Among the things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving week is that comedy, of the standup and other varieties, is in a very different place than it was 25 years ago. And for some of that, we have to thank the influence of UnCabaret, the alternative showcase that celebrated its 25thanniversary at the Theatre at Ace Hotel with a mostly all-star showcase that spent almost as much time looking inward at what it means to have a conscience in comedy as it did eliciting obvious laughs. Andrew “Dice” Clay was invoked as the common enemy when UnCabaret got seriously underway in the early ‘90s, and Louis C.K. as one now, so the question might be… how much has changed? A lot, actually.
Kicking off a three-hour commemoration that featured the likes of Patton Oswalt, Bob Odenkirk, Jill Soloway, Sandra Bernhard and Rebecca Corry, among many others, perennial host Beth Lapides recalled the origin story of the off-and-on weekly showcase. Waiting to go on in the Comedy Store’s Belly Room, Lapides was listening to Clay “doing his usual woman-bashing act… I was hating him for hating women, and the audience was laughing, and I was hating them for thinking it was funny, and then I was hating myself for hating everybody else,” Lapides said. “And I don’t do well with hate. I actually don’t do well with anger, which is unfortunate for a comedian. I do super-well with sadness… Anyway, there at the Comedy Store, I just had this thought: there’s got to be a better way. And that started to run through my brain like a lead singer… I said, you know what, I’m going to make you a show that’s going to be unhomophobic, unxenophobic, unmisogynist — it’ll be the UnCabaret.”
Stated that baldly, it might’ve sounded like a recipe for deneutered satire… the progressive equivalent of one of those “clean comedian” showcases. What’s comedy without its rudeness? But the UnCab comics found plenty of things to be rude about besides the fallback “–isms” that used to signal irreverence. Actual human feelings are rude, you’d realize on UnCabaret’s best Sunday nights at Luna Park in the late ‘90s or, until a recent cessation, Au Lac in the 2010s. As Lapides elaborated in her opening monologue this week, “Sadness is, by the way, the worst thing in Hollywood. You’re better off telling people you shoot up than you’re sad. Nobody wants to hear that shit — uh-uh. ‘I’m gonna catch it!’ You will catch it,” she threatened. “Emotions are catchy.”
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At least some of the greatness of UnCab could be traced to how much it could feel like the Sad Café. Lapides reminisced with the first performer, Julia Sweeney, about how she used the host’s mic at the back of the room to encourage the “SNL” alumnus to elaborate about her house burning down as a kid; if childhood trauma wasn’t fodder for comedy, what is? Sweeney didn’t need so much encouraging by the time she was diagnosed with cancer, doing regular UnCab sets on the subject that eventually turned into her successful “God Said, ‘Ha!’” one-woman show, and then book and film. Painful stories — the kind where minutes might go by without a punchline — were like heroin for audiences showing up for commiseration, not escapism. The best UnCabaret shows could come on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, when you’d get tales of true parent-and-adult-child estrangement that didn’t always end with a life lesson or chuckle. I was reminded of some of those nights at the Theatre at the Ace, as some of the guests brought those rough moments into their sets. Scott Thompson talked about having a mother with Alzheimer’s. “The first thing she forgot was that I was gay,” said Thompson. “She was still driving!… ‘Does your wife live off this turn?’” Bernhard declared that this particular night happened to be her father’s 96thbirthday — inevitable applause — followed by the casual addendum that they hadn’t spoken since he was 84. She’d resisted the urge to call him that day, instead preferring to prepare for this show… which was all about childhood memories, of course. “Happy birthday, Dad,” Bernhard said unexpectedly at the end of it, having made her call to 1600 strangers instead.
Politics have usually — not always — been more of an understood thing than an outright topic at UnCabaret. It probably goes without saying that a room that featured as many gay comics (or show runners moonlighting as comics) as UnCab did wasn’t a magnet for conservatives, and a sense of outrage was just taken for granted a lot of the time, as it was this past Sunday night. “We’re not supposed to be political,” said Odenkirk in his turn at the mic, maybe supposing too much. “But I think we can all agree: after Trump, no more presidents.”
