What the hell is alternative comedy? That seemed to be the question posed by AltCom — that is the Alternative Comedy Festival in Boston, or near Boston, really — or at least the question I posed to festival director Brian Joyce ad infinitum.
After both nights of the festival at the Somerville Theatre this weekend, I’m still not sure how to define it but I know when I see it– like when a guy gets onstage wearing nothing but tights, face paint and a couple of ties. That, by the way, was just a part of the act of British comic doktor cocacolamcdonalds, one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of performers, and probably the only one who plays keytar, sings about the invention of the Internet and gives a dramatic reading of Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song while wearing a Chinese robe and cardboard box.
I knew he had hit the target when I saw Emo Philips sitting in the crowd and enjoying himself immensely. At the afterparty on Friday night, the doktor told me how incredibly nervous he was prior to the performance, that it was his first in the States, and he was still recovering from jetlag. Well, if that performance was him jetlagged and nervous, a small theater may not be physically able to contain him when he’s at full power.
The Friday and Saturday shows opened with two great Boston stand-ups: Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman performing the comedians’ national anthem– a bit that mashed together dozens of comic catchphrases, famous bits, and hack premises in a dead-on three-minute acoustic duet.
Backstage before the first show, Emo complimented Sherman on his first name, and said something about it being the title of the last book of the Bible. Then they debated about whether or not it was. (Don’t ask me. Wikipedia says it isn’t.) During the same time, Todd Barry offered to do an e-mail interview with me on the spot via his BlackBerry. I don’t have a BlackBerry, so I offered to conduct it entirely through text messages. Look for the complete transcript in a year and a half.
Barry’s set, at just a shade under a 30 minutes, was a mix of material from his just-released album From Heaven, new stuff, and the crowd interaction that has become a highlight of seeing him perform. Bantering with the people in the front row, Barry asked someone sitting close to him, “Am I the most famous person that has ever talked to you?” When the guy responded that, no, Wesley Willis had once spoken to him, Barry riffed on it to huge laughs, even working in a reference to Willis later in the act.
Like any well-programmed festival, the sequencing was key in bringing out the contrasts between the comics, and highlighting just what it was that each act did differently. Barry’s persona of hilariously condescending insincerity was a 180 from the conversational weirdness of the first comic of the night, Eugene Mirman.
Mirman invited those sitting in the balcony to come downstairs to fill in the few empty seats in the orchestra saying, “There’s no reason to spread people out unless they’re different races.” Also on hand with Mirman — though he didn’t appear onstage — was Stella’s Michael Showalter, who told me that he’s currently filming Mirman for a documentary on the comedian and his impending trip to Russia, where he was born.
After Mirman, Barry, and the head-spinning musical craziness of the doktor, Emo took the stage for an hour-long set that reminded me of every reason I wish he would tour more. There’s his wonderful bits of misdirection: “I was on a date once. I got in trouble, because I didn’t open the door for her. Instead, I just swam up to the surface.”
There’s the spastic delivery, the constant movement and contortions and the insane way he plays with tone and joke targets: “I live in Los Angeles,” he says. “But I’m not a Scientologist. I’m not even a fan of stupidity when it isn’t evil.”
Emo and the doktor returned on Saturday night to check out the second group of performers. Hometown favorites Chris and Dave Walsh opened. It’s hard to describe exactly what the Walsh Brothers do and why it’s so screamingly funny. But I will say this: their act operates on some impossible combination of manic creepiness and telekinesis.
During their set, the brothers Walsh will take a simple story or premise and move in a hundred different directions at once with it, bringing out small comic details using repetition and physical gestures throughout. Turns out Steven Wright is a big fan of the duo.
The Walsh Brothers’ set concluded with Chris in a yellow one-piece bodysuit and Dave in some kind of kabuki outfit flailing about in a five-minute hard rock song about the Fung Wah bus, a cheap Boston-to-New York trip that has a reputation locally as being a bit of a deathtrap. (Coincidentally, doktor cocacolamcdonalds was due to take the same bus to New York for a show on Sunday– who knows if we’ll ever hear from him again.
