Inside George Carlin’s Head

HOLLYWOOD — Energy spills out. George dressed all in blue, his thin blue frame moving, jerking, limping, dancing, slurching — George being an ant —slurching along a sidewalk — eyes crossing, hair splayed out all into the wind, hands moving, smoothing the hair back, smoothing the hair back, always smoothing the hair back — the grossest of crossed eyes like ­some satanic yogi master, eyes all crossed looking at the third eye — up toward the secret of the golden flower — gold records — millions of them selling all across the country — five records in the last four years and every one of them gone to gold.

George Carlin at the Roxy, now slinking like a cat — cat colliding with a big glass door — cat recoiling, straightening — cat trying to ­keep its cool — look like he really MEANT to do that — proud cat — saving face — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” —  screams George — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” Funny as hell — the audience is roaring. Funny? Why is that so funny? Goddammit, that’s what we all want to scream out every time we’re trying to keep it together and we fuck up, blow it and can’t show it, can’t let on — have to keep on keepin’ on — George up there saying it for us: “FUCKIN’ ME — that’s ME. Me hurtin’ — ow! ow! ow!” Thank you. George — the guy in the front row laughing — just knocked over his martini glass — the girl with the blonde hair in hysterics — collapsing on the stage.

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George Carlin is funny. He’s really very funny. George being a kid, George being a dog, George being the guy by the watercooler with freshly picked snot on his fingers and the boss just comes along — tryin’ to hide the snot­ — shake it off — get rid of it — whaddya do? “Can’t wipe it on the walls­ — and the furniture is full” — “I say — PUT IT BACK!” (Pause while the audience takes that in — ­howls — squeals) — ” Jacques Cous­teau tags ’em and puts ’em back!”

We’ve met before. That was George’s starting point. How are you doing? he asked the audience at the Roxy, throwing the respon­sibility for our reactions right on us. Are we going to be a good audience tonight? Will our section win? Will we be a credit to our row? — So we’re laughing al­ready — we’re on stage, too. There. Right there. We are IN this show.

Funny. I sat in a crowded room of people — mostly young — but not the campus crowd, more a Hol­lywood Scene — and they laughed their heads off. I sat through two shows. The first one I was down there in the ranks and everyone was laughing except the critic for the L. A. Times who thinks he’s supposed to be critical so he was miserable and downed four double brandies and his girlfriend was miserable too because she really wanted to be laughing and she’d start to and then she’d glance over at him and stop herself so as not to appear to be such an asshole as to laugh at something that wasn’t funny enough to suit her date.

George Carlin running down all the places we’ve met before. “Stoned in the supermarket — you smoke eight joints and bring $200 — frozen-food aisle — God it’s cold!­ — uh — honey — I’ll be over by the bar­becued chickens — get the Rocky Road ice cream — see you later­ — Dropping stuff back after you’ve got six carts linked together and you know you’ve gone too far — va­nilla extract in with the Brillo — the ham goes back with the frozen waffles — liverwurst slices — half of them are gone now — tucked in behind the please don’t squeeze the Charmin — don’t worry honey­ — they have these little men with purple fingers who come around at midnight and straighten it all out.”

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“We’ve met in the cookie section —  in any head neighborhood — looks like a WAR ZONE — half the packages are open! — and all the GOOD cookies are gone! — where are the Mallomars? — the Mallo­mars never even make it to the store, man — people are lining up outside at the truck!”

We’ve met on the radio dial (“down towards the hopelessness of 540 — why do they stop there?­ — what kind of great stuff are they keepin’ from us down at 310?”), in the classroom (“Farts — farts are great — kids love ’em — look at it this way — a fart is just a shit without the mess!”), tripping on sidewalks, on the Monopoly Board, comparing dogs: “Animals: — the new people from the church have dropped by for a spot of tea and there’s the dog in the corner and he’s LICKIN’ HIS BALLS! And what’s even more amazing: NO ONE LOOKS AT HIM! There’s this perfectly spectacular thing going on in one corner of the room and no one says a word! If I could do that myself, I’d never leave the house!”

We’ve met before, he says, and he draws everybody in. He really does, me too. I’m laughing my head off. But when I go to talk to him — that’s different.

I have a theory about why George Carlin is funny. It has to do with words. Kids and words. We’re sitting in Little David Records, in the back room, and George has his feet propped up on the big round table and he’s smoking and drink­ing Heinekens and club soda (se­parately — he’s alternating) and he’s not saying anything. He says there’s nothing to talk about any­way since I haven’t seen his show yet.

