of Barry on Thursday: "A comedian whose deadpan delivery was drier than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting." I won't attempt anything of that sort here. Leave that to the couple of audience members (fans of Barry's, it'd turn out afterward) who felt compelled to shout out oddities during his set. And that's even after Barry told his joke about an audience member "who wanted to challenge him...comedically." Argh. Barry also had to bear witness to a couple near the front who stood up and apparently walked out. Not his fault. "How awkward would that be if I cleared the room?" he joked. Not as awkward as what happened next, when he asked a guy in the front row if he was the most famous person to ever talk to him. "No," the young man replied, and then, after a pause, offered: "Wesley Willis." I hadn't heard of the late, overweight, schizophrenic, homeless musician, but Barry had. He joked about that, then went on with his act, and I thought he'd close on his Facebook jokes, but just then, Mirman's laptop computer -- still onstage -- beeped loudly. "Eugene got a new Gmail?!" Barry said. Another pause to regroup. A couple more jokes. And by then, Barry had gone 28 minutes. Again. Not his fault. Just one of those odd sets that gets derailed by the audience and other factors out of his control, forcing him to take extra time to get the show back on track.
Kaplan and Sherman also attempted at this point to remind the audience not to get in the way of everyone's good time. They did not, however, fully prepare everyone for doktor cocacolamcdonalds. How could they?
This one-man band from the UK has wowed crowds in Edinburgh and plays the big Leeds and Reading festivals later this summer. He'll also be swinging down to NYC on Monday for a show at the PIT. You have to see and hear this guy, and even then, you might not believe it. He bounded onstage wearing only face makeup, a scarf tie, colorful briefs and sneakers, and alternated between a keytar and other odd instruments for a few musical numbers. First up: "When you generalize, the general...lies." Another song he wants to be more R&B, so a GameBoy supplies the beats. His truncated set (this only showcased him for about 18 minutes) also included an appearance by his performance poet, Ray: Man of Words, who closed with a "cover" -- in this instance, his rendition of the theme rap song to TV's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You could hear doktor cocacolamcdonalds on the radio, disc or iPod and chuckle a bit. But his humorous success proves it's really all in the presentation.
He also proved to be a good transition between the stand-up of Mirman and Barry to the headlining performance of Emo Philips.
I spent so much time trying to jot down notes between giggles the last time I saw Philips that this time, I wanted to sit back and absorb his set as a fan. What really hit home with me now was what also connected deeply with me when I first devoured Emo's E=MO2 over and over again as a teen. Sure, his jokes and one-liners are amazingly funny. But what makes him amazing is how devious and mischievous he is. It goes beyond clever. The guy opens with remarks about appreciating us appreciating live stand-up comedy, and somewhere in there is a joke about incest. He knew enough about Boston to work in baseball jokes, and also, perhaps unbeknownest to some in the crowd, a dating joke with a wickedly funny and subtle nod to the Kennedys! Philips also manages to jab at religion, politics, the homeless and so many other topics with his trademark wit and mannerisms that you're usually too busy laughing to get how wonderfully subversive it all is. For example, here he is on capital punishment: "We shouldn't execute the mentally retarded. No. Right? But what if they do something wrong?" Or this little ditty: "I like the South, but, of course, I'm prejudiced." By the end of his 55-minute set, the crowd couldn't help but give him a standing ovation.
AltCom continues Saturday night with Patton Oswalt, Morgan Murphy, Jim Jeffries and the Walsh Brothers.
AltCom, the Alternative Comedy Festival, begins tomorrow, with two shows this weekend at the Somerville Theatre just outside of Boston. Earlier this week, I exchanged notes with headliner Emo Philips about the fest. Now it's time to check in with the festival's founder/organizer, Brian Joyce, to find out what this is all about, exactly.
I saw Joyce last weekend at The Comedy Studio in Cambridge, but our informal chat and the environment (Celtics and Red Sox games on the tube competing with dancers and drinkers for our attention) proved unconducive for typing on a computer. An online Q&A worked much better. And here it is! Actually, before we begin, know that Brian Joyce also performs as a stand-up, has worked over in Ireland where they like his heritage, and has worked here in the States (I saw him open for Doug Stanhope two years ago). OK. Ready? Continue reading...
1) You said Davis Square is really the only place you could imagine holding your festival? Why is that?
I was looking for a small, centralized area where no event like this had existed before. An area with lots of energy, good bars and cafes, a tight-knit community of locals, and most importantly, several venues that are suitable for stand-up comedy. It's these things that lend the "festival" atmosphere to the event. Davis Square is perfect because it has all these qualities.
2) When you say "alternative comedy festival," do you mean that this is a festival for alternative comedy, or that this is an alternative to regular comedy festivals? It can be read different ways, don't you think?
I think it can be interpreted both ways. It's a festival for alternative comedy, that is an alternative to the bigger comedy festivals in North America. My goal was not to create another comedy festival; there are plently of those already. I had a specific idea for a specific location, with specific comedians in mind. I modeled it after the European arts festivals, which have a much different vibe from American comedy festivals. AltCom is not so much about scoring a sitcom deal as it is about having fun and seeing really good stand-up comedy!
3) Since the first year is simply two shows over two nights, what makes this a festival, per se? Or does the fest name imply hopes you have to grow this out next year and in years to come?
I hope to grow it out in years to come, hence the "Festival" name. I always believe it's best to start small, so I decided not to over-reach this first year. Just keep it simple with two shows over two nights, and if the response is good enough, hopefully I can build it out into several shows over several nights in the coming years.
