"Government shutdown!" comic Nick Kroll barked in his hearty imitation of a hack comedian. "Thank God they didn't shut down the laughter! What a show! Am I right?"
When the Comedy Central star Kroll strode onstage on a recent Saturday night as one of the top headliners of the Bentzen Ball festival in Washington, D.C. , he may have been ironically hailing a stellar festival that was already showcasing Tig Notaro, Garfunkel and Oates, Doug Benson, Moshe Kasher, Wyatt Cenac, Rachel Dratch, and the TV sitcom stars Kate Flannery and Megan Mullally, among many others. But, in fact, it turned out to be one hell of a festival that brought a hipper brand of comedy than is usually featured in most Washington, D.C. area comedy clubs. It was organized by the Brightest Young Things, a cultural website/marketing juggernaut that somehow discovers and promotes everything cool in the often still-stolid city of Washington, D.C.
But it was "curated" by the comic guru Notaro, whose career has been transformed by the comedic, heartfelt gold she spun from tragedy at her celebrated Largo set last year; she played the same taste-making, and curating role in organizing the first Bentzen Ball in 2009, named after a man who died laughing during a screening of A Fish Called Wanda. She and the leader of the Brightest Young Things, the charismatic, Russian-born Svetlana Legetic, chose to not bring back comedians from the earlier festival which included Notaro, Todd Barry, Patton Oswalt, and Sarah Silverman, among other comedic knock-outs.
Notaro's rising national prolile and occasional forays into a new openness about her own life have unleashed something boundlessly creative in Notaro. She has been known primarily for absurdist routines; carefully paced, dry stories like her Taylor Dane masterpiece; and meta-comedy lampooning the conventions of stand-up. She wowed the packed crowd at an opening night set at the 9:30 Club with many of those same elements, but she has become increasingly bold about incorporating "crowd work" and conceptual stunts involving the audience as a key ingredient of her stand-up act. At one point, she drew a woman from the crowd to share the spotlight, holding out the mike, as she asked the woman to spell "diarrheah" and use it in a sentence as part of a strange but funny spelling bee.
Notaro was virtually everywhere at the festival, outshining everyone in any setting with her spontaneous wit that's truly remarkable to behold in person, and not easily recreated in any print piece. You could see her unfurl her laconic, economical one-liners like a comic gunslinger, always on target, everywhere from the Doug Loves Movies podcast that included the Garfunkel and Oates team to the closing Sunday night show she co-hosted with Ira Glass. Advertised as Ira Glass And Friends -- leading to false hopes that it would showcase great story-telling by a cavalcade of festival stars -- it basically featured little else but some pre-recorded unaired This American Life segments, two modern dancers performing to radio pieces and Tig riffing with Ira Glass. On paper, it sounds like the ultimate self-satisfied "Stuff White People Like" show playing to the elitist NPR crowd, but through the magic of Tig's renewable resource -- her unstoppable, quick-witted, in-the-moment humor -- it proved to be often hilarious. With her dry wit, usually very clean, she wasn't afraid to exploit literal toilet humor when Ira Glass -- apparently slumming -- played for the audience an unaired story about David Sedaris struggling to flush an oversized turd down the toilet to illustrate material he couldn't use on his radio show. She immediately topped Sedaris and Glass with an elaborate tale about a friend of her sister who was so mortified by a large one she found that she felt she had no choice but to carry it around in her purse during a party.
Seizing the NPR moment, Notaro then quipped: "Turd Talk with Tig and Ira."
Later, she even showed her flair for physical humor by having the two dancers on the bill teach her what she asked were their hardest tap dancing moves -- and proceeded to essentially master them with an easygoing grace. "Are you sure that's your hardest?" she asked to loud laughter. As she shuffled along or got down on the all fours on the stage to crack jokes into the mike, it was hard to recall that she nearly died a year ago and was a recovering cancer patient -- now in remission -- with a double masectomy.
During the Benson podcast, when the movie trivia questions stumped her, she somehow wrung laughs by stalling and turning to her girlfriend, Stephanie Allyne of the Upright Citizens Brigade, standing off-stage, for answers. And when Allyne wandered off to take a break, and a female audience member offered suggested answers instead, Tig got even bigger laughs when Allyne returned by mock chastising her: "Do you know how long I held up the game while you were on your break? I even met a new woman!"
