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Cameron Esposito Is Tired of Talking About Rape Jokes

“I’m really happy about it,” the comedian says of her recent stand-up special, Rape Jokes, which she released for free on her website back in June. “And I’m happy we’re having this conversation, and I’m, like, so ready for this to not be my life.”

Esposito is perched on the edge of a high-backed velvet chair in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in Montreal, the hub of the annual Just for Laughs comedy festival. She’s just given a talk, moderated by IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller, in a small conference room for an audience of about fifty men and women (but mostly women), titled “Rape Jokes and Resilience.” It’s been an intense couple of months of interviews and press appearances to promote Rape Jokes, and Esposito is thrilled at the positive response it’s gotten. But she’s ready for it all to end. “I kind of just want to go out to dinner with folks.”

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It’s not a coincidence that Esposito’s special — which masterfully reorients the conversation about rape jokes from the perspective of a survivor — was released in the wake of a near-global reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. As mainstream media outlets continued to report on the #MeToo movement, Esposito noticed a troubling pattern: The stories quickly shifted focus from the victims of assault to its perpetrators, the prominent men who’ve been exposed as abusers and subsequently fired or suspended from their jobs. There seemed to be endless questions about how and when these men should return to public life — the “redemption arc,” as Esposito puts it — and yet very little consideration of life for their victims in the aftermath of rape or assault.  

“It was just that I didn’t see someone else doing it,” Esposito says of her special. “I was like, ‘Surely this title exists.’ I was waiting for someone else to do it, and it didn’t get done, so I did it.”

Like the material itself, the process of filming and releasing Rape Jokes was unique. In preparation for her taping, Esposito first toured the hour around the country, but in much smaller venues — fifty to a hundred seats — than the large theaters she’s graduated to at this point in her career. She did this for the comfort of the audience members, some of whom may have been survivors themselves, and for herself; she wasn’t sure how it would feel to open herself up like this, to come out onstage and talk about herself as a survivor of rape.

The shoot came together in just six days. The UCB Theatre on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles — where Esposito lives with her wife, the comedian Rhea Butcher — donated space, and many others donated their time to film and edit the special. The website that houses Rape Jokes, along with a link to donate to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), was built in nine days; the special was released a little over two weeks after it was taped. The total budget was a paltry $2,800. Although anyone can go to cameronesposito.com and watch the special for free, to date, viewers have donated over $65,000 to RAINN.

“I did this with no network behind me. So I don’t look at this as scalable to literally anything,” Esposito says. “I’m very proud of the engagement that I had with the folks who care about me and the friends I have in the industry who supported this project, because that actually has never been done before.”

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For Esposito, art and activism have always been entwined. Growing up Catholic in suburban Chicago, she dreamed of becoming a priest; later, she went to school to be a social worker. Her career in comedy has always converged with her identity as a queer person, and her desire to create safe spaces for other marginalized people. “When I look back on it, and I wasn’t aware of this at the time — I think I started stand-up to make myself safer,” she says. “Like, come out to everybody in the audience at once in a way where they essentially can’t kill me. There’s witnesses. I don’t think I felt very safe as a queer woman, and I think that this was a path that I used to mitigate risk. I also think I’ve always had the perspective that that bubble of safety shouldn’t end at my body. I wanted to create that for other folks.”

It’s a lot of emotional labor to take on, on top of the grueling routine of nonstop performing and touring that all stand-ups endure. A straight white man doesn’t necessarily have to explain to his audience how the world looks through his eyes, and what it feels like to move through the world in his body. Esposito and Butcher host a weekly stand-up showcase in L.A. called Put Your Hands Together, and Esposito describes a recent show “where this guy got up and was just telling one-liners. He was so good at it. He’s a straight white dude. And they were so funny, and I was just like, ‘Oh man, I’m so jealous of that.’ ”

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But, she adds, “that’s not a life I’ve ever lived.” A straight white comic might be more famous and successful, might be more likely to land a major network deal, but Esposito has something else. “In a way that is uncomfortable but also beautiful, I am important to people in a way that some folks who do my job are not,” she says. Just before we sat down to talk, she was handed an envelope with her name on it and a hand-drawn rainbow — a note from someone in the audience at her talk. She gets that a lot. “People wait a long time to talk to me after shows, they tell me stuff, they bring me things, they burst into tears. It’s a different thing. And I am grateful to have that.”

She’s also no doubt grateful to move on from this chapter — to not have to get up onstage, or sit for interviews in hotel lobbies, and talk about rape. After all, she’s not a crisis counselor; she’s a stand-up comedian. She plans to tour new material in the fall, and to sell vinyl copies of Rape Jokes — the proceeds, of course, will go to RAINN. But even as she moves forward with her career, she’s made what looks to be a lasting mark on the culture of comedy. “My goal,” she says, “was to be the number one Google result when you type in ‘rape jokes.’ ”

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The Very Best of Just for Laughs’ New Faces Showcase

Montreal’s annual Just for Laughs comedy festival is the biggest of its kind in the world, with over 350 artists performing over the span of a couple of weeks. It’s the kind of overwhelmingly scheduled event where you can see Maria Bamford, Todd Glass, Mike O’Brien, and Chris Gethard in one night. But perhaps the greatest joy of JFL is discovering new talent, the unfamiliar names that could very well be the festival’s future headliners.

Twenty comedians from across the United States took the stage at Montreal’s historic Monument-National theater on Wednesday night for the New Faces showcase — a series that has given rise to some of the most prominent names in comedy today, including Amy Schumer (2007), Jimmy Fallon (1996), Ali Wong and Jerrod Carmichael (2011), Pete Davidson (2013), and Michelle Wolf (2014). Below, the most promising stand-ups from the 2018 crop.

https://youtu.be/sTlmSYQGY6A

Rosebud Baker
A sardonic blonde clad in black, Rosebud Baker brought serious New York vibes to her set; you could practically smell the stale cigarette smoke when she stepped out onto the stage. That’s a compliment! Baker’s no-nonsense, wickedly dirty routine cut through the evening like barbed wire. “I am straight,” she professed, “in spite of this pussy-eating voice.”

Emmy Blotnick
This bookish New York–dwelling Jew took a real shine to Emmy Blotnick, whose relatively quiet, almost sheepish voice belies her cutting sense of humor. (I don’t want to spoil her wonderfully blue jokes about The Rock.) Her opening bit about superhero movies had the audience in stitches: Don’t guys realize, she joked, that when they take women to movies with titles like Captain War: America Man, they’re just giving them two and a half hours to contemplate who else they could be dating? “No more three-hour movies about Happy Meal toys fighting on a rock,” she declared. Amen.

 

Kenny DeForest
“Keep it going for the white race, everybody!” DeForest, an affable bearded white guy based in New York, joked as he took to the stage. DeForest — who recently took over hosting duties for Hannibal Buress at the Knitting Factory’s weekly comedy series — is the nice white guy next door, a sort of everyman with a straightforward, matter-of-fact delivery that goes a long way when your jokes are centered on the inherent creepiness of men and why they should all feel terribly guilty about it. Speaking of the male sex organ, DeForest quipped, “If I see a woman I’m attracted to, it fills with blood. What is this, a horror movie?”

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Jourdain Fisher
This “nonthreatening black guy number two,” as Jourdain Fisher introduced himself, talked about growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in a family that owned a funeral home. “When I heard gunshots growing up,” he quipped, “that meant it’s gonna be a good Christmas.” Fisher killed with his closing bit about how white people have no “natural predator,” thus feel the need to make up shit like Game of Thrones. In a white-guy voice that Boots Riley would approve of, Fisher mused, “What if there were zombies and dragons?”

Erica Rhodes
A diffident blonde who, from a distance at least, is a dead ringer for a young Maria Bamford — with the high, pinched voice to match — Erica Rhodes has a cerebral style that manifests in lots of wordplay jokes. After disclosing that her father uses a wheelchair, she remarked on the head-scratching concept of the fundraising walk for Multiple sclerosis. It seems “disrespectful,” she said, adding, “Sorry, dad. When I have an idea I run with it.”

Paris Sashay
This D.C. native, now living in New York, announced her frisky, good-humored energy right on her shirt — a white tee with the word “Paris” in black block letters printed all over it. With a voice and laid-back vibe that reminded me of Wanda Sykes, Sashay began by taking a moment to acknowledge and appreciate one positive by-product of Trump’s election: the spectacle of two factions of white people, the president’s supporters and critics, who vehemently despise each other. It’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s other dream!

Usama Siddiquee
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, look no further than Usama Siddiquee, who brought such exuberance to his set it almost tired me out. A Texas-bred, New York–based comic with a madcap energy, Siddiquee has an uber-confident stage presence — which I guess you’d have to, with a name like that. “My name is Usama,” he introduced himself. “No relation.” Observing that these days, we often assume the worst of white guys, he asked a white man in the audience to say “hi”; when the man obliged, he turned to the rest of us and said, we all heard just a whisper of the “N” word there, didn’t we?

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Nina Tarr
This SoCal native just oozes L.A. One of her bits, which would likely go over better in a West Hollywood club than an 800-seat theater in Montreal, is a character she calls Plastic Surgery Face — a woman with a permanent duckface who talks in a voice she describes as “BILF”: “Baby I’d like to fuck.” “Are you my Uber?” she whined. Tarr can manipulate her voice and her face into hilariously twisted impressions, like her set-ending one of Robert De Niro’s face while giving a blow job. Try it sometime!

Ron Taylor
Originally from Detroit, Ron Taylor has an appealingly scrappy vibe — he began his set by describing his early days in Los Angeles, when he lived out of a van and stole precious shower time from women he’d meet on Tinder. “If you’re looking for friends,” he warned women on dating apps, “go to the park. This is the internet! We’re here to fuck!” Taylor’s energy and ease is infectious; he’ll let out a cackle after one of his own jokes, and his enjoyment boosts ours. Plus he’s got a kick-ass abortion joke, after which he defensively declared, “Y’all can kiss my ass; that’s funny.” No argument here.