4) You mentioned making AltCom a comedy destination along the lines of SFSketchfest. Can you elaborate on that?
Well I think the Sketchfest is a good example of something that started small and quickly developed into a destination event with international appeal. The Kilkenny festival in Ireland is another great example. Comedians and audience alike come from all over the world for that one. That is what I hope to do with AltCom - start small by offering a strong lineup over two nights, and let it develop from there. We've got national headliners, international headliners, and up-and-comers. There's something for everyone. I think our audience will appreciate it; they will know they are seeing something new and different. Hopefully, soon enough people will be talking about us all over the world.
5) There has been more than a bit of discussion within the comedy community over the years about the term "alternative comedy" with some preferring to call it "indie" (making a comparison to "indie rock" vs. "rock music") while others hold steadfast to the argument that the term "alternative" isn't about the comedy itself but about breaking out of mainstream comedy clubs and two-drink minimums. Where do you stand on that? And did that play a role in how you decided to produce this first AltCom?
To me, the term "alternative comedy" involves breaking out of the mainstream clubs and shattering pre-conceived notions about stand-up comedy - the two-drink minimums and Viagra jokes, etc. With AltCom, we have comedians like Patton and Eugene who developed their acts in non-traditional comedy venues, opening for bands and playing rock clubs and coffee houses. We have a comedian from Australia who was once attacked on stage and had to finish his set bleeding from the head! We have a British comedian who performs half naked and sings songs about Gene Hackman. Say what you want, but these guys are definitely an "alternative" to what you normally see in American comedy clubs. That is the formula I followed in booking this festival; it's got nothing to do with how you look or how you dress, or even your style of comedy. Jim Jeffries and Todd Barry have two completely different styles on stage; what they have in common is this bold commitment to originality.
6) How would you compare AltCom to other comedy fests in America?
Well I wouldn't compare it all, because we haven't done anything yet! But like I said, my goal was never to create another comedy festival. I wanted to create something unique and different, and I had very specific ideas as to how to accomplish that. For me, it's all about the area, what kind of venues you use, what kind of comedians you book, where you have the after parties, etc. I think all these things will make AltCom a unique experience for comedians and audience alike.
AltCom takes place May 9-10 at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass. Boston-based comedians Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman will open both shows. Friday: Emo Philips, Eugene Mirman, Todd Barry, doktor cocacolamcdonalds. Saturday: Patton Oswalt, Morgan Murphy, Jim Jeffries, The Walsh Brothers. Tickets? Click here for Friday's show and type in OSWALT for $8 off. Click here if you're looking for $8 discounts for Saturday and type in OSWALT.
Prelims 7-8 of the Boston Comedy Festival contest had Rich Ceisler hosting and doing plenty of time both up front and between acts. At one point during Prelim 7, Ceisler decided to rip the Herald. “If it happened today, it’s news to us,” he said. Hey, Ceisler. Here’s something happening today: You’re not in the contest. So stop hogging the stage as if the judges will notice, and let the contestants get to their sets. And when you’re offstage, stop talking so loudly that the contestants can hear you. Just a thought. I could write an entire post about some of the varied hosting performances during this contest, but it’ll only keep you from what you’re really after. The recap!
Prelim 7 (in order of appearance):
1) Valarie Storm: With a few drunks sitting front and center, things could get ugly. They do, but not before Storm gets through her time, focusing on the funny relationship issues between men and women. Ho. Hum. But she gets props for timeliness by singing “The Divorce Song” for Whitney and Bobby.
2) Korte Yeo: A good bit on why black-out stories never have happy endings. The drunks up front start hearing things they feel they can relate to and respond to. Not a good thing.
3) Mary Beth Cowan: She has fun with the companywide e-mail, but a lot of her punchlines need a few seconds to get to the crowd’s understanding, which is not her fault (they just don’t get it), but it doesn’t help her cause this night.
4) Evan O’Television: Yes, he really did his “two-man” act in the contest. Yes, the audience had no idea what was going on. Yes, it still ended up being pretty funny. No, the audience and judges probably won’t give him high marks. Very meta.
5) Dan Hirshon: Gets the Tutko laugh early on, gets big applause from everyone at the end. In between, something seemed a bit off. Hirshon did win the Carnival Cruise contest the night before, though, so congrats still in order.
6) Dan Boulger: Notes that exclamation points are for lazy writers. But he’s really funny! Boulger absolutely destroyed! Strongest set of the night!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
7) Brian Joyce: Said he couldn’t bring a newspaper on the plane last month, and wondered if the terrorists were MacGyver. Wait. No newspapers?!
8) Pete Johansson: Comes up to a completely cold stage and immediately ramps up the intensity, working the crowd, working it hard, riffing away. Another comic wonders if he has material. Does it matter? He did well. Turns out he’s also ramped-up offstage.
9) Peter Tudosio: How old is that mug shot on the Festival site? The Romanian keeps saying “you a hip crowd,” “nice crowd” even though they’re not really hip to his act, since it’s not hip. He rips Yakov Smirnoff. What a country.
10) Jason Lawhead: Panders to the crowd with pro-Red Sox jokes, but turns out he’s from Cleveland. What’s up with that hat? Why is it so quiet? Must be the hat.
11) Vargus Mason: Finished second in the San Francisco contest, which means he’s due for fame and fortune (see Robin Williams, Dane Cook). The theatrical training shows.
12) Steve Brewer: Married with kids and not happy about it. Funny bit about turning his nagging kid into a human snooze button. Angry but funny.
And your prelim 7 winners: Dan Boulger and Vargus Mason. No complaints here. Honorable mention from me to Pete Johansson.