Sunday, October 29, 2006

I Am, They Said

I don't really think there's a U.S. equivalent to Chortle but The Apiary is a site that covers the best parts of the New York comedy scene and is read regularly by both comics and fans. The other day (at my request, frankly, but they don't always listen to my requests), it noted and linked to this here Andrew J. Lederer Chortle blog.

For me, it was a satisfying, even exciting, occurrence. because it was another small but genuine indication that I exist. Sure, on this mortal coil, I'm sentient and therefore I am. But my am-ness on the New York comedy coil has been less verifiable.

Let's take a trip back to 1994.

I was living in Los Angeles and had become disaffected from what was then being called comedy. I'd given the mainstream a fair opportunity to demonstrate it was worthy of me, performing, socializing and agonizing at the L.A. Comedy Store and similar venues. But the creative and social limitations of the scene and, to be honest, my own shortcomings led me to take a breather and I determined I would not go back to stand-up until I could do it exactly as I wanted, in style and content.

One day, as I tended to the (metaphoric) rose garden of my own personal Elba, I was contacted by Beth Lapidus, an ambitious girl of many talents, who I'd met when I was mc-ing audition night at "The Store". She said she was starting a thing called the Un-Cabaret (she had used the name and concept earlier but for the purposes of our adventure, this is the beginning) and wanted to know if I was interested in appearing.

No, I told her. Maybe soon but not now.

Okay, she said. But I hope you'll come down.

Which I did. Only to discover, to my horror (in a way), that this effort was exactly what I had been looking for. It was a show where people were encouraged to do comedy in a freer, realer way. And its Luna Park debut was one of several defining moments that marked the beginning of the American "alternative comedy" scene.

Now, despite the shared name, American "alternative comedy" and British "alternative comedy" are not the same thing. Though they were both alternatives to prevailing comedic winds, American alternative was not an upending of music hall or television variety traditions. It was young people turning their backs on other young people, asserting there were other, better ways than the locked-in, kabuki-like rituals of the standard-issue American "road comic", forged in the hellish fires of the '80s "comedy boom".

It's possible someone heard the term used in Britain and applied it to this new scene in the States but it's equally likely to have been coined as a variation of "alternative music", which so many of "the kids" were into at that time. (You now hear the term "indie comedy" bandied about, for similar reasons.)

At any rate, I wasn't really horrified by the alternative I saw laid out in front of me, only by the realization that I was not yet part of it. So, it didn't take much time for me to decide to call Beth and tell I her I was ready to do the show. (I'm pretty sure she'd said to tell her when I was ready during our original conversation.)

But. Uh . . .

The short time that had passed since the original invitation was all the time that was necessary for the invitation to, in effect, be off the table. Among other things, it seemed there were a lot of other performers who felt as I did and had been looking for a show like this for a long time. The nights were pretty much booked up and a core group locked in quickly, many of whom would go on to great (American, at least) success, like Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk. The Un-Cabaret developed cachet and became the hip place to be for both performers and audience members.

After trying to get on it for a while (hadn't she asked me?), I was told by Beth's husband Greg that I should "send a tape".

But. Uh . . .

The "attitude factor" was one of a number of things that blocked my belated way in, some beyond my control and some due to my social insufficiencies (which have been addressed elsewhere in this blog). But regardless of the cause, the end result was that the thing I'd been looking for -- a place to be the kind of comedian I wanted to be -- existed and was growing and thriving without me.

(Long, deep sigh . . . )

Well, alternative comedy grew on both the west and east coasts (in New York, it was closely aligned with the performance art scene) and I eventually hopped onto the second tier, garnering appreciation and working very much as I'd wanted to, but never quite able to pierce the veil that separated the handful of top dogs from the yelping comedy canines running madly behind.

Until 1998.

In '98, I was scheduled to perform in what I call a "sandbag show" at a pizza place in Los Angeles. A sandbag show is where there's a group of people assembled who have no idea there's going to be a show. They settle in to eat and talk and laugh and whatever and then -- suddenly -- a sandbag is dropped on their heads.

They have to contend with a show.

There are three ways an "audience" can deal with this:
1. Get angry and resentful.
2. Be good sports and play along.
3. Willfully ignore the show -- act as if it isn't there and go on just as you'd planned to.

Well, the audience at this particular show opted for Number 3. But I was just as willful as they were. I had planned to do a piece about my youthful desire to sing like Donny Osmond and had even researched lyrics to make sure I got them right. I decided to do it just as I'd planned and performed it as if there was an attentive and appreciative crowd.

Meanwhile, the actual crowd "performed" their dining as if I didn't exist.

But. Uh . . .