Zach Noe Towers
“I am super gay,” Zach Noe Towers announced at the start of his set, “in case there are any deaf, blind people in the room.” An L.A. transplant from the Midwest, the skinny, blond Towers has the boyish irreverence of Please Like Me‘s Josh Thomas, and the flippant wit of the “asshole” played by Max Jenkins on High Maintenance. “I was raised super Catholic,” he divulged. “Anyone else … get molested?” (Relax, it was a joke!)

Jeremiah Watkins
Now based in L.A., this lanky blond from Kansas is a great voice artist; he started his set with a side-splitting impression of Kings of Leon — “if they were lost in the woods.” Watkins uses the whole animal in his act — his stringbean of a body and his remarkably versatile voice were both put to good use. And his Michael Caine impression could go toe-to-toe with even the sharpest British comics.

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Wow, Catherine Cohen Has an Amazing Voice

On a warm night in June, Catherine Cohen stepped onto the stage at Joe’s Pub in a red silk jumpsuit and cat-eye sunglasses, her puff of long brown hair swept off her face, and approached the microphone. “Hell-ooo,” she trilled. “Wow. I have an amazing voice.”

It was the comedian’s first show at Joe’s Pub, the cozy cabaret venue at the Public Theater, and the crowd was packed and pumped. As audience members sipped cocktails, Cohen tossed her hair, removed her sunglasses, and jumped into her first song, an introductory number in which she explains, “Boys never wanted to kiss me/So now I do comedy.”

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“Wasn’t it so fun?” Cohen remarks when I meet her, a couple weeks later, at a fashionably austere café in Prospect Heights. Dressed in a lime-green tank top and yellow skirt, the 26-year-old is still feeling the high of her show — her first with a full band — which she titled after one of her tweets: “The Twist? … She’s Gorgeous.” The show sold out so quickly, the venue immediately added another, on July 31 — which, at press time, is itself very nearly sold out. Not bad for a girl who used to obsessively scroll through YouTube videos of Joe’s Pub performances as a high-schooler in Houston, Texas. Five years after landing in New York City, Cohen is already ticking items off her bucket list. It’s probably not much of a twist to note that she’s really fucking funny. Our coffees arrive, and she pauses before answering one of my questions. “There was literally a bug on my hand. Like, hello!”

Through short, peppy original songs written with her pianist, Henry Koperski, Cohen both channels and satirizes the joys and frustrations of the young New York woman. The music itself ranges in style from jazzy lounge numbers to perky show tunes to pumping disco anthems, depending on what Cohen is lampooning. Her style isn’t far afield from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, who shot to fame on the basis of satirical songs she’d post on YouTube. Cohen’s act also calls to mind a less vulnerable Lena Dunham, or a more animated Amy Schumer — both of whom Cohen cites as inspiration, along with other funny women like Bridget Everett (a Joe’s Pub regular), Greta Gerwig, Molly Shannon, and Melissa McCarthy. “I don’t ever want to see anything that doesn’t have a female lead,” she admits, laughing. “I don’t care.”

Cohen did musical theater in high school before studying English and theater at Princeton; her parents work in business, she says, but have always been supportive of her creative aspirations. “They’re both very funny,” she adds. Like any fresh-out-of-college New York transplant with comedic aspirations, Cohen took classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. But she found her creative footing by being herself. She did some characters — she first hooked up with Koperski a couple years ago to write an original song for a character she was trying out, Imogen Dragons, a ukulele-sporting singer with a “yogurt-y indie girl voice” — and had precisely one straight musical-theater audition when she first arrived in the city after graduating from Princeton in 2013. “I went to one audition and I was like, kill me, end my one life,” she recalls. “It was forty women who looked like me in a room wearing the same outfit, waiting for twelve hours to sing one second of ‘Gimme Gimme’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was like, this is not my scene.”

Instead, she’s created her own scene, producing and hosting a weekly comedy show called Cabernet Cabaret at Club Cumming, the East Village hangout that actor/singer Alan Cumming opened last fall. (At one recent show, Cohen made a dramatic entrance, parting the red velvet curtains behind the club’s tiny stage and issuing a request in a voice dripping with grandeur: “There’s some natural light pouring in from the back and I simply cannot have that.”) It was there that she workshopped the songs that make up her one-woman show, which she also performed at Caroline’s on Broadway in the spring as part of their breakout artists series. Cumming, who calls himself a “major fan,” describes Cohen’s humor as “a sort of hybrid of character and confession which cuts a raw, deep, side-splitting incision into the vein of urban contemporary existence.”

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Cohen pays the bills doing voiceover work in “commercials for female-oriented products,” as she puts it — past stints include Olay, Schick razors, and Special K; basically any product for which a woman in a flowing white dress might appear in an ad, beckoning the prospective customer with promises of youth, beauty, and a tight ass. Her act befits a woman who is the voice of feminine consumerism but knows deep down that it’s a con job. “Voiceover me is a cool, sexy chick who knows what’s up and doesn’t give a shit,” Cohen says. “And comedy me, like, could not care more.” In her songs, Cohen plays a heightened version of herself — “a total cartoon of this glamorous woman I dreamed of being.” Her songs go down surprisingly winding roads; one breezy number about the magic of springtime devolves into an extended fantasy about murdering a guy who once touched her lower back at a party and made a joke about raping her.

Quoting Cohen doesn’t do her justice, though. It’s her delivery that kills, her ability to slip in and out of voices and personas — from a nasally hot-baby-girl squeal to a British-inflected grand dame to a whispery, seen-it-all vixen of the city — like they’re so many silk robes. Her dominant tone is a kind of self-contempt laced through with humblebrags: I’m such a mess; isn’t it adorable? The fact that Cohen has a legitimately lovely, and versatile, singing voice, only makes the tunes funnier. She’s doing something similar to what Lena Dunham did when she burst forth on the scene with the groundbreaking Girls in 2012 — self-deprecation as survival, weaponizing her perceived flaws before anyone can use them against her, all while making it very hard for critics to deny her talent and vision.

When I mention that her act reminds me of Dunham, Cohen tenses for a moment: “Do you hate her?” In the years since HBO premiered Girls, Dunham has become a punching bag for men and women, left and right, but I assure Cohen that no, I think Dunham’s a genius. “That’s how I feel,” Cohen says. “I totally get that she’s done some stupid shit; she’s a person. But at the end of the day, what she’s done is so groundbreaking. I get emotional even thinking about it because when I saw that first episode of Girls when I was in college, and I saw her body and I saw her fucking and talking about sex and enjoying it, I was like, if I had seen this when I was in high school I would have thought about myself totally differently.”

Catherine Cohen

Like Dunham, and Schumer, and so many other comedians Cohen admires, she’s determined to create a space for herself. Maybe she’ll land a role in a TV show, or, more likely, write one herself. If she “books,” she may travel to Los Angeles. “I want to go back and forth,” she declares, “gorgeously.” She rattles off a list of her faves, her inspo, her mental mood board: “Jenny Slate; I’m so obsessed with her. Insecure is so fucking good. Fleabag, are you serious? I Love Dick, amazing. I want to make something like that, just showing different kinds of women, how fucking cool they all are. And how funny and smart and human they are.”

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When a Terrible Movie Makes for an Epic Night Out

There are few greater pleasures than picking apart a hilariously terrible movie with your friends — which is probably why How Did This Get Made?, the podcast hosted by comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas, has been going strong since 2010. The three pals (Raphael and Scheer are married; it’s all very adorable) pick a bad movie, watch it, and shred it; there are nearly 200 episodes to date in which the gang dissects everything from contemporary blockbusters like Hurricane Heist to sci-fi flops like Ultraviolet to classic so-bad-it’s-hilarious movies like Mariah Carey’s notorious 2001 star vehicle Glitter, or Britney Spears’s infamous foray into film, Crossroads.

Scheer, Mantzoukas, and Raphael did their first live show at L.A.’s Largo in 2011, and since then have sporadically toured a live version of the podcast. On July 18, the trio will host a live taping of HDTGM? at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where they’ll perform two shows back to back. The Voice spoke to Scheer and Mantzoukas (Raphael was unavailable, not overlooked!) about taking their show on the road and the bonding power of a truly awful movie.

Matzoukas, Raphael, and Scheer at a “How Did This Get Made” live show with guest Hannibal Burress

Tell me about the movies you’ve picked for these BAM shows.

Paul Scheer: We have an amazing intern who does the hardest job of HDTGM; she’s an unsung hero. She watches so many movies and gives us her selections. We saw we had [shows booked at] the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and what better way to celebrate that than by watching Pavarotti’s first and only acting role in Yes, Giorgio, a romantic comedy.

What’s it about?

PS: It’s about an opera singer who moves to New York and loses his voice. And love brings it back. And for the late show it’s a movie called Beastly, and Beastly is a teen take on Beauty and the Beast. So the thematic connection is like, these two impossible, brutish kind of monsters that heal themselves through love.

Who’s your intern?

PS: Her name is Avaryl Halley. She runs this [account] on YouTube called Movie Bitches and they’re known for their RuPaul’s Drag Race recaps, which are pretty fantastic. And she’s also the person who, if you’re familiar with the show, does amazing stuff — like, Jason in a show said, “I would love to see Ladybugs but a David Lynch version,” and she edited an amazing trailer of Ladybugs as directed by David Lynch.

Why did you decide to start doing a live version of the podcast?

Jason Mantzoukas: For us it was a no-brainer. All of us are very seasoned live performers, we’re very comfortable in front of an audience, we’ve spent a lot of time together onstage in shows at UCB and so forth. We did it at Largo in Los Angeles, and I was very pleased and heartened that not only people came, but people would be like, “We drove down from San Francisco,” or “We flew from Seattle.” That was a real indication that this could travel.

PS: It helps put it in perspective. We’ve been doing this podcast for a long time. Live podcasts now are kind of the norm — you have Pod Save America doing Radio City Music Hall. But when we were starting, we were the first podcast that had done Largo. Not to be like, Old Man Podcast, but when we first started doing it, it was just different. We felt like we needed to dress it up. What we realized was, people are really enjoying just watching the podcast.