I say well yes but I’ve listened to his albums — I even designed one once — the “Class Clown” album. Doesn’t matter, he says — doesn’t count for anything — ya hafta see the show.

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So I launch into my Pet Theory Number One on what makes things funny. I came up with this about a year ago one time when I was stoned. It was important to me at the time because I am hardly ever stoned, so it took on great significance (hold on — I’ll get to it in a minute), but later, thinking about it, it occurred to me that George is about 39 now and he’s been stoned continually from the time he was 16 (except recently — that’s the main news about George Carlin, folks — George Carlin has cut out coke and he’s HARDLY EVER STONED!) — so he must be having these great significant revelations CONTINUALLY — and in fact, lis­ten to his records, he sure is.

“Nixon is the perfect symbol for the country — looks like he hasn’t taken a shit in a month — he’s just not a regular guy — every four years he gets the runs — ‘Look! He’s running again.’ ”

“Getting high on the plane — they always tell you — ‘please get ON the plane’ — ‘Fuck you,’ I tell them — I’m getting IN the plane — ­let the DAREDEVILS get ON the plane.”

Well, my weird idea about words: When I was stoned I sud­denly saw this magic plane I used to go to all the time when I was very little, before I learned to talk. A fantasy place — a great spot — full of alleyways with pink and purple trees, high white blossoms, shapes all changing. I went there every night, walked down the street, checked out the new buds on all the branches. Great place. And I had buried it for all these years.

Then I saw picture diction­aries — first the word written out, then the picture, then, tagged to every word, a FEELING that I had about the word, and a kind of COLOR that went with it! Eerie. Every word I ever learned was there, all tagged and colored. Then I was in New Rochelle Public Library, staring up at the stacks on the mezzanine. Staring up the way I used to when I was just a little kid. And I knew that those white stacks with the dark alleyways between them looked to me like the radiators in my house — the high white pipes and the dark dark spaces, scary spaces, in between them. The spaces, and the pipes repeating and receding when I looked down them from one end.

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Then I saw that every word I had ever learned repeated and receded like the radiators, like the stacks. That every word I ever learned was surrounded by auras, feelings, colors — echoes of the hundred thousand times I ever had made contact with that experience before it boiled down into one dinky, distillate, poor-excuse-for-the-re­al-experience WORD.

And then I felt, knew, experi­enced, that the worst trauma in the world for me as a kid hadn’t been being weaned from the breast, or being rejected by my father — or whatever they say on psychiatrists couches years later — the real trau­ma was having to learn WORDS, having to come up with the right WORDS for everything.

And more than that: SANITY was coming up with the right word. Anything that had no words for it was (bad, naughty, unresponsive, irresponsible, antisocial, immoral, and) INSANE. That’s why I buried my magic secret nighttime gar­den: there were no words for it. It was “crazy” and it had to go.

So here I am making an asshole of myself running on to George Carlin who God knows is a busy man — 10 shows at the Roxy this week, plus shows with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, a Perry Como special, prison benefit at San Quentin on the weekend, one film­making session coming up on Fri­day, and four days of shooting for a Mac Davis special coming up next week — then off on tour — and here I am.

I push on — the thing is, I tell George — the reason kids like word jokes so much — the reason they think it’s so hysterically funny when you point to a cup and say “tree” or point to a car and say “potato” — is that it’s a relief from the trauma of having to get the words all right — it kind of makes a little space for kids to get back to that great live conscious BEING place where they were when they were still preverbal.

Stop. End of Theory Number One. Look up. This man must think I’m nuts. Where’s he at, I wonder. I look at him across the table.

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George Carlin looks like Christ in my “Bible Stories for Children” ­book that I used to sneak peeks at when I was supposed to be going to Ethical Culture Sunday School and singing songs by Pete Seeger and being a rationalist. Carlin also reminds me of somebody in my second-grade class — a class-clown type — maybe it was Pete McSweeney — but anyway there were a lot of Irish and Italian Catholic kids on my block and I used to walk home with the girls and memorize their catechisms and wish I had a white organdy dress like they had to wear to Confirmation. Where I grew up, the Catholics weren’t simply win­ning — they had WON. In fact the only distinction of any meaning was between the Irish Catholics, who had mothers who were thin, and the Italian Catholics, who had mothers who were fat. My mother was thin, and only a little Jewish, and I did NOT FIT IN.