With her wonderfully deadpan stoner delivery, Morgan Murphy’s act could’ve been a jarring change of pace, but she’s a pro at wrapping the crowd up in her thoughts with a sick, sedated sense of humor. She’s one of those great comedians who can present observations onstage with the same casual lack of pretension as someone just thinking of them in conversation
Her jokes took aim at the excesses of cultural stupidity with a touch of revealing self-deprecation. (Murphy doesn’t have an album as yet, so for a sample of her understated skill at wrenching out every bit of humor from a line through the use of monotone, check out her appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live or this conceptually clever and brutal jab at Carlos Mencia and the anti-Carlos Mencia crowd.)
She talked about her strange lack of self-control whenever she visits New York, describing the conversations with worried friends on those wild nights: “Holy shit! You just did nine shots off of a baby? I’m not driving. You just let six guys pee on you. I’m taking a cab.” Murphy mused about her wish that there would be only one holiday each month, and that it would be Halloween.
She mentioned noticing that around Halloween time, a weekly karaoke night was relabeled “scaraoke,” which led her to apply the naming formula to other unrelated items, like “a Holocaust booseum.” “Sorry sir,” she said at the start of a killer line delivered nearly under her breath, “your son has spookemia.”
Murphy’s friend, the singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, was backstage before and after the show as well to chat with Murphy and headliner Patton Oswalt. (Mann featured Murphy at her last Christmas show at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center as well as in a Bobcat Goldthwait-directed music video and has been a guest at Murphy’s live monthly UCB Theater talk show in LA.)
Like Oswalt, Murphy managed to cram the AltCom show in between a number of other obligations. She flew in from L.A. the morning of the show and would be flying back home the next day, which helped maintain the exhausted persona perhaps more than she needed but certainly didn’t hurt her act. There was some joking anxiety backstage as Patton hadn’t arrived as late as an hour before the show. Nearly every person who walked down the stairs into the green room was greeted by someone yelling “Ratatouille!”
Before Patton was up, Australian comic Jim Jeffries took filthy comedy to unprecedented heights and depths in his nearly half-hour set. Jeffries’ gift is his assured charm. He seems like the coolest, most unapproachable guy in the room, and because he’s so genuine, he’s also the one you would first consider having a few drinks with.
Very few comedians are able to avoid completely alienating every member of the audience with lines such as, “Women are like public toilets. They’re all dirty, except for the disabled ones.” Backstage after his set, Jeffries was very similar to the talkative, brash character he was onstage. He traded stories and observations about Australian history and performing stand-up in different regions of the world with Murphy, Joyce, and Dave Walsh and told an unbelievable and hilarious tale of being tied up and robbed at machete-point while living in Manchester.
Patton’s hour-long closing set picked up on some of Jeffries’ shocking sexual humor, though, of course with Patton, the target is always inward. His comedy is very much based on these wonderfully horrifying descriptions, like a set-opening anecdote detailing how he injured the end of his penis while wearing corduroy pants without any underwear, or a line about the world’s oldest parents telling their kids about their births by comparing the sight to “an uncooked Cornish game hen being shoved through gray drapes.”
By request, he did his uncanny There Will Be Blood bit, imagining Daniel Day-Lewis’ character as a pizza chef and a phone sex operator. Oswalt is perpetually commenting on himself doing comedy while he does comedy, which can make his segues just as fun as the jokes they lead up to. Before launching into new jokes about the KFC Famous Bowl, he hilariously deflated the importance of the much-celebrated “world-changing” routine.
Producer Joyce brought all the comedians from the night out for a final bow at the end of the show, a warm note on which to end this wonderful first-ever Alterative Comedy Festival. Along with introducing incredible new talent to the area and bringing in some old favorites, AltCom has managed to capture the sense of camaraderie and genuine appreciation for the craft of stand-up that characterize so much of the feeling about live comedy in Boston.