Oswalt, not exactly a wallflower on political matters on Twitter, took it further, under the guise of not taking it further. “I don’t have any Trump material,” he claimed. “I don’t know what my function is during a Trump presidency. Everyone told me, ‘You comedians are going to be so happy with Trump as president. All this free material!’ Let me tell you what it’s like to be a comedian during the Trump presidency. The Trump presidency is an 18-wheeler full of monkeys on PCP that has crashed into a train full of diarrhea. And now there are diarrhea-covered monkeys on PCP running around and everyone’s watching it, and you as a comedian walk up and go, ‘Hey, do you want to hear a bit that I wrote about this?’ ‘I’m good. I’m just going to watch…’”
There were moments at the Theatre at the Ace show where you could imagine some of the performers having disagreements. Actually, it didn’t take much imagination in the case of Soloway, whose set was mostly about having evolved from identifying as straight and female to non-binary, and who been quoted in Variety last year as considering the recurring “SNL” sketch “It’s Pat” an “awful piece of anti-trans propaganda.” That Soloway was following Pat’s creator, Sweeney, on stage by less than 20 minutes made you wonder what kind of conversations may or may not have transpired backstage, especially since the “Transparent” creator raised the topic again — admitting to often having hummed the “Pat” theme as an inside joke to a friend when they came across androgynous types, when Soloway still identified as a heterosexual she.
Soloway also praised Corry for courage in bringing Louis C.K.’s sins to light and seemed to be indirectly suggesting that Oswalt’s preceding bit about the bizarreness of C.K.’s perversions understated the severity of his crimes, saying: “I just want to say that what Louis CK is about is not just this kind of fetish, like a fun kink. This is not comedy. This is just me taking a moment to say, he is taking that moment where he is jizzing because of the look of fear on the women’s face. … That is sexual abuse. He has abused many, many women and he should not be back on stage.”
You suspected Soloway could have also had an interesting debate with Scott Thompson, who appeared much later in the Ace show and spoke to the topic of someone who was an UnCabaret staple in the ‘90s and notably MIA at this reunion. It came up in the course of Thompson (of Kids in the Hall fame) discussing UnCab’s unprecedented gay-friendliness, actually. “Beth told me this was a different kind of a place,” he recalled of his uncertainty about jumping into the scene at Luna Park in the 1990s. “I arrived and there were all these gay guys doing standup — Mike McDonald and Michael Patrick King and other gay guys named Michael. Andy Dick? I’m still not sure. I’m still not sure,” he repeated, half-joking about Dick’s seemingly malleable identity. “Because there is so much room backstage for groping. I mean, I know we’re in a different time now, but I have to say, I kind of miss Andy Dick. Sometimes you need a wolverine backstage. I mean, I get it — comedy is much more inclusive now — but once in a while, you’ve got to let the wolverine out. I just don’t think comedians are going to survive the HR era!”
Sweeney’s performance dwelled at length on the ongoing debate over the Pat character, which tipped over into her own household as she raised a daughter in suburban Chicago who was unaware of her “SNL” background until it came up one day at school. “They said you were famous for playing this character who’s fat and drools all the time and they can’t tell if it’s a an or a woman. And I said, that’s your mom,” Sweeney recalled. “So we watched the Pat movie, and I haven’t seen it in 25 years. First of all, it is a really terrible movie. It only took me 25 years to fully admit that… At the end she goes ‘I don’t know, mom, I feel that movie is making fun of people…’ I said ‘No no no! The joke is on the people for whom it’s so important to know whether Pat is a man or a woman.’ I had this huge wave of defensiveness: ‘Pat was really celebrated by the gay community! Pat was the grand marshal of three gay pride parades! K.d. lang came to me herself and told me how much she loved it. And Prince, when he changed his name to that glyph and everybody at Paisley Park didn’t know what to call him and they stated calling him Pat, he liked it!’ And she said, ‘Ehhhhhhhh…’ I’m looking around going, oh my god, what have I done? Holy shit. Jesus Christ, was I the Al Jolson of androgyny?” In the end, Sweeney still stands by the concept — she wishes she’d gotten her chance to do a modern-day update of the sketch, in which it would be proved that Pat is not actually trans, because the character would “go to a gay pride information booth, and you find out that Pat is really homophobic.” But this public wrestling with changing mores proved true another precept of UnCab: that honest self-doubt is much funnier than aggro comedy ever could be.
The passing of time and the conference of legitimacy in middle age also turned up as recurring topics, given that the 25thanniversary show was taking place in a theater at least 10 times the size of any venue that’d hosted UnCab before, and that it was being presented by CAP UCLA, as the most irreverent entry on a calendar that includes Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Viet Thanh Nguyen and a lot of other artists who are less likely to devote 15 minutes to the horror of bikini waxes than Corry, or less likely than Laura Kightlinger to declare, “Our country is in the middle of an opioid crisis, and that’s the only nice thing I can say about it.”