JM: Podcasting is such an intimate thing. Something I hadn’t anticipated is, the fans are excited to be meeting and hanging out with each other. This thing I normally do alone when I’m folding laundry or at the gym, I’m instead surrounded by people who also share in all the inside jokes, have also been having this same experience privately. It’s fun to watch people get excited about that.

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Is there a lot of interaction with the audience during a live show?

PS: The thing that’s fun about the live shows is everyone comes prepared. I’d say over 70 percent of our audience has a sheet of paper or notebook with them that has their thoughts on the movie, which is important because at a certain part of the podcast, we go out to the audience — hey, what do you guys think? What did we miss?

JM: It’s not at all a passive audience. They come with notes, they’ve meticulously watched and researched the movie, made homemade T-shirts, they’ll make posters. It almost feels like the fandom that one would associate with some of the movies we do, like The Room or these participatory film experiences.

PS: I think podcasts in general breed a very nice audience. I’m constantly surprised by, and kind of blown away by, the people who are in full costume. Seeing them do some cosplay for a movie like Yes, Giorgio will be really fun.

The show reminds me of one of my favorite old columns on this website Videogum that no longer exists, called “The Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time.” I honestly feel my love of this column helped make me a critic. Has doing this podcast changed the way you think about criticism, whether it’s criticism of your own movies or just criticism in general?

PS: The thing that I love about that column, and what we do in our show, is it comes from an ultimate love of movies. The thing that turns me off about criticism is when it feels like it’s coming from a place of anger, or just shitty for shitty’s sake — I want to be that line on Rotten Tomatoes that’s a snarky comment.

I’ve been doing this show with Amy Nicholson, who’s a critic, and I love reading her stuff. We’ve been [talking about] good movies on this show Unspooled. One of the most interesting things that we’ve found is, a lot of great movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane and Wizard of Oz get these kind of bad or mediocre reviews [at the time]. One person who’s been amazing for me is Pauline Kael, who will be like, “I think Platoon is a shitty movie, but I think Oliver Stone is a really good director.”

JM: Growing up, I watched Siskel and Ebert review the week’s movies, I read all the reviews in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, and Rolling Stone. Now, we live in a world in which there is criticism everywhere. We are overwhelmed by criticism. While I know that we fall into some category of that, I hope that people are coming to us for enjoyable content, not necessarily a critical eye on these movies.

Are there movies that you know are bad but have too much affection to submit them to the HDTGM treatment? Like, I love the movie Elizabethtown, but I recognize that it’s terrible in many ways.

JM: I love the movie Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer. I remember as a kid just loving it. I’m sure it’s not good and is worthy of being on the podcast, but I just had such genuine, deep love for it, and would watch it all the time as a VHS rental.

PS: That’s what I love about this show — we get excited for these movies. You can still find fun stuff, even if they’re not critically the best.

JM: Or critically the worst. Sometimes movies that are really very bad, I would not want to do either, because it’s joyless. There is a joylessness to trying to do Avatar: The Last Airbender, because it’s so bad it’s genuinely uninteresting. What makes a movie good for us is people taking big swings, and it doesn’t land. That’s interesting to talk about.

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Do you ever regret featuring a movie on the podcast?

JM: A couple of times in the beginning we just chose movies that I think, like I said, Avatar: The Last Airbender, I just feel was not a great choice.

You really don’t like that movie.

JM: It just was boring.

PS: We bring it up a lot because that was the movie that I think really was our turning point — like we have to vet these a little bit better. The only other one I would put in that category is, we did Sharknado, the first one, because we’re like, we gotta talk about this movie. And then it felt like they kept forcing it. I think the first one was organic, and then they started going, we’ve got to go crazier. That sort of stops being fun.

Have you ever walked out of a movie because it was so bad?

PS: I went to see this action movie called The Last Action Hero, it was an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and I got so close to walking out but I just sat in the last row. I couldn’t pull the trigger on leaving.

JM: Going to the movies as a kid was such a special, awesome thing. If I’m in a movie that’s actively bad I feel like I can’t leave. I have to see this through; I’ve made some sort of contract with this movie. I still feel that way.

Fair enough. I walked out on K-PAX, but I guess you guys are nobler than I.

JM: I would not have gone to see K-PAX.

I was too young to choose the movie!

PS: I saw K-PAX on a date.

JM: Oh my god.

How was the date?

PS: It was great. It’s so funny, the first date that June and I ever went on, I wanted to go see Million Dollar Baby and she wanted to see this movie called A Love Song for Bobby Long, which was John Travolta playing this alcoholic Southerner. I always look back at that movie and think, that was a great connection in our relationship because we pretty much chatted back and forth throughout that movie, and that connected us so much better than just watching Million Dollar Baby.

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Sacha Baron Cohen Is Back to Help America’s Politicians Embarrass Themselves

For those who thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s in-character interview shtick couldn’t withstand the comedian’s post-Borat fame, a new Showtime series is here to prove you wrong. Who Is America?, premiering tonight at 10 (for subscribers, the first episode is online now), features Cohen in a variety of disguises, exposing America for the sloppy circus of hatred and grift it’s become since his most famous incarnation immigrated from Kazakhstan to the land of freedom and opportunity. This time, though, he’s got some new arrows in his quiver: a trunkful of prosthetics and a nation devoid of shame.

The opening credits sequence features a montage of famous, stirring speeches by past American presidents, set to images of golden fields of wheat and triumphant events like the moon landing; then, like a record scratch, Donald Trump appears, infamously mocking a disabled reporter at a campaign rally. From there, Cohen and his team of producers proceed to humiliate congressmen, RNC delegates, lobbyists, and more by setting traps into which the show’s unknowing participants enthusiastically nosedive. (Beyond obviating the need for a marketing budget, the number of politicians who have issued statements in the wake of Showtime’s announcing the series, claiming they were unduly duped by Cohen’s trickery, is almost more entertaining than the episodes themselves. It’s not a sideshow; it is the show.)

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Cohen uses several characters to set his traps, including Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a cowboy-hat–sporting conspiracy theorist who claims to have a PhD and directs viewers to his website, Truthbrary.org (as in, the opposite of lie-brary); Dr. Nira Cain, a self-professed “self-hating white male” with a ponytail and a potbelly who bikes around his native Portland wearing an NPR T-shirt and a pussy hat over his helmet; Rick Sherman, a British ex-con and aspiring artist; and Erran Morad, an Israeli terrorism expert and one-time Mossad member with a scar slashing through one eyebrow and an appropriately lumbering gait.

Each character’s scenes are presented in the style of their own separate reality shows, with unique title fonts (Dr. Cain’s segment is titled “Healing the Divide,” rendered in pink lettering against a blue sky), music, and editing to suit the distinct personalities of their hosts. Who Is America? is as much a critique of reality TV as it is American politics (at this point, what’s the difference?). All that tone-hopping can make the show a little disjointed, but it’s certainly never boring. At times Cohen struggles to keep his American accents on course as he veers ever so slightly into his own British intonation. But with the exception of Rick Sherman — whose portion of the pilot had little to do with American politics and thus seemed lifted from another show entirely — Cohen employs these alter egos like a sharp shooter, pointing them in the direction of carefully selected interviewees who mostly proceed to make fools of themselves, as if on cue.

In the first episode, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. interviews Bernie Sanders (billed as “Bernard Sanders,” whose name flashes across the screen on a chyron embellished with the Confederate flag); the point of the short interview seems to be to make the senator look befuddled, which he does when Cohen’s character claims Obamacare made him sick and proposes putting the 99 percent into the 1 percent, thus solving income inequality once and for all. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nathan Fielder is credited as a director on at least one episode.) Later, Dr. Cain sits down to dinner in the well-appointed home of a Trump-voting delegate and her Trump-supporting husband, and shocks them with tales from his gender-norm-defying family life.

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By far the most outrageous and damning segment is the one involving the ex-Mossad agent, Erran Morad, who says it’s crazy to suggest arming teachers to stop school shootings — we should be arming the children. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, he finds plenty of eager Republican representatives willing to shill for his idea to arm toddlers with guns that look like stuffed animals and have names like “Puppy Pistol” and “Gunny Rabbit.” He calls the plan “Kinder Guardians.” “My son was in the very first program,” Erran tells gun-rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, “may he rest in peace.”

He and Van Cleave make a bonkers instructional video, then head to D.C. to find politicians willing to back it. Apparently, this did not require herculean effort: After Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz dismisses Erran’s request — members of Congress are not just going to endorse a random dude’s radical plan, he contends — the show cuts to several current and former members of Congress doing just that: right-wing politicians Dana Rohrabacher, Trent Lott, Joe Wilson, and Joe Walsh all give Kinder Guardians their stamp of approval via on-camera testimonials in which the statesmen spout scripted nonsense.

I’m not allowed to disclose what happens in the second episode, but you could wager a guess based on the above. The truth is, funny as Who Is America? may be, much of its content won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention to American politics over the past decade. Cohen has been targeting politicians in gonzo interview segments since the late 1990s, but that format means something different now, particularly in the United States. Who Is America? unabashedly feeds into the right-wing fever dream that the liberal Hollywood elite is out to get them, and it makes it easy for politicians like Walsh and Sarah Palin, who recently outed herself as another of Cohen’s unwitting subjects, to play the victim card. It’s hard to imagine conservative voters will be swayed by this incriminatory portrayal of their elected officials — an entire alternate media reality has been erected for just such voters, and this show will likely give it more ammunition.

It’s no longer news that people will say and do damn near anything in the presence of a camera and with the promise of exposure, and the idea of shaming a politician into genuine remorse or meaningful action is laughable. In a way, the erosion of true checks and balances — of consequences — in American politics works in the show’s favor. Look what these people will do and say! Have they no shame? Nope!

But that lack of shame also demonstrates the uselessness of guerrilla-style shock comedy as a catalyst for real-world change. The series vows, “Four unique voices will reveal who is America.” But we know; we’ve known. The question is no longer what have we become, but what are we going to do about it. So laugh all you want, but when you’ve caught your breath, register to vote.

