With the race for the presidency still tight even after last week's debate, there's not much to laugh about in Washington, D.C., a political town not known for its cutting-edge humor even in less perilous times. But in the weeks before the election, Washington, D.C., which rarely hosts A-list comics except superstars such as Amy Schumer, Lewis Black or Jim Gaffigan in its largest venues, is presenting a cornucopia of great comic talent.
Perhaps the most exciting individual comedy show coming to D.C. is Maria Bamford's Oct. 15 performance at the 1,800-seat Warner Theater with her opening feature act, Jackie Kashian. Bamford, whom I interviewed a while ago, hasn't been here for close to three years since her stunning 2013 show at D.C.'s innovative arts stage at the Sixth and I Synagogue. With her rave-reviewed series Lady Dynamite on Netflix, high-profile media coverage and the growing awareness that she's arguably the most uniquely talented comic in the country, she's finally able to launch a tour in mostly large theaters; the Warner has been the home for shows by Lewis Black and D.C. native Wanda Sykes, among others.
Last week, Bamford released her new album, "20%," that goes beyond her previous ground-breaking material on mental illness to cover new developments, including her marriage to her visual artist husband, aging and making it in show business, winning yet another round of raves since her remarkable Special, Special, Special performed before her parents, now on Netflix. (Note to Bamford fans: Listen to the album after seeing her live, because there is some overlap of material with her stage act. For everyone else interested in smart, emotionally resonant comedy, the album is a must-listen. )
While Bamford is finally getting the overdue larger audience that allows her to break out of the cult comic niche, her close friend since their days together in Minneapolis in the early 1990s, Jackie Kashian, is also winning new attention from fellow comics and the media. She continues to evolve as a comedic Everywoman but with a special fondness for geekdom that she features on her podcast The Dork Forest, with a stage act that has been marked by heartfelt, hilarious tales on everything from touring in Iraq with young soldiers to her love of video games to getting married after nearly 20 years of being single. Her routines grow darker, funnier and deeper each year, and she created a breakthrough routine in 2014, "Sexual Healing," on recovering from past sexual trauma with her new husband that was about as touching and artful as some of the signature routines of master comics such as Pryor and her friend Bamford.
Her set at the Warner will feature all new material. UPDATE: She will also be recording a live version of The Dork Forest podcast at the new Drafthouse Comedy club in Washington, DC on Sunday October 16th; the club is run by the managers of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, one of the areas leading comedy nightspots.
She's managed the rare feat of combining long-form story-telling as part of her act, but densely packed with jokes along the way, that's also seen in the work of Kyle Kinane and Paul F. Tompkins. Her 2014 special, This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux (she's recording a new CD in December), was rated by New York Magazine's sophisticated Vulture website as one of the top five comedy specials of the year. She now tours as a club headliner and an opener for Bamford and the more mainstream but wildly popular Brian Regan , but as she told me in an exclusive interview, she hasn't forgotten where she came from. She grew up in an emotionally barren home surrounded by five older siblings and a strict stepmom and indifferent dad, derided as the "spooky reading girl" in her hometown in Wisconsin. She started open mics in the late 1980s in college -- after taking up a sarcastic hint to try out for an open mic night after heckling Sam Kinison at a club owned by his brother. "I was very drunk," she recalls, but the subsequent thrill of making people laugh on stage was, she says, "like heroin." She chased that high even when facing frat bros chanting at her, "Lose weight, lose weight!," but persevered until she has become one of the most accomplished comics in the country. I featured her in an article on women comics who deserve their own Netflix special and by next year, she'll doubtless achieve that and other career goals. (She turned down one recent offer from a video company because she would have no control over how the material would be used or where it would air.) She appeared recently on the Conan show, a set that illustrates the warm-hearted, smartly written comedy that has become a trademark for her. She collaborates with Bamford in punching up each other's material in a regular writing exercise they've done for years called "Joke Machine," another sign of the esteem for her talent.
Her frank conversation with me is slated to be excerpted in an upcoming episode of the "What's Up Next" music and live events show co-hosted bi-weekly on Takoma Park's new WWOD-LP radio station by all-things DC connoisseur, Mellish, Mondays at 8 pm. (The shows aren't archived but can be heard live here.