None of these sorts of jokes will go down in comedy history as classic "wisecracks," such as Grouch Marx's famous quip when a woman on his quiz show answered his question about why she had so many children by saying : "I love my husband very much." Groucho's instant response: "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth now and then." And her live work may not even be considered "improv" in a traditional sense, because unlike classic improvisational comics like Robin Williams, she doesn't typically break into extended characters with funny voices and elaborate routines at a moment's notice.
Yet Notaro's special brand humor is almost unfailingly hilarious ---which she regularly displays in her sold-out Professor Blastoff live podcasts with two comedy partners and guest slots on other comics' shows -- even as it is largely built around her responding to the most minute gaffes or statements that strike her quick-trigger imagination as worth lampooning. While usually offering a rapid-response comment that slays the audience, she also can seize on the slightest off-kilter phrase she hears and build it into a riff that's the comedic equivalent of an improvised Eric Clapton blues solo. Listen at approximately the 43 minute mark of this great podcast with comic actor Jeff Garlin, when Garlin says that the name Notaro sounds like "someone from a foreign land." Notaro mocks that phrase with delight and then builds, on the spot, a series of loopy comments and scenes that rival any of her most polished and carefully honed stand-up routines, leaving Garlin gasping for breath from laughter.
The often boorish Jimm Pardo arrogantly calls his podcast, "Never Not Funy," but that title is better bestowed on Tig Notaro anytime she's on stage. Even if one of her off-hand comments doesn't produce a huge laugh, she quickly "saves" it with a self-mocking comment, by holding out her hands in a parody gesture to get the crowd to calm down or even by playing off her famous personal tragedies: "Give me a break, I've been through enough."
In one famous routine, she had once mockingly referred to herself as a "he-she robot," but, in truth, what we see with Notaro onstage is a comedic mind akin to a super-computer at work, always alert and always listening, waiting for the single funniest thing to say at that precise moment. Even a hundred or more years from now, when there is some human-like 20th- generation IBM Watson hailed for its unrivalled artificial intelligence, no computer will be able to create the instant humor that Tig Notaro effortlessly unveils today every time she speaks into a mike.
One of the pleasures of the Bentzen Ball festival was that in a town noted for its well-educated population -- at least among the affluent who are employed -- none of the comics bothered to worry about being "too smart for the room." That offered a freedom to comedians like the hyper-literate Moshe Kasher who assumed, just as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen did in earlier generations, that a college-educated audience could keep up with all his references and fast-paced delivery. In an opening routine, building on his pan-racial confidence dervived from growing up tough, half-crazy and wild in the majority black schools he chronicled in his brilliant memoir, Kasher in the Rye, he kidded the Washington audience about its overwhelming whiteness and deadly serious jobs. "Some of you are straight up working for the Devil: you are weapons analysts and Arab killers," he said. "I wouldn't do that, but I respect it," comparing them to the under-employed "artisans" he encounters in Portland, Oregon. He then pivoted from those comments to launch into a routine about playing all-white audiences in St. Louis -- mistakenly expecting at least one black person to be in the audience -- then returning to his hotel to discover that he was staying in the hotel with a Jimmy Buffett "Parrot Head" convention. Meanwhile,an NRA conference was underway across town.
"You can't tell me that a Jimmy Buffet Fan Convention isn't so white that it somehow isn't classified as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center Watch List," he noted. If combined with the NRA convention, they would come together in a "Venn diagram" that would create a super-nova explosion of whiteness, producing a Godzilla-like Mitt Romney towering over St. Louis. Kasher never needed to slow down as his set moved along to explain or modify his vocabulary or concepts. Yet unlike other smarty-pants comics, like Greg Proops, the self-styled "Smartest Man in the World" on his podcast, or, before he became a right-wing crank, Dennis Miller, Kasher isn't jamming his routines with arcane references just to show off or to pander to his audience's smugness over having the good fortune to attend college.
Instead, he chooses his words carefully -- while unleashing them in a torrent of Gatling-gun speed language -- because they are precisely the right words to create the comic effects he wants. So when he mocks himself as looking like a "hipster dockworker," unloading "palates of banjos and Lumineer albums," it's of course a smart, boho reference that wins laughs, but it is paints a clear and amusing picture as well.