 

Who Is America? airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

The Oral History of ASSSSCAT, the World’s Longest-Running Improv Show

Every Sunday night for the past 22 years, a group of improvisers from the Upright Citizens Brigade get together for ASSSSCAT, one of the longest-running improv shows in the country. The performance is split into two parts; in each, an audience suggestion spurs an improvised monologue, which inspires a series of scenes. The show began in the mid 1990s in Chicago, before Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts took their sketch comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade to New York. When the UCB Four, as they’ve come to be known, moved east in 1996, they brought ASSSSCAT with them, and it’s been a fixture of the comedy scene ever since. When the UCB opened the first of two Los Angeles theaters in 2005, ASSSSCAT went bicoastal.

ASSSSCAT features the best improvisers UCB has to offer; they play two shows a night every Sunday, an early ticketed show at 7:30 p.m. and another at 9:30 p.m. that is and always has been free. On Thursday, the UCB Four reunites for the first-ever ASSSSCAT show at Carnegie Hall, for the twentieth annual Del Close Marathon, a weekend-long improv festival named after the godfather of modern improvisation. This is the final year the event will take place in New York; earlier this month, the UCB Four announced that next year, the Del Close Marathon will move to Los Angeles.

To mark the occasion, the Voice spoke to performers past and present about the origins and significance of ASSSSCAT, the UCB’s flagship show.

From left: Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts during the early days of ASSSSCAT

Chicago origins

Peter Grosz (The President Show, Late Night With Seth Meyers): The ASSSSCAT show is based on this show called The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny.

Matt Besser (UCB founding member): We had a show in Chicago at the ImprovOlympic where this guy Armando Diaz would tell a story and then we would improvise based on that story. We took that form, and instead of Armando, it just became any guest monologist.

Armando Diaz (improv teacher, founder of New York’s Magnet Theater): I didn’t start it. Dave Koechner and Adam McKay started that, and they named it. Both those guys were working for Second City and they were kind of dissatisfied, because at Second City you don’t get to do a lot of long-form improv.

Adam McKay (The Big Short, Succession): The Armando Diaz Experience was a show built around Armando Diaz, a thoughtful, hilarious, tall Cuban American improviser who Dave and I, during a night of drinking, decided deserved his own show and maybe even his own cult.

Armando Diaz: Dave and Adam were hanging out at my apartment, passing show ideas around. I’m kind of drafted into doing this show. I think it was Adam’s idea to put me in charge of it. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about but in the spirit of “Yes, and.…” There was no talk about what the structure was. They just kind of booked this show. The next day I get a call from Dave saying that Charna [Halpern, co-founder of ImprovOlympic] loved the idea and we were gonna do it in April.

Adam McKay: They’re similar shows in structure but that’s mainly because “monologues inspiring scenes” is kind of the core of what Del Close, the innovator of long-form improvisation, taught. ASSSSCAT was inspired by a freezing cold Tuesday night of free improv at a place called the Elbo Room in Chicago that culminated with an empty stage and a few of us on mics repeating “aaaaasssssscat” over and over again in high-pitched voices to a crowd of maybe four people.

Ian Roberts (UCB founding member): Matt Besser was doing a two-person show with his girlfriend at the time, Susan Messing, in the basement of a bar-slash-club. And she had to go out of town and the guy was ticked off, he said, “Look, I need something down there.” So Matt said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, we’ll do a great show.” Matt made the terrible mistake of telling us, “Guys, we can’t screw around tonight, gotta be a good show.” Which guaranteed that the only thing we were gonna do was screw around.

Matt Besser: I know Ian Roberts was there and Adam McKay and Horatio Sanz, and a few other performers. At some point the improv was just going very poorly, and we were all drinking during the show, and getting a buzz on that was probably affecting our improv. We were just not getting laughs. People started disappearing into the wings and not coming back onto the stage and just drinking in the wings.

Horatio Sanz (Saturday Night Live, Great News): We were yelling things from backstage during sketches, and one of them was “asscat.” I just thought of the stupidest, dumbest thing to yell.

Ian Roberts: At a certain point the show descended into Matt Besser trying to start a scene where he was in an igloo, and he’s sitting in the middle of the stage, and nobody comes out and joins him. It was the opposite of good improv.

Matt Besser: I was alone onstage in an igloo and I was like, “Well, fuck this,” and I abandoned the stage. So there was just an empty stage, and we were drunkenly yelling from left wing to right wing, across the stage to each other, the nonsense word asscat. We were just going, “Aaaaasscat!” and making ourselves laugh at how hilariously disrespectful this was to the audience. We just reached a whole new level of abandoning our responsibility to entertain them.

Ian Roberts: I believe we lost two of our four audience members during that show.

Adam McKay: For the next few years we would refer to that night as the worst and most irrelevant moment in theater history.

Matt Besser: That nonsense word asscat became our code word for the improv set you do after your sketch show, which is more of a fuck-around than a show itself. You don’t really care if it goes well or not, it’s a little more loose. When we moved out to New York, we were doing these sketch showcases to try to get our show on Comedy Central, and at the end of a show we would do our fuck-around set, and we started calling it ASSSSCAT.

Right: An ASSSSCAT poster circa 2000. Left: The poster for the upcoming Carnegie Hall show

The New York groove

Amy Poehler (UCB founding member, Parks and Recreation): I truly don’t remember when the first official ASSSSCAT show was. I’m the worst at remembering things but I’m sure there were five people in the audience, including one set of parents.

Ian Roberts: We started doing it in New York City right away when we got there, because we all loved to improvise but there was no place that did what we did.

Matt Walsh (UCB founding member, Veep): Turning people on to long-form improv was sort of like bringing gunpowder to the natives. They hadn’t seen anything like it. We were fortunate that New York didn’t have a handle on long-form when we came out of Chicago.

Andy Richter (Conan): New York was full of people who were funny but they did not play well with others, and that’s what these guys represented. As Chicagoans we felt a little smug — “Jesus Christ, on every corner there’s someone doing this in Chicago.”

Matt Walsh: We moved out [to New York] in March ’96 and we were doing two shows, one at the Red Room on 4th Street and one at Tribeca Lab. We also started a Sunday night improv show and we started doing it at a place called Rebar. We had a lot of friends in New York who were writing for [Late Night With Conan O’Brien] or Saturday Night Live, so our Sunday night show was one of the first Chicago improv shows in the city. We had no home so we’d just find a bar. We slowly built an audience from that.

Peter Grosz: They were still kind of getting their feet wet in New York City and they didn’t have a huge following yet, so I was going to see them in weird buildings that were, like, on the sixth floor of a strange building in the Flatiron District where only ten people could go in an elevator at one time.

Andy Richter: Wherever they could get space they’d set up folding chairs and they would do improv shows. It definitely did feel like something important was happening — as important as an improv show can be.

Matt Besser: When it became a real show we wanted to list it. This was before the internet. You wanted to get your show listed, it was so important. So having the word ass at that point, we just didn’t want someone to not [list it] because of that word. So we made it into an acronym: Automatic Sprinkler System Shutdown Siamese Connection Alternative Theater. You know the Siamese connections that come out of buildings in New York? The valves that the fire department puts the hoses into? So we made it an acronym, made it all capital letters.

Horatio Sanz: I had nothing to do with that. When I said it originally, it was asscat with two s’s, but the way I was saying it was, “Aaaasscat” — so if anything there should be three a’s. But I want you to put there somewhere with an asterisk that I spell it with three s’s, please.

Andy Daly (Silicon Valley, Review): I believe it was at Luna Lounge that I first saw the UCB in the summer of ’96, when they first came to New York. I loved it, and at the end of it, they mentioned that they do a long-form comedy improv show at Solo Arts theater on 17th Street.

Miriam Tolan (Jon Glaser Loves Gear): I performed at the place with the crazy elevator, Solo Arts. That elevator was terrifying. It just felt very rickety. Everybody kind of held their breath when they got in. You felt like something was being asked of you from the very beginning.

Matt Besser: We started doing [ASSSSCAT] at Solo Arts and that’s where we eventually established a school. The school really evolved out of ASSSSCAT — people saw us do the improv form and they were like, “Teach us how to do that.”

Andy Daly: I do remember the first ASSSSCAT show that I saw at Solo Arts. I would love to say that I jumped on the bandwagon before anybody, but when I got there, there was already a long line and I was not sure I was gonna get in. The main thing I remember thinking watching the show was, I did not understand how they were doing it. Two people would step out and it seemed to me they knew, the moment they stepped out, what their scene was going to be. I was just like, I don’t see how it’s possible. At the end of that show, Matt Walsh said, “We’re teaching a workshop, there’s gonna be a sign-up sheet in the lobby,” and I jumped out of my seat. I believe I was the first name on that sign-up sheet.

Amy Poehler: There was always a huge line and I remember thinking, “Oh, people are willing to wait in line. Maybe we’ve got something here.”

Jason Mantzoukas (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place): It was just exciting. It felt like a cool thing that was happening. Because also in the audience there would be, like, Mac and Laura from the band Superchunk, or Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo.

Matt Walsh: Yo La Tengo would come to our shows and occasionally they might do monologues. That was kind of neat, to have people in the rock world come through. It sort of legitimized us to people that started doing monologues. There was a guy, David Rakoff, who was an author, he was a lovely storyteller. He’s since passed.

Andy Daly: One of my favorite ASSSSCAT memories was a time in the Solo Arts space when they couldn’t find a monologist and Matt Walsh just kind of went out into the street and found a weird lady to come and be the monologist. She was this slightly overweight, fiftyish woman. She had a filthy stuffed animal that looked like she had taken it out of the garbage, and it had a personality to her and she talked about it. Her monologues were nuts. The last time she went up to do a monologue she said something so crazy and Ian Roberts on the back wall just gave this big reaction like, “She’s insane,” and he just calmly opened the window behind the stage and stepped outside onto the fire escape and climbed up and was not seen for the rest of the show.

Miriam Tolan: It was very full of energy, that little space. There would be people like Stephen Colbert — I think he was completely without a job at the time. He was like, Thanks, guys. It was kind of a holding pen for a lot of people who didn’t have a gig.

