Opening the second AltCom show on Friday night in Somerville — that’s in the Greater Boston area — Eugene Mirman skewered the debate over what’s “alternative” perfectly as he read from a manifesto strictly defining the rules of alternative. The list included items like “art before commerce” and “smash old items and make new ones out of the bones of the status quo, human hair, and glue, and then smash that again.” The reading concluded with the requirement that every time an alternative comedian performed, he was duty-bound to have Janeane Garofalo come out and shoot him with a Spider-Man web gun and yell “The Patriarchy is her-story,” and, sure enough, there appeared a laughing Janeane Garofalo with a malfunctioning web gun to fulfill the Alt-obligation. And, so, AltCom was ready to (alt) rock again.
This year’s shows began much the same way the first annual festival in 2008 did, with comics Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman performing a duet on the Comedians’ National Anthem. This time, the audience was all asked to rise for the glorious song, which was packed with straight-faced mocking salutes to seemingly every cliché comedy premise ever to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner. It was the closest the event came to a mission statement from the former Boston-based comics (they’ve since moved on to New York – damn you, New York for taking all the comics I love!). And it only got better from there.
Boasting an expanded itinerary and wider range of shows this time around, the festival seems to be hitting its stride and bringing in healthy crowds to see big-name headliners and talented local acts. AltCom is the kind of thing that can only happen in Boston, where organizer Brian Joyce resides, because it feels like such a natural, warm outgrowth of the comedy scene here. Few comics imagine that they’ll be “discovered” in one of the clubs here, and the lack of overpowering careerism translates into a community of comics who know and care about each others’ work. (They even have softball teams!)
And, interestingly enough, that nurturing environment in turn builds clubs and acts that attract talk show and festival bookers. (The newest addition to the Boston club scene, Mottley’s, run by people who are focused more on the comedy side of the comedy business, was recently visited by the Just For Laughs Festival, and Joe Wong, a frequent performer at the tiny Comedy Studio in Harvard Square last month made his television debut in a widely-praised performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. See Louis C.K.’s recent blog post on Wong and the Studio here.)
Janeane Garofalo came up through the Boston comedy scene of the late 80s (which she discussed fondly in a lengthy radio interview with local comic and radio host Derek Gerry that you should listen to here), and it was good to have her back, if only for a night. The actress/comedian headlined the first of the Friday shows, and while there had been some advanced chatter in the Boston Herald about hecklers disrupting her show due to comments she made about right-wing “teabaggers” on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, her sixty minute set went over wonderfully. (Though she did greet any potential troublemakers at the top of her show by saying, “To any teabaggers in the audience, welcome and, as always, ‘White power.’”)
Even if the audience had been full of crazy zealots, Garofalo would have won them over with a disarming performance that balanced prickly cynicism with an openness and vulnerability that seemed to dissolve any barrier between the audience and the comic. Also helping to bridge the performer/observer divide: Garofalo’s frequent trips to the crowd, including a hilarious opening where she leapt from the stage and ran around offering hi-fives and a later segment where she traveled through the crowd to show off her favorite puppy calendar in hopes that it would establish that she is not an asshole. Her likability and skill in taking the crowd to dark or uncomfortable places (including a killer stretch about her and her longtime boyfriends’ simultaneous bouts with norovirus) reminded me, oddly enougn, of another comic who came up in the Boston scene in the late 80s and early 90s: Louis CK.
Eschewing all political content, Garofalo’s set was at times meandering but never dull as she candidly discussed her struggles with alcoholism and religion without ever being pedantic or heavy-handed. She surveyed audience members’ usage of anti-depressants approvingly saying, “Life’s too long not to try anti-depressants.” Certainly, the hour-long set was too short and it all made me wish that she were more prolific in terms of recorded material.
The show Garofalo headlined also featured strong performances from former Saturday Night Live writer Leo Allen and, most impressively, Jamie Kilstein. Jokingly introduced by Kaplan as a comic who was “famous in every country except this one,” Kilstein takes about two minutes to convince you he’s deserving of all the acclaim from magazines like this one and people like Paul Provenza, and then takes another two minutes to convince you that he’s actually deserving of a whole lot more.
His searing set focused on political hot button issues (or, at least, ones that would be hot button if he weren’t in Massachusetts). Normally, while I agree with the perspective of acts like Kilstein, I’m usually wary of the kind of comedy that’s calibrated to convince only the true-believers, but there’s something different about what Kilstein does. As he paces and stamps around the stage, you realize that the anger isn’t a simple, thrashy “fuck this” rant-and-rave but a researched call to action. There’s earnestness and hope under it, albeit way, way, way under it. Friday night’s second show included Mirman, English comic Ian Moore and former Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle, and the Upright Citizens Bridge, whom Riggle joined for their improv performance at the end of the night.
For his first-ever performance in America, Ian Moore, a “Mod comic” dressed in a suit, seemed to have no trouble adjusting to the audiences here. Moore’s delivery is slow and quiet, and he’s a pro at using pacing to control the audience. The quieter he got, the more they seemed to lean in to listen. His performance, comprised of short stories dryly punctuated with witty asides, connected with the audience in the best way a comic can hope for in a large room: it felt as though he was talking to a single person and not a theatre of hundreds.
Moore mentioned his current life on a farm in France, where he’s made no effort to learn the language so he uses his seven-year-old son as a translator, and the uptick of crime in London, “where they have a nasty new hobby: knife crime.” If the AltCom crowd came to hear people they knew, they must have left surprised at the talent they’d only just discovered. Moore and Kilstein were surely a part of that. (Moore also sells chutney on his website – check it out, I hear it’s delicious.)
And then, like any good festival there were the acts we knew, the acts we didn’t know, and the acts who surprised us along the way: I hadn’t seen Riggle’s stand-up before, but there’s no big jump from the blustery, loud character he played on the Daily Show to his onstage persona. In a half-hour set, Riggle killed with stories of the stench of the men’s bathroom at a football game, especially when citing his own experiences in two wars (he’s a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines) in comparison. Janeane Garofalo could be seen watching the set and laughing along from the side of the stage.
Riggle instructed the audience to put on their “improv” hats before he brought on the Upright Citizens Brigade, but the crowd seemed ready to roll with it. The troupe brought up an audience member for an interview and then seamlessly fell into a performance based on the information gleaned from his answers. So, it was a lot of jokes about Trans Ams and references to Lowell, Massachusetts – Jack Kerouac’s hometown and the black tar heroin capital of, well, at least New England, I think.
I’m doing a terrible job describing it, but it brought the house down. Watching UCB in action is like taking a free improv class. You realize that most improv is terrible and even good improv isn’t all that good, but great improv – like UCB – is something like tiny miracles of funny exploding unpredictably before your eyes. It was a thrillingly hilarious night for all.
And, those were the big shows of AltCom 2009. (The Michael Ian Black/Michael Showalter show was cancelled a week prior to the festival due to scheduling issues with their new Comedy Central series.) Saturday boasted three more shows in smaller venues, including the Jerkus Circus burlesque show that packed the backroom at The Burren pub and an early performance by what may have well been “the world’s first on-purpose all-Vegan comedy show.”
And, I think it was at the point that I was watching comedians perform in between two tables promoting vegetarianism and veganism or maybe sometime in the burlesque act when a man known as the Human Floor jumped up and down on broken glass and then Jamie Kilstein went on and destroyed that all doubt was cast aside and I thought to myself, jeez, this is alternative.
For more info on the AltCom festival, check out their official site.