And we all knew it.

And now here I am and there’s George Carlin and I feel like­ — THERE’S A PROBLEM. Not only because he looks like Christ on my secret book, but because — I feel like he is Of-the-People, By-the-People, and For-the-People — and I know that even though he may secretly find me in the dark when we play Spin-the-Bottle at my birthday party, out on the playground. when we’re choosing sides for baseball, he’s going to pick me LAST.

So I look up. “Yeah,” says George about my word theory. “Yeah” — (he’s almost smiling) — “Yeah — that’s really good. That bit about words being the real trauma — that was really fun.” He does a bit about kids, he says­ — another about words — and there’s a piece about kids’ words — I’ll see that in his show, he says — It’ll answer all my questions.

But I have one more question — I ask him whether he’s consciously worked out any theories about why all this is funny.

No, he says — it’s just INSTINCT — something he’s al­ways known — something that just occurs — “Because the creative child in me is — very active — and really rules the roost — and the three qualities that go into creativity you know — or spontaneity — are three qualities that are present in CHILDHOOD — the most creative state — they are INNOCENCE, CURIOSITY, and ENERGY.”

Most people, when they have a little faint stirring of the “creative child state” — they bury it — they’re afraid of it.

“Right,” says George. “They fear the child.”

And then I said “Okay — you’re excused from class,” and then he grinned (for the first time) and said “Oh Wow, Golly! I get to go home early!” and then he gave me a nice little kiss (like Pete Mcsweeney used to do in Spin-the-Bottle) and said “Thanks for the Good Vibrations” and I was on my way.

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Funny — he wasn’t even funny. Not in person. That is — not with me. And he isn’t funny talking with me that night either, talking be­tween shows. He’s straight, serious, full of “answers-to-test-­questions type analysis.” But then in walk the executives from Little David records — Monty Kay, Jack Lewis, Burt, and Ben — and the whole scene changes. “Hey it’s da first team!” calls out George, coming on mannish-clannish macho. “The fuckin’ Regulars — da varsity squad is here!”

Right — I knew it — he’s picking them for baseball. Where’s he coming from? I go back and listen to his records:

“I grew up in a little Irish neighborhood, right next to Har­lem. On one side, Columbia and everything connected with Columbia — Juilliard, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, St. Luke’s Hospital, St. John the Di­vine — all that stuff on one side — one the ether side” (long pregnant pause — mean deep voice) “HARLEM. We used to call our­selves ‘White Harlem’ — sounded BAD you know; ‘Hey man, where you live?’ — ‘White Harlem’ — oh! — sounded so FAGGY — to us anyway — Faggy had nothing to do with sex — a fag was a sissy — a fag was a guy who wouldn’t stay out late of go stealin’ or hitchin’ on trucks or something — ‘Aw go home, you fag — go home, fag — it’s 10 o’clock — the big fag’s gotta go home!”

“Queer — we knew what a queer was — a queer was the word we learned right after we learned ‘homo’ — ‘Ah — he’s a queer! — he’s a HOMO — yeah, yeah!” — A FAG was a guy who wouldn’t go downtown with you beaten’ up queehs! —part of that Irish Street Macho.”

Irish Street Macho — so that’s it — George simply doesn’t relate to women the way he relates to men — and he isn’t funny with women because he doesn’t have to be.

“Bein’ funny on the street. It was good to be funny on the street, especially if you weren’t one of those big fighter dudes and you were tired of running — it was good to be funny — would save you from an ass-kicking if some guy from another neighborhood came around — who’s gonna kick a guy who’s making cross eyes and screwin’ up his mug and going GAURRGHHH!!!? — ‘Lay off him, Charlie — don’t touch that one — it’s bad luck to hit a guy like that.’ ”

Girls — that is, women: girls and nuns and mothers — girls are not gonna kick you in the ass down on the street so GIRLS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM! You do not have to be funny when you talk to girls! (And he can’t think of any other way to be with them either, except kind of nice and POLITE, so the conversation kind of FALTERS — ­which it certainly did with us.)

Actually I did all the talking, and then I said ‘Okay — you’re excused from class — you can go home early,’ and he said ‘Oh wow golly,’ and that was right because he was being like a good little boy come to take the test (“all interviews are like tests,” says George) and I was being like a teacher/nun.