Andy Daly: I remember the day that there was a meeting on the roof of Solo Arts, announcing they had found a space and were opening their own theater [on 22nd Street]. The meeting was not supposed to take place on the roof, it was supposed to take place in the space, but there were too many people to have the meeting in the space so we had to go up to the roof — which was, as Besser pointed out at the time, very symbolic of the problem.

UCB co-founders Matt Besser and Matt Walsh

Moving on up

Ian Roberts: It turned out to be a really good idea to have a free show because it got people in the door, and they come back a second, third time. The hardest thing is to get someone in the door to give you a chance.

Peter Grosz: People would sit outside for three or four hours waiting in line because there are no presale tickets for those shows.

Ian Roberts: We wanted the show to be free, don’t ask me why, that’s how it started. Eventually we charged because we had so many people who wanted to see the show we kind of had to weed them out, so we started a second show that we charged for. But we always kept the free show.

Jason Mantzoukas: Once we moved to our first theater on 22nd Street, it became a real institution. Sunday night was just a night you made an effort to go and watch the show, because you didn’t know who was gonna show up. I still remember shows — Jon Glaser one time played a character who in every scene was an Israeli man trying to sell someone a Subaru. As somebody who was learning to improvise at the time, you were getting to watch masters do it. Oh, you can do that! That’s interesting. No matter what the scene, Jon Glaser’s somehow finding a way to play the same character every time.

Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show, Career Suicide): I started at UCB in 2000. I was in a college [improv] group at Rutgers and it made me happy and I was pretty depressed. MC Chris, he’s the famous nerdcore rapper, he was randomly in my level one class, and we buddied up. He grabbed me and my other friend from Rutgers — our Sunday class was three to six — and he’s like, “I’m gonna go see ASSSSCAT.” Every week after our level one class the three of us, we’d go and buy 40s, and there was a parking lot across the street from the UCB theater on 22nd Street. We would drink the 40s in the parking lot from 6 to 7:30 and then we’d try and sweet-talk the manager into letting us into the early show. I remember my mind was just blown. That’s how I was first exposed to it, drinking underage in a parking lot and then sneaking in. Then taking the train back to Rutgers afterwards, drunkenly rambling to my friends about how it seemed impossible.

Anthony Atamanuik (The President Show): I think the first ASSSSCAT I saw was probably in 2001. It was like I was still banging out major chords on the ukulele and these people were symphonic, you know? At the time I couldn’t even understand how they were able to all stay so connected and come back to ideas and link ideas. It was at the old 22nd Street theater so it was sort of sweaty, a little janky — it felt almost like you were at camp, like the end-of-year talent show.

Adam McKay: The super-small theater gave the shows a crazy energy, like we were performing for coal miners in the twenties.

Shannon O’Neill (artistic director, UCB Theater New York): The first time I saw ASSSSCAT, it was at the 22nd Street theater. It probably was sometime within the first six months of taking a class, because it was the flagship show. You’d go and watch and get to see Amy [Poehler] and Rachel Dratch play, even though they’d just had SNL the night before.

Amy Poehler: Doing the show during the SNL years was incredibly helpful to not go crazy and stay loose. After a brutal week there was something comforting about going out onstage with nothing prepared and then eating nachos with friends after. It was a ritual that kept my head on straight, and kept me feeling connected to an audience and to my fellow funny people. I know improvising for some people would be their worst fear, but doing ASSSSCAT during those New York years was like a salve for me.

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Team-building exercise

Andy Daly: I don’t know how long it took before I was invited to do an ASSSSCAT, but the way it would work — oh, man this is such a visceral memory. You would show up and you would be in the audience. At some point one of the four [UCB] members would come into the audience and look around and see if there were any trusted improvisers out there, and they would come up to them and say, “Hey, do you want to play tonight?” So all the improvisers that would come to ASSSSCAT every Sunday were thinking, “Is this the day that I’m gonna get tapped on the shoulder to jump up and join in?” It was very exciting and nerve-racking. So much was emotionally invested in that moment.

Fran Gillespie (Saturday Night Live, Comedy Bang! Bang!): I think I started at UCB right when the Chelsea theater opened [in 2003]. It was right around the time UCB performers were gaining notoriety. People performing were on SNL, or did bits on Conan. I think that became a big draw for the theater — for a very, very low price point, you could see professional comedians who are on TV. 

Connor Ratliff (The Chris Gethard Show, Search Party): I would see an ASSSSCAT and I’d be like, “That guy’s really funny,” and then a few months later I’d go see, like, In the Loop or something, and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s the guy!” I associated ASSSSCAT with, well those are successful comedy people, and I never thought I was gonna be in that bracket.

Shannon O’Neill: You sit there and watch and if they’re short players sometimes they’d ask people to play. I probably watched for a year until one time Jason Mantzoukas was like, “You want to play?” I probably went back the next week and watched for two months before I was asked again.

Chris Gethard: I remember there were two years in a row when I was asked to do it on Super Bowl Sunday and on Oscar night Sunday, and that was it.

Fran Gillespie: I think I was asked to do it first either on Super Bowl Sunday or Oscar Sunday, because they couldn’t get anybody to do it.

Chris Gethard: I was for sure the low man on the totem pole. I mean, everybody is when they first start. But it would be, like, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Jack McBrayer, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, and me. I was so scared to do it the first time that I froze up. Jason Sudeikis actually grabbed me by the collar, dragged me out onstage, forced me to do some scene. I remember people tagged out and all of a sudden I was just in a scene with Amy, and I was not very good but she carried me and got some big laughs. She told me, “You should keep coming, drop by anytime.” I kind of didn’t believe her. I’d get an email once in a while when they were short on people and I’d come by, and she was like, “No, I’m serious, you need to do this every week.”

Peter Grosz: It was a big deal to be asked to play. I think because Amy was still involved — she was really committed to it, so she was there every single week, running the show, asking people to play. It was, if not the holy grail, whatever the second cup Jesus drank out of.

Jack McBrayer, left, ASSSSCAT-ing

The more the merrier

Andy Richter: From a showbiz point of view, you get to have guest stars — Janeane Garofalo or Conan O’Brien or Amy Sedaris. I don’t think that was the horse that was leading the cart, but from a business standpoint, that’s pretty good. You get a promise of higher quality. Because an improv show can be more of a threat than a promise.

Ian Roberts: We knew all of our stories. You get a suggestion, and it sparks something. The average person maybe has 200 good stories over their lifetime, and it got to the point where we knew each other’s stories, so you start to want to shake it up and get guest monologists, and that just became part of the draw of the show.

Shannon O’Neill: We had the lead singer of Spin Doctors recently. Gina Gershon has done it in the past. There’s a guy that’s running for Senate in Iowa who was in town and wanted to do it.

Peter Grosz: Chevy Chase was one of the worst monologists, because he just got up there and didn’t tell the truth about anything. He didn’t speak from his heart. The suggestion came up and he just sort of riffed on the word and was looking at people in the audience, kind of making fun of the way they looked. It was very awkward. Eventually, people told him, “It’s OK, you can tell a real story from your life.” And then he told a story which everybody thought, “Oh, that’s really nice, that’s sweet.” We said that backstage to him afterwards and he was like, “That was a lie, I made that all up.” It was so disappointing.

Chris Gethard: I’ve been there on nights when Chevy Chase was there. I wouldn’t say it had the same level of warmth it had on the nights Robin Williams was there. I remember there was one night where he showed up and I was so excited. I was born in 1980, and he was Chevy Chase! I tell you, it was a real pressure cooker. I’m not trying to throw the guy under the bus, but it just felt like real pressure. A couple months later, in between shows, somebody was like, “Chevy Chase is coming by to do monologues for the late show.” And I already wasn’t feeling great, and I was like, you know what, I don’t think I can handle it, I gotta go home. I was driving home and I was like, man, if you told me when I was ten years old that someday I’d be dodging a chance to perform with Chevy Chase, I would’ve thought you were crazy.

Peter Grosz: Louis C.K. once came and did [monologues]. You could tell he was just trying out material and he sort of morphed his pre-written thoughts into what the suggestion was. But he still had some genuine moments where he was clearly reacting to things that people in the audience were saying. His style of comedy was conducive to that. Before we knew he was showing his penis to everybody.

Jason Mantzoukas: I remember the first time Nick Offerman came and told stories, this was before Parks and Rec. He was just an actor from Chicago. I remember being like, “Holy shit, who is that guy? This guy’s amazing!” His stories were phenomenal, and so funny but kind of melancholy.

Anthony Atamanuik: Jeff Garlin did monologues. Chris Gethard had a show, Big Lake, that he was really invested in, and Jeff Garlin turned to him, I think he was trying to haze him a little and be like, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna fail your first show.” Chris wigged out, because that was his life at that moment, and Garlin was being really casual about it.

Chris Gethard: Yeah, he was negging me. It was horrible. In the middle of the monologue, he just lost his train of thought and turned to Horatio and is like, “Horatio, you know I love you but this show that you and this kid are on, it’s a real piece of shit, huh?” and the whole crowd just went silent. I could feel all eyes on me. I had this public, painful swing and a miss and he called it out onstage and it hurt my feelings pretty bad. I never really met him before or since.

Amy Poehler: The thing I was always the most proud of was, no matter how famous or nervous any monologist was, they were treated the same. They sat with us in the same crappy green room and were given one word to begin with. There was something deeply democratic about the process. We never had paparazzi or press or any of that nonsense. An audience member at ASSSSCAT truly never knows who will show up.

Miriam Tolan: Henry Winkler, holy cow. It must have been around Arrested Development. He was the loveliest man you’ll ever meet. But when I went onstage, I’m like, how are these kids gonna react to this guy, they don’t know who Henry Winkler is. They lost their minds. It was so gratifying just to see these too-cool-for-school kids like, Oh my god, it’s Fonzie! He was just wonderful. He just kind of blessed everybody. He was like a little angel that came down.