A recent Monday show , for instance, was built around politically-themed music, along with a curated selection of the best upcoming shows of all kinds. I'm a periodic contributor to the program providing news about upcoming comedy, roots music and author events.)
For those who want to know more about the grueling work behind making comedy and earning a living from it, Kashian recently launched a cynical but darkly amusing view of life for women comics with her comedian friend, Laurie Kilmartin, a writer for the Conan show, on the Nerdist podcast network, the Jackie and Laurie Show.
The full audio podcast of my Kashian interview can be heard on Soundcloud here.
The widest array of ground-breaking comedians is being showcased at the annual "Bentzen Ball" named after a man who died while laughing at the movie A Fish Called Wanda. It is curated by Tig Notaro, a role she's played since 2009 with the event's organizer, the online entertainment magazine and events company, Brightest Young Things (BYT) -- well before she shot to fame with her appearances on This Amerian Life and especially the release of her ground-breaking 2012 Largo set on cancer and other personal disasters. She now stars in the well-received Amazon series, One Mississippi, that fictionally recreates her visit home to her family after her mother's death.
Yet Notaro wasn't yet a beloved comedy icon when Brightest Young Thing's founder, the hip cultural maven extraordinaire Svetlana Legetic, became friendly with Tig Notaro after her website profiled her when she opened for Todd Barry in 2008 at the Sixth and I site. "We got to talking," Legetic recalls. "She said that comedy festivals didn't treat comics well, especially non-famous ones like she was then. There was no sense of community." Working with Tig's informal network of talented performers and with a goal of creating a festival that was fun for comics and audiences alike, Legetic says, " We set out to create a four-day comedy camp that the comics collaborated on, and we happened to produce some amazing shows," including one featuring headliner Sarah Silverman.
At the time, Notaro was a relatively obscure comic's comic known for absurdist routines, bone-dry delivery and long, awkward pauses, offered along with a few oddly paced stories. Her best-known routine at the time was the still-funny bit on the "No Moleste" notice outside her door in a Mexican motel. It's a sign of Legetic's talent-spotting skill and creative ambition that she allied herself with Notaro and brought in some of the most innovative -- and hilarious -- alternative comedians, such as Reggie Watts, who were rarely, if ever, booked into DC's leading traditional comedy venues,the DC Improv and the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, both of which have gotten more adventurous since then. After a hiatus following the 2009 festival, the Bentzen Ball returned in 2013 and each year since then, again with Notaro playing a curating and advisory role along with performing as a guest or headliner on multiple nights.
"Our goal is to create a festival that is truly something that isn't just a garden-variety comedy showcase," Legetic points out.
Comedy fans, please note: Unless you've seen Notaro live, you don't really don't know what makes her unique, even if you've seen her HBO special. She brings to her shows and crowd interactions peerless spontaneous wit, along with her marvelous story-telling routines. The opening night of the festival is October 27th, at the Lincoln Theater with Tig Notaro and friends, including the rising comic, Aparna Nancherla, a late-night TV show writer (Seth Meyers, etc.) who has opened for Notaro and John Oliver, and was recently named by Variety as one of the top ten comics to watch in 2016 -- previous honorees include Maria Bamford. Nancherla was formerly a DC-based comic who blossomed through the Bentzen Balls, moved to Los Angeles and then on to New York where she writes for Meyers, and now has released her first album through the latest joint Brightest Young Things/ Tig Notaro enterprise, the Bentzen Ball comedy label co-owned by Notaro, an imprint of the indie rock label Strictly Canadian.
Also appearing at the festival is the sexually provocative songstress and comedian Bridget Everett whose unique, explicit shows have become legendary among her fellow comics (she also appears as the bossy best friend in Maria Bamford's Lady Dynamite Netflix show).
The nation's most popular musician-comedian, "Weird Al" Yankovic, will be appearing for an on-stage comedy commentary on his cult film classic, UHF along with the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and cult WFMU comedian Dave Hill. It will be comedy geek nirvana.