First it’s just that put-down feeling — and then it’s the typical Jew­ish psych-the-whole-thing-out ap­proach. Well, the man’s had a tough time of it keepin’ up the Irish Macho business — doesn’t deal with women anyway — they’re not on his album either — everything else is there — cats, dogs, farts, football vs. baseball, news, weather, dirty words, masturbation — he does try on that one to take the woman’s view — but it just doesn’t have that authoritative ring — the albums have an almost VIRGINAL quali­ty even when he gets into what he calls the “more gushy areas of universality” he doesn’t tread on SEX — when I him how his sex life with his wife was, he just said “fine” — kept it private — not that he should do anything else — it’s just that there’s been very little that he HAS kept private — his stock-in-trade is to talk about all the things people never talk about — all the forbidden subjects — so why not this one? but no — I sense it — this one is off limits.

But these thoughts all come later. Right now it’s Wednesday night, and I’m out there in my row at the Roxy, laughing like crazy, and George has gotten into his kid thing just like he said he would­ and h0w he’s getting into his words thing.

“Words are great — in the beginning was the word — GOD got to choose the first one and he got the best one — they had words — ‘my word’ — word for word’ — word contradictions: ‘jumbo shrimp;­ well, which is it for God’s sake?­ — let them make up their minds!­ — smithereens — why is it always talked about in plurals? — ‘Hey Johnny — look! Just found that smithereen left over from last year’s explosion!” — dirty words — finding the middle ground — somewhere  between ‘bloomer’ and ‘cuntlapper’ — the FUCK — substituting the fuck for the word kill  —’ to fuck a mockingbird’ ” (George makes an obscene gesture — grinds his groin (“where does my groin end and my loin begin?”) and stretches out his hands — to fuck a mockingbird — hold gently by the wings.’ ”

Words. So George is running through all this and now he’s kind of wriggling and talking about this kind of shaking that happens to you when you take a piss — “what does that mean? — TAKE a piss? you don’t TAKE a piss — you leave one” and he’s saying “What is that? — that shaking? — There’s n0 WORD for it — I call it the PISS QUIVERS” and suddenly I hear him saying, “Kids really like word jokes because they’re so hassled  learning words.”

Hey! How ’bout that! So George was really listening to my Pet Theory Number One! — and I suddenly get a glimpse into where George gets all his stuff — he gets it everywhere — anywhere — all day long!

I check out Carlin in “I Ching” and it comes up with a hexagram called INFLUENCE WOOING — and I realized that the word influence (in—fluence) literally means “a flowing in” — and in Chinese the  hexagram mean “general,” “universal,” and also stimulating” — thus conjuring up a picture of an individual being open to currents from all sides, being stimulated by them, and stimulating them in his turn.

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And it seemed to me that George was very much like that: he is open to every twist, weirdness, irony, surprise, delight — when I talked to him between the shows again, a bit of that exchange had been incorporated by the second show! If so, if he does that with me, he must do that with everyone, continually. Everything get worked in, a constant process, like the building of a shell.

“I noticed you worked in that thing about kids learning words.”

“Oh yeah.” George looks pleased, grinning. “Yeah, I’ve already started to work that in.”

Backstage at halftime — George sitting very quiet at an old oak desk, sitting in an old oak chair­ — like school. Heineken’s again. Club soda with a red straw. A lemon.

Interviews: George Carlin re­minds me of Joni Mitchell — who says all he has to say is in his work — there isn’t anything else to say — the rest is mainly filling up the spaces — showing up for the blue book and then saying­  — what? — well — not NOTHING — but saying all that left-brained, logi­cal, after-the-fact type stuff­ — polite analysis to satisfy the questioners — theories and reasons.

He wears blue because it’s like Mime, because he’s striving for “stark contrasts, stark emotions, classicism.” His work is new all the time (although he’s always using “old” material) because he changes the “order, the intonation, the choice of words, the look you give after you say it — you must have the feeling you’re kind of thinking of it for the first time — so you remember the JOY of thinking of that joke — that way you can say it again like it’s half — half not SPONTANEOUS or NEW — but just — half SURPRISE — you know — you have to feel the AWE!”

Does he ever worry about run­ning out of funny things to talk about?

“No — not really — I’m getting into other forms — I’m getting into creating on the typewriter, too­ — and through film — but rapping — it always will sustain me — I wouldn’t want to chase the same goal all the time for the next 20 years — but I’ll alway be able to do some rap­ping.”