Ian Roberts: We were opening our new theater in Los Angeles [in 2005], so by that time we were having guest monologists, so we invite Andy Dick. Andy craves attention, at all times in all places. Well, he picked up, during the first half, that he only got to come out twice and didn’t get to do the improv. So during the intermission he starts ripping bong hits, gets stoned out of his mind, and the second half is this free-for-all insanity where he keeps walking into scenes and talking to us during the monologues and going out and interacting with the audience. The audience got so thrown by how loose it had become that they thought anything goes. So at some point I’m doing a scene and some guy walks out of nowhere and starts playing a waiter in a scene with us! Andy had set the tone of insanity, like, there are no rules. The audience had the time of their lives. I guarantee you, more than any other show, people have told the story of the night they went to ASSSSCAT and Andy Dick was out of his mind.

Andy Daly: There was one L.A. show that Robin Williams showed up to. There was a good stretch of time when he was constantly showing up, just popping into the L.A. theater. We had a monologist that night who would step up and do a monologue and then step back and Robin Williams would jump out and take center stage and deliver an improvised monologue — there was no scene work, he would just do a monologue, and when he ran out of steam he would look back and we would do a scene. I at some point, feeling defensive of the ASSSSCAT form, and feeling like an ASSSSCAT purist, decided that I was going to step up next to him during one of his improvised monologues and engage him and make a scene out of it. I will never forget the look that he gave me out of the corner of his eye — like, you are interrupting comedy history. I felt like an idiot. But I was defending ASSSSCAT. 

In 2017, the Chelsea theater on 26th Street closed and a new location opened on 42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen.

Jason Mantzoukas: I flew back [to New York] to do the final Chelsea ASSSSCAT. I never did ASSSSCAT at 22nd Street. So the entirety of me doing ASSSSCAT was at 26th Street. Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer] from Broad City were the monologists. They came up through that scene, so they spoke very nostalgically about ASSSSCAT. Walsh talked about how important this show was, how he’d met his wife in the theater. John Lutz told a very similar story about how much ASSSSCAT meant to him and how important that theater was because he’d met his wife there. It had lots of emotional moments.

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Wild times

Chris Gethard: If you’ve never seen Horatio Sanz do an ASSSSCAT, I don’t think you’ve really seen comedy in its most primal form. He’s like a hurricane.

Matt Besser: Horatio, if there’s a Top 20 memories, I’m sure he’s in ten of them. In the second show we did for TV, the Comedy Central special [in 2008], if you look at the DVD extras we put in, at some point in the show there’s this young man and his seat is onstage, front row, where he’s on camera. You can tell he’s looking for a way out so he can go to the bathroom. He cannot figure out how to exit without, like, walking across the stage. I think his solution was to go to one of the doors that are on the stage and go through it to exit. This guy had a white dress shirt on, and in typical Horatio style, he goes backstage and finds a fucking white dress shirt. Horatio comes back onstage as if he is the guy and he’s bumbling around trying to find his chair again.

Jon Glaser (Jon Glaser Loves Gear, Inside Amy Schumer): I remember Horatio Sanz doing something that made me laugh so hard that it pops in my head every now and then. Someone was talking about a Starbucks closing and he just jumped on it. “Starbucks lockdown!” It was so stupid and funny and he just committed so hard.

Chris Gethard: I remember I was a student at UCB, and it was the Sunday after 9-11 and I went to watch ASSSSCAT. Somebody wound up playing the Statue of Liberty, just kind of standing there, and all of a sudden Horatio turned his hand into an airplane and just started making that buzzing airplane noise, and the whole crowd just gasped. And he just went, “OK, not yet,” and turned the plane around and flew away. And it just exploded in laughter and catharsis.

Horatio Sanz: Everyone in the cast was like, “Oh no,” kind of turning away. The crowd was just groaning more and more as it got closer to the Statue of Liberty. No, for 9-11, you can’t hit the Statue of Liberty.

Shannon O’Neill: ASSSSCAT is like a pickup basketball game — you’re gonna foul each other, and it’s a little bit of a fuck-around, but you’re still respecting each other onstage. But it could really get insane. Things happen in ASSSSCAT, like, there’s five or six breakdancers in the audience and I’m like, “OK, breakdance for us.” So breakdancing happens onstage.

Peter Grosz: Anthony Atamanuik was pimped into playing Trump, meaning that somebody just called him Mr. President. This was in the summer of 2015. He was still a joke at the time.

Connor Ratliff: That was one of the only weeks that I wasn’t there in 2015. I heard about it instantly, like, “Atamanuik walked out and did a Trump initiation!”

Anthony Atamanuik: I remember Shannon stepped out first, and she said, “Mr. President,” that was the initiation. There was a beat, so I stepped out. I just did a shitty version — the version I did was what Alec Baldwin does now on NBC, so it was fucking terrible. I stepped out and I did a little Trump and I realized that he was such a vehicle to just say any goddamn awful thing you wanted to say. People really enjoyed it, and Shannon and I laughed, we did a callback. And then at the break between the shows, Shannon was like, “You really should do a half-hour Trump show, do you want to do it?” I was like, “Yeah!” She was like, “OK, I’ll schedule it for seven days from now.” It was called Trump Dump. The idea was, it was a press conference set in March of 2017, when he had already become president. I outlined it at ASSSSCAT, I put it down on paper a week later, and that thing basically sustained itself for two and a half years. Isn’t that great? What a humblebrag.

Connor Ratliff: Hopefully he’s only stuck with it for a couple more years. I have this thought that if there’s a way to get Atamanuik into the actual Republican primary, I think he could take Trump down.

Chris Gethard: I remember one show — one of the best shows I think I’ve ever been a part of in comedy. It was during that brief phase where there was that phenomenon called icing — you’d walk up to someone and make them chug a Smirnoff Ice. Some kid had a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice in the front row and he was saying, “Yeah, I carry it with me, me and my friends ice each other.” This whole show, during it, performers kept grabbing this kid’s Smirnoff Ice and icing each other. I remember it ended with Zach Woods hoisting John Gemberling on his shoulders — if you can just imagine the physique of Zach Woods, it doesn’t make so much sense. I remember another Horatio one where we did an entire half-hour show because he said that we were all working in a restaurant that was horizontal instead of vertical, so we did the whole show on our sides, on the stage. Horatio was really a driving force of absolute batshit craziness. I think a lot of the stuff that led to me having a career, especially with the Gethard Show, and some of it that’s more performance-art driven, it’s all because of ASSSSCAT and especially because of Horatio. 

Walsh and Besser on stage, with future stars like Paul Scheer (back right) waiting in the wings

Passing the torch

Adam McKay: I did it a few times out here in L.A., but I have kids and work and blah blah blah. So I just fell out of it. Once you haven’t done it in a while it’s harder and harder to go back. I’m definitely rusty as hell.

Fran Gillespie: I started working at SNL and it was pretty impossible for me to have the energy on Sunday to do anything, let alone feel totally present to do ASSSSCAT. So now I’d say I do it spottily, as a result of the SNL schedule — which makes me feel embarrassed, because Amy was out there every single Sunday!

Andy Richter: When I go do things like that now, I feel really old. At the end of a day of writing a television show, you’re not like, “I’ll see you, wife and children, I’m going to do three hours of improv with a bunch of people who are twenty years younger than me.” It’s a young person’s game, and I mean that in the best possible sense.

Chris Gethard: At the end of the day ASSSSCAT has always been about a youthful, rebellious energy.

Shannon O’Neill: I’m the artistic director [of UCB], that’s one thing, but being in charge of ASSSSCAT is a separate responsibility. When I’m done being artistic director, I’m still gonna be taking care of ASSSSCAT until I can’t anymore.

Andy Daly: I wonder if anybody coming to the show now would have the same experience that I had seeing it for the first time, of just bewilderment at how this is possible, because there’s so much more general awareness in the public about improvisation and how it gets done and what it is. People might not be quite so mystified. But they’re definitely entertained, because the people doing it now are hilarious.

Jason Mantzoukas: ASSSSCAT to me is always the show where you’re watching people have so much fun with each other. There are shows you can go watch at UCB with masterful, technical improvisers. But then there’s ASSSSCAT where Horatio will, like, wander in from backstage after having been I don’t know where, and just start doing a scene and it’s insane and so funny. There’s a real sense of chaos to it. It was the most exciting show I ever saw when I would go and see it every week, and it was the most exciting show I ever did when I got to spend years doing it. When I think about it, that show was a huge part of my life for probably fifteen years. I was just talking to Jon Glaser about a show I remember doing with him. I ran into Tim Meadows awhile ago and he was like, “Hey, do you remember this show we did together, like ten years ago?” People never remember stuff unless it’s meaningful to you. 

Horatio Sanz: It’s just this ever-evolving thing — you inspire these people, they inspire other people. There’s built-in chemistry that’s flowing through all the students that go through UCB.

Amy Poehler: I think the show was important to me and others because it felt free. There was freedom in what was expected of you. You could drop in and feel welcome. And the show was free so the audience was young and hungry. Literally.

Anthony Atamanuik: The fact that they were able to figure out how to capture the feeling of being at something that feels punk rock and feels underground and feels like anything can happen, and the fact that they were able to sustain that feeling in that little corner of the week, is amazing to me. Because everything’s grown so much bigger, and obviously with that comes certain formalities. Somehow everyone maintained that this is the little corner where we just fuck around.

Connor Ratliff: Moving to Hell’s Kitchen has changed the show a little bit. The old UCB [theater in Chelsea] was like an early Elvis Costello record, like My Aim Is True, and Hell’s Kitchen is more like Imperial Bedroom. Some scenes that played really funny in Chelsea don’t play as funny in Hell’s Kitchen, but that’s compensated by the fact that there are scenes when you could pick up a chair and throw it as high as you want towards the back wall, and you know the stage is so big that it’ll ricochet off the back and you don’t need to worry about hitting the front row of the audience.

Matt Besser: If the audience is packed, it’s kind of the same to me. I think Carnegie Hall can be intimate, actually. We’ve had a lot of venues that we’ve played around the country that you can get 2,000 [people] in and still feel like I’m talking to the audience.

Ian Roberts: The big debate right now is whether we need to wear suits.