UPDATE: Legendary comedy genius, Emo Philips, an actor in UHF and a pioneer of alternative comedy in the 1980s before there was an alternative comedy scene, has been added to the UHF commentary panel. (He's also been slated to appear at the the festival's Halloween comedy showcase including the best Donald Trump impressionist (better than Alec Baldwin), Anthony Atamanuik, and a parody guru played by Ben O'Brien.) There are only a handful of modern comedians since the 1960s whom you can call totally unique and original, and Emo Philips is one of them. His oddball pacing, joined with his elfin, man-child mannerisms and wavering falsetto voice, create a winsome appeal that adds to the hilarity of his jokes, but it's the brilliant writing of those jokes and his off-the-cut wit that not only convulses audiences but has earned him the admiration of fellow comedians and comedy critics. Three of his jokes landed in the top 75 funniest jokes of all time rated by fellow comics in GQ magazine.
Here's the best known one, "Golden Gate Bridge": it starts with an initial encounter, then veers into hilarious realms you can't begin to imagine if you've never heard it before. Some comedy buffs consider it the single best-written joke ever, and I'm one of them.
In keeping with the Bentzen Ball's tradition of showcasing rising talents , the festival is spotlighting an explosively brilliant political comic and parodist of hipster mores, John F. O'Donnell, who appears on a weekly political comedy show on RT Television, Redacted Tonight, but made his reputation in New York; he is taping a special at the DC Improv on October 29th.
There will be plenty of other comedy finds to be made at the Bentzen Ball this year. "It's also really important to be a great resource for quality comedy and offer a great sense of discovery," Legetic observes. That's certainly true. To indicate the festival's importance to DC's cultural world and sometimes parched comedy scene, even as a comedy buff, I never saw in person these performers before they played the festival: Todd Barry, Reggie Watts, Kate Berlant, Garfunkel and Oates, Moshe Kasher, The Office's Kate Flannery and her incredible Lampshades comedy musical duo, Doug Benson ,Lizz Winstead, Jeff Garlin, and, of course, Notaro herself, among many others. (The mind-boggling scope of the talent introduced or highlighted in DC by BYT over the years is featured on this promotional website for the festival's business sponsors. )
UPDATE:There's no need, though, to wait until the middle or end of October to see phenomenal, cutting-edge comedians visit DC. As I first reported last week, on Thursday, September 29, as part of the DC Beer Fest, Sean Patton, a versatile story-teller and comic graced the stage of the DC Improv for a $15 show. I never heard of him until I saw him on two separate nights at showcases in Los Angeles in 2014, including the famous Nerdist Meltdown show on Sunset Boulevard; he rocked the crowd with a blend of raucous physical comedy and, for some routines, absurdist stoner interior monologues spoken aloud. Imagine a young, modern hipster version of Jackie Gleason with an acerbic take on the bizarre world around him, and you'll get a sense of his flair that's only partially captured in these videos. As the country's leading comedy critic, Jason Zinoman of The New York Times wrote about him with considerable insight:
Give him a microphone and 10 minutes in front of a live crowd, and Sean Patton, a short, rotund, live-wire comedian, is just about a sure thing.
I've seen him perform more than a dozen sets, and he's killed every time. He's dynamite, even with ordinary material, turning standard Brooklyn hipster jokes into a stomping, roaring tour de force, and elevating a bit about sex-performance anxiety into high-stakes comedy. ("Our grandparents fought at Normandy for you, so do your job!" goes his interior monologue.)
He's the rare comic who goes over as well in a comedy club as in a bar basement. The only place I've seen him fail is on television. It was on "Conan" last year, when he told a listless story about his guilt over fighting with his younger brother. It started slow, fizzled, then meandered into sentimentality.
What's striking is that when he delivered this same bit before the "Conan" appearance at Littlefield, a performance space in Brooklyn, Mr. Patton was funny, energetic and even poignant. What went wrong?
As happens with many comics, some of his peculiar gifts don't translate to the rigid constraints of late-night television talk shows.
So seeing him live is essential for any comedy lover -- and last week was your best chance to do so in Washington, D.C. for quite a while. Following surprisingly strong comic tales by amateur storytellers sponsored by DC Brau about their worst drunken nights ever, Patton took the stage like he was shot out of a rocket and never let go. His newer material -- including an opening segment about being possessed by God,which veered into routine about what it might be like to be a Christian comedian -- was as good as any of his older material. You can hear some of it on his excellent CD, Standard Operating Procedure. He's so good that one of the very few routines routine I'd heard before -- involving a Jamaican nurse that veers into bizarre fantasies about an action hero -- -- had me doubled over with laughter throughout.