“Look, I’m glad we’re here, but this is sort of celebrating CBGB at the Hollywood Bowl,” said Oswalt. “Revive the thrill of the Ramones at your garden seats, with a nice bottle of Silver Oak!’’ Said the great Andy Kindler, who manages to double as comic and comedy critic, “I’m the only one here whose career has gone no direction, either way” since the 1990s. Thompson owned up to his own trajectory, real or imagined. “When I first started doing this 23 years ago, it was my first time doing standup, and at the time, I was the biggest name. Tonight I was Bob Odenkirk’s Lyft driver. He’s telling me he’s gotta get home. I know, but please, read my spec script for ‘Better Call Sal.’”
There was much meds humor, naturally, from Maria Bamford, who was not around for UnCab’s ‘90s salad days, but who has clearly benefitted from and perfected the art of conversational candor that developed there, and from Greg Behrendt, who was an integral part of that original crew. Behrendt admitted his then more macho persona wasn’t always an easy fit with some of the other regulars — pointing out how Vince Neil was someone he “liked not ironically at the time, and I maybe was the only person among this group that had any concerns about him leaving Motley Crue.” At the Ace, he brought his teen daughter out on stage, and said, “What I have learned, as a person who has been diagnosed as being bipolar, is that 55-year-old bipolar men and 16-year-old girls are the same person.”
Odenkirk mocked the alternative-comedy ethos, or at least his ability to fit into it. “I came upon a discovery of something, which is, UnCab is about being yourself and talking about what really happened to you or what you thought or felt. And I discovered that people like me better when I’m not myself. ‘Oh, no, do that other thing, where you don’t tell me what you’re thinking.’” But he spoke to its value in saying, “In a lot of ways we were doing the demo tapes for the great stuff that everyone’s gone on to do. I like demo tapes more than the actual thing. The Beatles’ White Album demo tapes came out, and that’s all I listen to. I just want to hear them f—ing up. I don’t want to hear how good they can be. I want to hear human beings with lyrics trailing off and Paul going, ‘Aw — Yoko, again.’”
Lest it become completely a nostalgia fest, Lapides invited two younger comics who’d recently made an impression on the UnCab stage. Byron Bowers, an African American, might’ve seemed least likely to wear an American flag jacket onto the stage, but, as he explained, “They’re not going to shoot the American flag… Police don’t shoot patriotic people. ‘Freeze!’ ‘Oh, say can you see…’ It pisses the police off. They gotta stand there and take off their hat. The way some people sing it, that’s a 20-minute song.” Also representing the relative youth brigade was Alex Edelman, who, with all due respect to the old guard, was responsible for the most brilliant 15 minutes of the night at the Ace, as he recounted a stranger-than-fiction story of being a Jew who decided to attend a meeting of white supremacists and argue, upon admitting to his identity, that he was white, too. Edelman’s storytelling set established that it is possible to evoke gales of laughter and virtually Hitchcockian suspense, simultaneously.
We need their voices, as much as we needed Thompson’s when Lapides spent months in the ‘90s trying to convince him that a gay man didn’t need to do drag to do standup. “It was a different time. You couldn’t really be yourself,” Thompson said. “I was a gay man and you just couldn’t do that, so I had characters. That’s how I got onto Kids in the Hall, with a bag of wigs. So when you took my wig away, I felt naked. I mean, what is a gay comedian without a wig?” In recent years, especially as UnCab relocated downtown in the back room of Au Lac, there was a feeling that, on-stage and off, about half the room was gay, and half straight, which felt like a triumph of some kind of diversity in a city that continues to struggle more with the racial kind.
Michael Stipe would have approved: UnCabaret was an everybody-hurts kind of place. The past-tense part is unfortunate: Regular weekly shows halted a few months ago. It’s too great an L.A. cultural institution to let slip into the ether after a birthday party. On-stage, Lapides was cryptic about the future; off-stage, she said that “we are talking to a number of venues about launching a monthly show beginning in January,” and touring prospects and developing scripted projects are also part of the long-range revival plan. Maybe UnCabaret isn’t as necessary as it once was: As Oswalt said, “Coming up as a comedian, there was a lot of evil shit that you felt powerless to do anything about,” and clearly, that’s not so much the case anymore; “to see the power of the mass mind come about and steamroller these creeps feels so good.” But celebrating the fall of “Dice” privilege or Louis C.K.’s abusive free reign is just one thing. Comedy finding the cure for heartbreak? That’s a longer-term goal.