Adam McKay: When we started the group we were listening to Fugazi, Big Black, and Public Enemy. It was the last moment “don’t sell out” was still something humans said. I still think that’s part of the DNA of Upright Citizens. I know, they’re all wealthy and people get hired for all kinds of commercial, big-money shows out of there, but when you walk in it doesn’t feel like that. Del Close was always good at that, too. Yeah, opportunities are nice, but it shouldn’t be what you’re thinking about right now. Right now you’re onstage in the moment, listening.

Chris Gethard: The thing about ASSSSCAT when it’s at its best is, it’s a bunch of people who are very good at what they do getting together and testing themselves in a very real way. As an artist, that’s a valuable thing. When I was doing that show I was onstage with the best people at their craft in the entire world. As a young comedian, there was a stretch of a couple years where every Sunday I showed up, and when I left to go home I was a little better at comedy than I had been at 7:15.

 

The founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade — Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts — will perform ASSSSCAT at Carnegie Hall, along with special guests, on Thursday, June 28, at 8 p.m.

 

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Lea DeLaria on 47 ‘Dykes,’ ‘Fags,’ and ‘Queers’

Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Lea DeLaria became the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night television, when she did a stand-up set on The Arsenio Hall Show. “It’s the Nineties and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a biiiiig dyke!” DeLaria famously declared. The set catapulted the comic to a new level of mainstream fame, and she’s used that platform to loudly stump for the LGBTQ cause ever since.

The Voice spoke to the Orange Is the New Black star about her landmark appearance, concerns about the corporate takeover of Pride, and TV’s “fake lesbian” problem.

It’s been 25 years since you became the first openly queer comic to perform on broadcast TV, on The Arsenio Hall Show. What do you remember of that experience?

I remember everything. Every second of it. It was huge!

Were you approached to perform on his show?

I was in San Francisco performing a two-week run. I was about to go to Highways, in Los Angeles, which is a performing arts venue. The L.A. Times wanted to do an interview with me because of my run at Highways. This was when people actually read the paper. The interview went incredibly well — it ended up below the fold on the cover of the weekend edition’s entertainment section. The show sold out, we had to add shows, and suddenly all these agents and managers and people were calling and calling.

I was completely out of my league — I was a fucking queer performer, you know what I mean? Luckily I had known Melissa Etheridge for a really long time, so I called her and she gave me a whole lot of really good advice. I hung up the phone and I got a phone call from the people at The Arsenio Hall Show. The reason Arsenio Hall called was because, I believe it was in the first paragraph of the article — “Lea DeLaria, you may not know her, they won’t let her do the Tonight Show.” So the bookers from Arsenio called and said, “Well, if they won’t let you do the Tonight Show, I think it’s a no-brainer that you do this.”

What was it like when you showed up to do your set?

I had never met Arsenio, and when I got onto the set, he walked out of his dressing room, grabbed me by the hand, and walked me to my dressing room and sat and talked to me for, like, ten minutes to tell me how excited he was that I was there. He was absolutely lovely. He said, “I’ve heard of you for years, but your comedy is so blue and so outrageous I didn’t think we could ever get a four-minute set from you.” Which is really funny, and true! My comedy was not the sort of thing you saw on TV.

Did you talk with him or any producers about what your set would be like? Was there anything you were told not to say?

No. When you do a late-night set, you go through it with the person who books you. So they knew everything I was gonna say. They didn’t have any objections to anything. I came out, I did my four minutes of stand-up, and I did five minutes on the couch, and I think it was the Advocate that wrote that I was on for nine and a half minutes and I said the word dyke, fag, or queer something like 47 times.

But here’s what people don’t know: After I did that set, the lawyer came down and said, “I don’t think we can air this because she says dyke, fag, and queer.” Arsenio went and fought for me. He said, “If she’s gonna call herself a dyke or a fag or queer, who are we to tell her she can’t?” He really fought for it so that it would go out in its entirety, and it did.

How do you feel about how the representation of queer people on TV has changed over the years? In some ways I feel we’ve come so far, but then you see these GLAAD reports and the numbers still aren’t great, particularly for gay women.

Lesbian representation on television generally isn’t even written by lesbians. Let’s start there. Television is without a doubt filled with fake lesbians. It happens to us all the time, especially butch lesbians.

Right, which is partly why when Orange Is the New Black first came out, I was so blown away by the diversity of women on that show — the variety of body types, sexualities, personalities, ethnicities. It was like, oh yeah, we don’t usually see this.

You have to remember, when I first encountered the script, Big Boo wasn’t in the script. They wrote that part for me. So even in that show they didn’t have butch representation. And by the way, the real Alex [Vause] — not that she’s a friend of mine, I don’t know her from Adam — but the real Alex looks like me. She’s a butch dyke, being portrayed by Laura Prepon with long hair and lipstick.

Do you argue with the writers about things like that? Do you have any input?

When they were doing Big Boo’s backstory, I had a lot of input in that because it was a butch story and I’m a butch dyke, and the person who wrote it was not a butch dyke. There were two things I talked to them about: an attire question and the strap-on. Lauren Morelli wrote this [episode], and when I was handed the script I called her and I was crying — I said, “It’s like you’ve read my diary.” It was taking place in 1997 in the Midwest in a gay bar, and there was something they wanted me to wear, and I was like, yeah, this wouldn’t happen. And the strap-on — they wanted me to wear the strap-on over the boxers. And I said, no butch in their right mind — no, no. It kills the fantasy! I will not put it on over my boxers. So the boxers were laid by the bed and I had to wear what they call a modesty patch.

I will tell you what the problem is that I see: It’s in the writer’s room. They do not hire lesbians. They do not let us write for ourselves. It’s infuriating to me. I don’t know why it’s always acceptable, especially for straight men, to write stories about lesbians. They write it, and then they don’t cast us in the roles! They cast fake lesbians. Most of the cast of Orange is fake lesbians. There’s actual lesbians out there that would love to work, and we’re good!

It’s funny, I talked to Scott Thompson a little while ago.

My buddy Scott!

He was saying, at least in the context of comedy, that he thinks things are harder for gay men because a woman who is interested in other women moves up in power, whereas for a man to be interested in men, you lose power.

Scott and I have had this argument. We’re friends, but we talk about this all the time. Scott, you’re so wrong about this. Because they’re sexualizing us — they don’t think of us as thinking human beings. And as I’ve said to him many times, “Scott, do you think I had it easy in comedy clubs? Look at me, son!” But he is correct in that in the comedy clubs it’s still OK to pick on gay men.

Or I often see a male comic pick on a woman in the audience, in a sexual way, because it’s an easy way to get a laugh.

Well, I do that [laughs]. But I do that to make a point, because first of all, I’m a lesbian. That’s still frowned upon by society. And also I’m a woman, and we’re supposed to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. So I do that as a very feminist, political statement.

You’ve written about how Pride events in the late 1970s and early 1980s were more like angry protests than parades.

They were protest marches. They were about defiance.

Do you feel Pride parades today should have more of that angry protest spirit? It’s amazing to see Pride become this global series of events, but then you’ll see a TD Bank float and it’s like, huh?

I hate the corporatefication of anything. I think the corporatefication of Broadway destroyed Broadway. Thank god for Hamilton and, before that, Fun Home. Thank god for the Public Theater, which still is trying to bring us engaging shows and not just whatever the masses want to see — yet another revival of Carousel. Who wants to see a dream ballet in 2018? We don’t need corporations to make this parade. We don’t need that money. Unless the Citibank float is doing something specifically for queer people other than just being in this parade, then fuck Citibank.

What could they do to make their presence more meaningful, in your mind?

I think if they had a big sign on their float that said, “Fuck Trump,” I’d be OK with them being in the parade.

 

 

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Hannah Gadsby and Cameron Esposito Seize Comedy’s New Normal

Six years ago, at the Largo in L.A., comedian Daniel Tosh declared that jokes about rape were inherently hilarious. When a woman in the audience called out that, actually, rape isn’t funny at all, Tosh reportedly responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

Comedy fans are used to funny men (and Tosh) taking a combative stance toward their audiences, especially women; we’re used to being the punching bags, and many of us have learned to take it in good stride lest we be labeled frigid, humorless bitches. In her new stand-up special, Nanette, out on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby quips that back in the old days, a lesbian was simply any woman who didn’t laugh at a man’s joke.

But Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, adjusting the goalposts — reorienting our view of who gets to be angry and make people uncomfortable, of who gets to dish it and who has to sit there and take it. Nanette, which Gadsby is performing through June 30 at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is very funny, but it seems almost inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous yet serious treatise on comedy and how it can, intentionally or not, normalize the status quo. What do all those angry white male comics have to be so upset about, anyway? If they’re having a tough time, Gadsby jokes, the rest of us are screwed.

The relationship between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby posits, is an “abusive” one — making a crowd laugh is simply releasing them from a tension that the comic herself has created. Born in a small town in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997, Gadsby describes her sense of humor as inseparable from her identity. “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks. Because laughter in real life is also all about releasing tension and, as a child, she “was the tension.” So she became a master diffuser, learning to lighten the mood and shift the focus off her difference by cracking a joke.

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There’s sometimes a slightly didactic tenor to sets by LGBTQ comics, or at least those who use their gender identity as fodder for material. These performers aren’t just telling jokes but explaining, to often unforgiving club audiences, how the world looks from behind rainbow-tinted glasses. It’s an extra hurdle on top of the challenge of making people laugh, one that Gadsby leaps over with gusto. So does Cameron Esposito in her own new special, which she has pointedly titled Rape Jokes, and which the comedian released independently on her website last week, along with a request for donations to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

Esposito’s new set continues her public examination of the presumption of comics like Tosh. In one memorable episode of Take My Wife, the 2016 series she created for NBC’s now-defunct Seeso, Esposito and her wife, fellow comic/show co-creator Rhea Butcher, who play versions of themselves, have to follow a more famous male comedian whose set includes a rape joke. Afterward, he apologizes to Butcher, explaining that he didn’t know she was a survivor of sexual assault. “I am, too,” Esposito mentions. “I am, too,” a random woman on the street chimes in. And another, touching up her makeup in the bathroom. And a male comic in the club’s green room. And a woman sitting in bed with headphones plugged into her laptop. The scene is basically a pre-hashtag #MeToo moment.