When it comes to long-form story-telling, though, the country's most critically revered and popular monologist is Mike Birbiglia, known through his appearances on This American Life and the story "Sleepwalk With Me" that was turned into an indie film hit, co-produced with Ira Glass. But on October 7th, he's bringing the final leg of his tour of his hit show, "Thank God for Jokes," to the Strathmore theater in the DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. Unlike his other performances with a single narrative arc, this one features interlocking jokes and asides that, while making a larger point about humor itself, is simply downright hilarious. Reading the review of the show in The New York Times made me jealous that I wasn't there, so I don't plan to miss it -- assuming any tickets are left.
UPDATE: If Birbiglia is, in some ways, filling the story-telling role once held by radio monologist Jean Shepherd, a huge influence on the much less amusing Garrison Keillor, few comedians have been telling stories and jokes as long as Dick Gregory, nearly 85. He appeared at the revived, historic and elegant Howard Theatre on October 1. He paved the way for raising white awareness of racial injustice -- and for all forms of political comedy -- before Dr. Martin Luther King became a national icon and George Carlin turned to attacking society's institutions. His dedication to humor, healthy eating and social justice has paid off in that he's still funny and pointed in his satiric critiques, having helped change the world through social activism and paved the way for Richard Pryor. Pryor's writing partner, Paul Mooney, now 75, is appearing with Gregory. Yet his influence on Chris Rock, Eddie Griffin and other black comics; as a mentor to Sandra Bernhard in the alternative comedy scene; and as a writer/actor on Dave Chappelle's show has unfortunately obscured his own importance and power as a no-holds-barred stand-up.
Gregory's show was a revelation. With his long white beard, he looked like a cross between an Old Testament preacher and a griot spewing hilarious, profane take-downs of white institutions from police to banks to the Bible itself. Early on, he raised questions about the Old Testament by pointing to the tale of Adam telling God he was lonely. According to the Bible, "But God didn't say, 'How the fuck you can be lonely if there's no one else here but you?' But you've all bought into that white bullshit." Along the way he offered profound critiques about the ways African-Americans are still cowed and shaped by white racism, while offering imaginative comic flights of fancy on everything on a black-run airline he'd like to start and his absurdist response to European admirers quizzing him about the most pressing issue nagging him: "Where did all the albinos go after high school?," then he spun it off from there.
When you realize where Gregory has come from, as the first black comic to become a major star in the early 1960s while fiercely tackling white racism before mixed audiences, his continuing growth and power as an artist, activist and social critic is nothing less than astounding. As recounted in his own autobiography and the book The Last Laugh by Phil Berger, he recounted his strategy to win over whites, most of whom had never seen an educated black comic who wasn't somehow trading on burlesque stereotypes. Back when these archaic phrases were used, he said, "I've got to go up there as a individual first, a Negro second. I've got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man...I've got to make jokes about myself, before I can make jokes about them and their society -- that way, they can't hate me. Comedy is friendly relations."
In preparing to play before white audiences after building his style on the "chitlin' circuit," he armed himself with heckler comebacks in an unusual way: "In his home, he had his wife, Lillian, call him nigger when he least expected it, and he'd react to it with a remark. It was verbal quick draw," Phil Berger wrote.
His big break came when he got to substitute for double-talk comedian Irwin Corey in 1961 (today, at 102, the oldest active comedian alive) at Chicago's Playboy club. With an audience filled with mostly out-of-town Southern tourists, he quipped:
Last time I was done South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: "We don't serve colored people."
I said: "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken."
He got bravos when finished, and became a regular on pro-tolerance Playboy Club circuit -- and appeared on the syndicated '60s Playboy After Dark TV show, riffing on racism and sitting on the legendary couches with gorgeous white and black models.
For Gregory, Notaro, Bamford, Kashian, Birbiglia, Philips and the other comedy powerhouses coming to DC over the next month, they're offering the oasis of laughter and intelligent comedy in dark times. While they're doubtless all opposed to a Donald Trump victory in November, they're some of the few people who might somehow benefit from his election: after all, a Trump presidency would offer a rich surfeit of comic material. That's assuming, of course, there's anyone's left to spend money on comedy shows if the economy collapses or we launch a nuclear war on Iran. For now, all these comedians are well worth the price of admission.