There was one person out there who not only listened to what I had to say but loved it, And more than that, he loved the fact that I had performed the piece on my own terms under these, um, duressful conditions. This appreciative soul was another comic on the bill -- a certain Jeff Garlin -- who would go on to co-create and co-star in "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

Jeff introduced himself and told me he had a show every Thursday at Bang! Improv Theater and would I like to do it the following night. Sure, I said, and I showed up that next night to find no audience and the show canceled.

But he had me back the next week and every week thereafter and I performed alongside Greg Proops and Moon Zappa and Greg Behrendt and people started saying, "Who are you? How come we don't know about you?"

And stuff like that.

And a guy from the management company that handled Ray Romano saw me in a live sitcom put on by some alternative comics in New York and he told the writer/producer/star that he didn't like the show but that he liked me and I called him and he was glad that I had and he said he wanted to see me again and -- for the first time in a long time -- I really felt like something was happening.

And it kinda was.

Gradually (sort of), I shifted my base of operations to New York and I began performing regularly on a show called "Eating It at Luna Lounge", which was basically the showroom window of New York alternative comedy. After a few performances there, I began to feel a sense of expectation and excitement from the audience when I was introduced (which, to tell you the truth, was exciting for me.)

I got a pleasing east coast helping of "Why haven't we heard of you?" and when I was recognized by people who'd seen me on the Eating It shows, there was the sense that I was somehow important.

Pretty cool, huh?

But I had falling out with the Eating It peeps after I made a joke at the show's expense in a promotional e-mail (yeah, I know).

The Romano manager loved me but thought I was too "left of center". (He didn't mean politically).

Garlin tried to get me jobs like writing for "The Daily Show" but they were fully staffed and I didn't follow up properly . . .

And my progress stalled.

And I felt bruised and abandoned and took another hiatus

And I began to create for myself a world apart,

Fearful of being hurt, I produced my own shows and did things just the way I liked them. But I was operating in a vacuum. The "scene" moved on without me and eventually, I wasn't part of it. I was performing regularly but it was as if I was in a different dimension. So, last year when I read about The Apiary in a New York Times article about New York comedy, its existence was news to me. The scene didn't know about me and I didn't know about it.

But I was determined that would change.

I was about to emerge from my cocoon.

I had healed, I suppose, and decided I was ready to get back into battle. And one of the first things I did to announce my return to the killing (if you're lucky) fields was to e-mail The Apiary, asking to have my website added to its list of comedians' sites.

But he (it's run by a guy named Nate) not only didn't add me, he didn't even answer me.

And why should he have? Had he even heard of me? I wasn't doing the shows he went to. (Yeah, maybe he should have answered me but what would he have said?)

It was clear that I had my work cut out for me. I decided that from that point (in February 2006) until I left for Edinburgh, I would attempt to do all the good shows; all the shows that were well-respected; that had hip cachet; that had followings.

And I would do only these shows which meant I would be doing a lot less performing than I wanted to but that when I turned up, I would be turning up in the right places.

And that's just what I did. I didn't get on all the shows I wanted but I got on some of them. And whenever people saw my name, it was in the context of something good. By the time I left for Edinburgh, I had managed to summon up enough awareness of my existence to get mentions from the two big-deal, read-by-everyone-who-counts, New York blogs, Gothamist and Gawker. It seemed that slowly but surely, I was accomplishing what I had set out to do.

And then, right before I set out for Scotland, I had my first mention in The Apiary. It was as if I was an invisible guy who had suddenly become visible or a puppet being turned into a real, live boy.

A comedy scenester at The Rejection Show (one of the "meaningful" shows I had managed to do) dismissed my enthusiasm, saying, "You know, he's only some 20-year-old kid," or something like that. But -- so what?. It was a big deal to me. If I wasn't back, I was at least on my way in from the wilderness. And hell, my life in exile even turned out to be helpful to the cause.

You see, during my "wandering in the wilderness" , I began to live an actual life for the first time. Astonishingly, I went out just to socialize, rather than doing it as a by-product of performing.

My circle became a broader one. And people I met in "real life", like my friends at The Onion, have provided me with more help as I've attempted to vault this wall that I've built between me and the rest of New York comedy, than many or most of the people I know through performing.

And thar brings us back up to and explains my excitement over having been mentioned again by The Apiary the other day.

But wait.

Right on the heels of discovering The Apiary mention, I opened up the The Onion and saw a beautiful, full color, half-page ad for next week's show at Joe's Pub, featuring my name right alongside the highly sought-after acts who'll otherwise comprise the show.

I basked in the sunshine of the implied equivalency the ad's design gave me vis a vis the other, better-known performers.

I'm tellin' ya, I've gotten star billing in a couple of films and I don't think seeing my name alone on the screen at a major movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard was as exciting as seeing it in that ad.


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