Which is to say, this is a topic that Esposito has been marinating in for some time. Like Nanette, Rape Jokes is in part a deconstruction of comedy itself, particularly the debates in recent years over what should, or shouldn’t, be acceptable in a stand-up set. “I don’t know how familiar you are with stand-up comedy,” Esposito says early in the new special, launching into a bit about comics who complain about “P.C. culture.” “I’m pretty familiar with it.”

Just as Gadsby questions a white male comic’s onstage anger, Esposito dismisses the right of a comedian to say certain words that audiences — especially women and minorities — will likely find offensive. She doesn’t stop there: She suggests that if such a comic really needs those words to do his job, well, then, “I am a better stand-up comic than you.” And she’s careful to make the distinction between the right to say offensive things and the expectation that it’s somehow un-American to be criticized — or to lose favor, or even your job — for saying offensive things. Comics who cry “censorship” in the case of the latter, Esposito says, are using the wrong word: “Feedback. You’re getting feedback.”

In ways both implicit and explicit, Rape Jokes and Nanette lay bare the extent to which men have written the rules — of stand-up comedy, of sexism, of the behaviors we deem criminal and those we chuckle at as if it’s all in good fun. We talk about sexual assault in such an unsophisticated way, Esposito says, because the conversation has for so long been driven by men who insist that if they, say, can’t comment on their female co-worker’s appearance, “My balls will fall off.”

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Both Gadsby and Esposito want to flip this script — to create a new definition of normal that isn’t just shorthand for straight, white, and male. A man in a dress isn’t weird, Gadsby insists. “You know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies.” Esposito jokes, “We talk about consent like it’s a very slippery boulder that we’re rolling up a very slippery mountain while we’re covered in butter,” recommending straight people treat sex more like gay people do. With gay sex, she says, there is no “standard sex act” and no bases to hit: “You’re just running through an open field.” Now, doesn’t that sound nice?

It does when Esposito says it, anyway, in part because of her patient, mollifying tone. Minorities in America are all too used to having to go high when others go low, and Esposito embodies the frustration and resignation of having to be the bigger person.

For Gadsby, though, that approach has its limits. Both comics end their specials with earnest pleas delivered especially to the men in the audience to get it together — to be, as Esposito puts it, a “person of consequence,” someone who gets in the way to help those who are more vulnerable. While Rape Jokes is a more standard hour of joke-telling, in Nanette, Gadsby strains against the impulse to end every joke with a punchline. To diffuse the tension as such would be a cop-out. She wants the audience to sit with it. Early on, she confesses that she’s been questioning her own commitment to comedy. She’s built her career on self-deprecating humor, but when the person speaking is already on the margins, “It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore.”

By the end of Nanette, Gadsby follows through on her threat. She’s the one with the microphone, and she wants us to hear what she has to say — even if it most certainly won’t make you laugh. In this stand-up special, there is no salvation in laughter; the early jokes are simply the grease she uses to pry open the door to her confession, and her outrage. And when she does, it’s powerful, uncomfortable, and searingly angry. It is, in other words, the appropriate response to life in America in 2018. There are too many people who are all too happy to treat the pain of marginalized people as a joke. It’s time we stopped laughing it off.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is available on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19. Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes is available on her website.

 

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Michelle Wolf Was Never Going to Be Polite

It’s profoundly unsettling to watch so many people misunderstand a joke at the same time. On Sunday morning, I moseyed on over to YouTube to watch comedian Michelle Wolf’s speech from the previous night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. A former Daily Show correspondent, Wolf debuted her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, on HBO in December; when I interviewed her late last year, she told me the title grew out of a post-election feeling that, as she put it, “We can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over.” So I was eager to see how she would handle the assignment.  

“Why aren’t the people in the room laughing harder?” I naively thought as I cackled through Wolf’s unflinching routine, delivered in her clear and unapologetically abrasive tone (when I spoke to her, she compared it to Hillary Clinton’s: “Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!”). It was only after I finished watching the clip that I logged onto Twitter and realized that, even before the night was up, her jokes had been deemed “controversial” by the very media institutions the Trump administration is hell-bent on dismantling.

“Oh,” I thought. “We’re fucked.”

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The main source of this so-called controversy is a bit about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her quirky habit of lying to the American public on a near-daily basis. “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf quipped. It’s a line I once heard her deliver at the Comedy Cellar, where she performs often. It got a big laugh there, because it’s funny, and because no one at the club that night depended on Sarah Sanders to give them access to yet more White House officials who would almost certainly lie to their faces. To an audience of drunk tourists, that line was simply the truth told funny.

And that’s exactly what Michelle Wolf was hired to do when the White House Correspondents’ Association chose her to give this year’s customary ribbing of politicians and the journalists who cover them. For last year’s event, the first under the Trump administration, the WHCA hired another veteran from the Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj — “or as I’ll be known in a few weeks,” the Muslim comic quipped, “number 830287.” (Although Trump has broken tradition and declined to attend, typically the president not only shows up but delivers remarks of his own; in 2011, both host Seth Meyers and President Obama notoriously roasted Donald Trump, who had spent that year promoting birther conspiracy theories.) The whole point of the evening, as WHCA president Margaret Talev noted while introducing Wolf, is to speak truth to power.

So while it was unsurprising to read people like Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Fox contributor, register their outrage (Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is Trump’s director of strategic communications), it was shocking to read similar critiques from the very members of the press that the Trump administration has mercilessly attacked since the man took office. What I found most frustrating was the way female journalists rushed to defend Sanders over what they perceived to be jokes about her appearance — a reaction I doubt would have been the case had Trump himself been the butt of such jokes, which he so often is. On Saturday night, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski both took to Twitter to defend a woman who shits on their profession with every word she utters, and they apparently did so out of some retrograde sense that to insult a woman’s looks is to insult her value as a person — the ultimate slur. Never mind that Wolf’s joke had nothing to do with Sanders’s looks and everything to do with the substance — or lack thereof — of her character.

Mika and Maggie and Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News commentator who demanded Wolf apologize to Sanders, are performing the kind of coordinated upset I expected such journalists to exercise against the blatantly corrupt Trump administration. Instead — just as BuzzFeed was revealing that Trump’s Justice Department had removed language about the “need for free press” from its manual for federal prosecutors — these journalists decided to target a comedian who made a joke about eye makeup that in no way disparaged its subject’s looks. When a Twitter user pushed back against Haberman’s characterization of the joke as “intense criticism of [Sanders’s] physical appearance,” calling that takeaway “crazy,” Haberman responded, “Why is that crazy? It’s a fact. People can agree or disagree about whether it was fair or whether they were pleased about it. But that it happened isn’t in dispute.”

Is Haberman trying to gaslight us? There have been a lot of moments over the past two years that have made my stomach churn. A New York Times White House correspondent calling it a “fact” that Wolf criticized Sanders’s looks is one of them. The fact that so many among the liberal media didn’t get the joke says a lot about why the right has been ascendant in recent years: the left has conceded the realm of humor to conservative hyenas who aren’t actually kidding. By Monday night, journalists and comedians were registering their support for Wolf and their incredulity over the upset she caused. By Tuesday morning, the cycle of backlash had swung back in Wolf’s favor, and the journalists who had huffed and puffed about her insensitivity seemed to have backed themselves into a corner.

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Talev, a Bloomberg correspondent and an analyst for CNN, issued a statement on Sunday assailing “the entertainer” for delivering a monologue that ran contrary to the spirit of the event — which is not to “divide people,” but to “offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.” It’s as if the evening’s organizer were trying to convince viewers that we hadn’t in fact seen and heard what we just saw and heard: a rigorous and devastatingly funny defense of a free press.

Wolf delivered her monologue in a tone that implied not shock or outrage, but weary acknowledgment of a dire situation. After a joke about her ineligibility, at age 32, to date former Senate hopeful and alleged pedophile Roy Moore, Wolf added, “I know, he almost got elected, yeah. It was fun. It was fun.” She made a cavalier quip about abortion before granting, “I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion. You know, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress. It’s fun how values can waver.” She led the crowd through a call-and-response bit that likely hit Trump where he lives (“How broke is he?”), which culminated in a punch line that was so funny you could cry: “He had to borrow money from the Russians and now he’s compromised and…susceptible to blackmail and possibly responsible for the collapse of the Republic!” Ay-o!

The condemnation of Wolf from members of the mainstream media is more than disappointing; it’s despicable. To be fair, I’d be defensive, too, if a comedian swooped into my office and started doing my job better than I ever have. We’ve heard so much talk from the media about responsibility and accountability — those puffed-up slogans and ads in which steely-eyed reporters sternly cross their arms and promise to deliver the truth and nothing but to you, the American public. Wolf was exactly right to point out that the media “helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him,” and the backlash from gatekeeper lefty journalists only confirms it. These people wouldn’t recognize the truth if it screeched at them from the podium of a D.C. Hilton.

Categories
Best of Spring COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Brooklyn O.G. Tracy Morgan Heads Back to the Neighborhood to Host a Block Party

Ever since 1996, when he first stepped into the spotlight as a Saturday Night Live cast member, Tracy Morgan has loudly and proudly declared his Brooklyn heritage. Yesterday, the Last O.G. star was back home for a block party to celebrate the unveiling of newly refurbished basketball courts and an art installation by Askew One at Marcy Playground in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“I come back here because I want to remember where I’m from,” said Morgan, who grew up in the adjacent Marcy Houses. Part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Adopt-a-Park program, the revitalized playground features a new asphalt surface, polycarbonate backboards, and a new mural, all sponsored by TBS and The Last O.G. The show, co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Cedric the Entertainer, features Morgan as an ex-con who returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood after fifteen years behind bars. Airing Tuesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on TBS, it’s already one of the year’s biggest new hits.

The 49-year-old comic got choked up during the ceremony, noting that he’d shed blood at the park, literally. “I cut my finger here!” he said. “I bled here! This is for Brooklyn! This makes me so happy!”

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.