By the set's end, he told a long, touching but hilarious story with a twist ending about bombing to drunk crowds in Ireland and touring an idyllic Irish nature site as the only depressed loner on a bus among loving couples, then returning home to a rave response in a downscale Indianapolis club called Cracker's. "I'm normally not a patriotic man," he said at one point, pausing for a moment with a mock tearful quiver in his voice, as the crowd exploded in laughter, "but God bless America!" It became even clearer when he left the stage to exuberant applause that Kasher's fast-rising stock in the comedy world is due in large measure to the sheer excellence of his comedy writing. That's clearly demonstrated by his memoir that won deserved rave reviews: Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and then Turned 16. Little of the amusing and horrifying experiences he chronicles growing up the son of divorced deaf Orthodox Jewish parents while exploring the "wigger" criminal underworld of Oakland makes it into his routines today, and he refrained from creating a one-person show about his early life to put it all into a book that will, I expect, be discovered and read for years. Yet the street-smart confidence, self-awareness and daring of his memoir and of his youth -- he ever referred in one of his comedy routines as not needing anything so "pedestrian" as laughs from an audience -- helps make his stand-up work today at once so intelligent, funny and riveting.
Perhaps the biggest hit of the festival -- outside of the top star, Notaro -- was the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates, comprised of the comic actors and musicians Kate "Oates" Micucci, the short dark-haired one, and Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome, the tall, blonde woman who plays off her image as the glamorous wild girl. Like Kasher, they too, often pack their comedy songs with smart, fast-paced references that you have to keep up with to find if you heard them correctly. Yet the two performers are so cute, have such tight harmonies, offer such catchy melodies mixed with often vulgar sex jokes and make such wildly popular and slick videos -- like their spoof on homophobia, "Sex With Ducks" -- that it's small wonder they're sometimes seen as being just too damn appealing to maintain alt.comedy street cred. Now they're going to star in an IFC series next summer based on their lives as performers. So what if they're so lovable while being so delightfully vulgar? Yet even the critics who admire them sometimes dismiss the songs on their albums or videos as being too obvious, crude or repetitive.
But judging Garfunkel and Oates simply with nuanced critiques of the songs or videos is a bit like judging "Born to Run" solely by a home acoustic demo of the song rather than by Bruce Springsteen's barn-burning live performance of the anthem with the E Street Band.
Audiences were bowled over by the comedy duo, who earned perhaps the loudest and longest laughs of any of the performers at the festival. That's because Garunkel and Oates are phenomenal live perfomers, true comedy pros who are some alchemical mash-up of The Smothers Brothers and Sarah Silverman. For instance, in a song called "College Try," based on Lindhome's brief flirtation with lesbian experimentation when in college, they start with pseudo-flowery lyrics about the joys of femininity and openness to new experience: "There comes a time in everyone's life/When they choose stasis or they choose to grow/To be open to new views and experience/...You can't define those roles so rigidly/By saying someone's totally straight or totally gay/'Cause people are just people/And love today is omniexual..." Their harmonies swell and blend sweetly -- until Lindhome, after a drunken fling, discovers a vagina pressed against her face.
At that point, they break into a quick run-down of how surprisingly repulsed she was by being so close to a woman's vagina: "I thought it'd be smooth and non-threatening/ Or nonexistent like Barbie/Instead, it looks like a half-eaten Beef and Cheddar/In the garbage can at Arby's." But it wasn't the crude lyrics or surprise switcheroo that had the crowd howling, but the way they mimed their revulsion, screwing up their faces, shaking their hands and closing their eyes in disgust while running back and forth across the stage in girlish horror. Women and men were laughing equally hard at this moment of raw comedy as any "Vagina Monologues" political correctness flew out the window. Out of the hundreds of hours of "pussy" jokes and routines produced by men and women comedians over the decades, this may be the funniest ever -- no mean feat in such a crowded field.
Their latest video spoofs "The Loophole" in which devout Christian girls believe they can remain virgins while having anal sex because it's not, they believe, explicitly banned for heterosexuals in the Bible. In performance, Garfunkel and Oates build the song gradually through various rationalizations until they belt out in perfect harmony, "Fuck me in the ass 'cause I love Jesus!," the comedy shock value convulsing the audience -- even if the impact of such lines on a live audience isn't obvious when recounted in cold print.
Garfunkel and Oates appeared at least twice -- once for a short four-song performance on a Friday night showcase headlined by the amiable and amusing Doug Benson and Moshe Kasher, and then for a longer set on a Saturday night show devoted to music in comedy. It's hard to be very funny and genuinely musical while performing songs outside of the context of the story-line and acting offered in musicals such as The Producers or The Book of Mormon. That's why the number of truly hilarious singer-songwriters can be listed on practically one hand: Martin Mull, Tom Lehrer, "Weird Al" Yankovich (thanks to parodying popular songs), and sometimes Tenacious D with Jack Black. But Garfunkel and Oates pulled it off with aplomb, because they are, in fact, comic actors who take their smartly conceived songs and then turn them into funny set-pieces on stage or in their well-produced videos.
Yet on the same bill as Garfunkel and Oates was another comedy singing duo, The Lampshades, a parody of an over-the-hill cruise ship act that may have offered the richest and deepest comedy of the entire festival. It featured Kate Flannery, who played the drunken, slatternly Meredith on The Office and Scott Robinson, an improvisational actor known from The Wizards of Waverly Place TV show and Anchorman. They've been playing this duo for over a decade with monthly gigs at the iO West comedy club in Los Angeles and as opening acts. With an oversized red wig, dressed in an all-red, too tight pantsuit, and equipped with a surprisingly good voice, Flannery, a master of physical comedy and over-the-top characters, plays the role of a washed-up vixenish singer who is not-so-secretly pining for her drunken lout of a singing partner to fall in love -- again? -- with her. While she loudly insists, "We are not a couple!," the backstory of their dysfunctional "relationship" -- whatever it was or is -- gradually unfolds during their cheesy renditions of pop and rock classics, including mash-ups of the ballads "Mandy" and "Brandy" while her partner wanders off stage in search of a drink. Probably the biggest laughs came during an uproarious slow, purportedly "sexy" version of the Doors' "Light my Fiya," with Flannery, as the singer Kassie Chew, doing outrageous squats and shaking her rump at the audience.
Yet what Flannery is doing more than just another parody of a lounge singer as Bill Murray did years ago on SNL. Instead, she's built a comic character with an off-stage life and personal history we're only barely glimpsing as she propositions the men in the audience and struggles to finish her set with not much help from her singing partner. It's funny and heartbreaking, and a brilliant comic creation that deserves to be widely seen.
But the headlining closing act, featuring actress Megan Mullally with the most high-powered band and strongest production values, was a reminder that humor and music don't always mix so well. Mullally is a strong singer and she delivered her ironic take on old rock and roll well, but even with guest rapping by her husband Nick Offerman, compared to the hilarious earlier acts there were long stretches of silence even as they won strong applause for their musical chops.
The Bentzen Ball festival also provided a spotlight on lesser-known performers, but there were few breakout stars who emerged from the various showcases. Perhaps the two best of these stood out because they each had a unique stage presence, coupled with sometimes provocative material. They were Seaton Smith, a high-energy, finger-popping black comedian, actor and filmmaker who will be co-starring with John Mulaney in an upcoming Fox series; he offered some of the most transgressive recent material I've seen on race relations by spoofing Martin Luther King's promiscuity, opening that bit by noting "Martin Luther King was a whore." The other truly fresh voice was Martha Kelly who has appeared on Conan and Last Comic Standing, who had a low-keyed, deadpan style that while it may borrow a bit from early Tig Notaro, with whom she has toured, but she's added her own unique stamp of mordant humor -- including showing her skill by even finding humor in a routine on the death of her aging pets.
The organizers of the festival, the Brightest Young Things, were justly proud of pulling together ten shows across the city featuring 35 out-of-town comedians and selling well over 6,000 tickets. Of course, it's not yet a comedy festival with the scope of a Montreal or a Sydney or even an Austin, but it's smartly chosen -- thanks in large part to Tig Notaro -- and an incredible accomplishment for a media organization that makes up with energy and intelligence what they may not have in a large paid staff. On the group's website, after displaying countless backstage and showtime photos from eight photographers, the leaders vowed, "NEXT YEAR WILL BE EXPLOSIVE!" They added, "We'll look to stick to that one." Based on this year, that seems a promise they'll be able to keep.