Right now, what turns George on is: he’s getting into film — “Everybody has a path — I’m get­ting to another level. It’s just not out there on the table yet to show everyone, but we’re filming here Friday night, for instance, to have the basis for a lilm — It’s something — ­you don’t really want to talk about a lot, cause it’s just an embryo­ — but it’s a very healthy one.”

No doubt it is. Reports vary, but George is estimated to be raking in anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million a year these days. But he can’t stay on the college circuit forever — he’s surfacing — that’s why he’s playing at the Roxy this week, even though the money isn’t anything like what he’d be making in a bigger hall. “I want to reach these people — the Hollywood In­dustry people — I’m a kind of secret success to them. They know I’m doing well, but they don’t really know what I do.”

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I point out that he seemed to do less playing with the audience than he used to do two or three years ago.

“Well there was a real need to establish that in myself then — that moment-to-moment, let’s look at the event — heehee — you and I are here — and I’ve done a lot of that­ — I’ve felt those feelings — and I’ve established that kind of feeling about myself — so those things fade — they come and go. As they’re needed — This is all such a basic — psychological trip — you know — like that word is really good in terms of the process because you’re really just telling — you’re doing analysis up there, of sorts. You can’t help that-the things that are most significant about you are bound to surface — without your  even knowing it — or WITH your knowing it — whatever …

“So you go through stages just as you do in your own thinking — in your little fears — your experiments — all the various things that make up people — you know — happen there too as you develop your career — you grow — and grow up, you know. I’m kind of reaching young manhood again now for the second time — for four or five years now I’ve been acting out my adolescence in public — in terms of almost everything that applies to that part of your life: dress, and irreverence, and language, and drug experimentation — and alienation — and now that’s kind of rounding out in me.”

I ask him — George — what is the payoff?

“The payoff,” he said — “was getting people to stop for 10 minutes on the street corner and just PAY ATTENTION. Power — power to get the fuckers to stop and HEAR ME, HEAR ME FOR CHRISSAKES HEAR ME!”

And so he did it — did it as a kid — does it — does it far longer and longer periods of time — more and more people — worked it to perfection — well, not quite perfection — ­and that explains what he was saying in the break between the shows.

“It’s really funny— wanting to do those extra 30 minutes” (he had to cut the show down at the Roxy, to fit in two performances in one night) — I feel like — gee — you ought to know about my neighborhood — I got some really nice stuff on that that’s a lot like this other thing — you’d really like it — I got this rap on death — lexicon on death and violence — ‘that kills me,’ ‘that slays me,’ ‘that wipes me out’-nice stuff-missed that­ — couldn’t fit it in.” That bothered him — can’t say it ALL.

And what if he DID?

Power — PROOF — the money’s nice, he says. The life-style’s nice — being popular is nice — that’s getting closer to it — yes, he likes that — but the best part — the ATTENTION. “They’re all listen­ing to me! Wow.”

But how does he DO that! What is he selling that we pay so much attention?

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George Carlin is funny. Congenitally, genetically funny. He’s got these harty-har-har chromosomes and genes. Then there’s environment, too — lots of Irish Catholic Macho street kids learned to be FUNNY not to get their asses kicked in when some big tough fighter dude from the next block’s gang came sauntering down the avenue — but Carlin’s FUNNIER THAN THAT. Carlin is TRANSLUCENTLY funny.

Nouns and verbs and participles and arms and legs all dangling, gerundives, possessives, mostly subjunctives — what if? — and subjectives — MY story — MY street — MY class — Corpus Christi — Sister Marie Richard — my best masturbation stories that I traded with my old pal Bill — statements — periods — ­long periods of waiting, chewing, digesting, puking, processing, wasting away, the shitty parts, the pissed-off places, the stopping and the belching, farting away the time of day, the night, caffeine in his blood, caffeine, coke, grass, speed, beer, caffeine in the skin, the bones, the arteries, humor in another vein — no bones about it­ — the starting IS the stopping.

Translucent: the whole process is revealed. Translucent. That’s what it is — He’s crawled inside his own body, his brain — he’s let us see it — see the insides — see the blood swishing, turning — the snot running, the shit, the farts, the balls, the cock, the eyes, the brain — and once in a while — maybe — more and more — once in a while — the heart.

He gets high and we get high. Trippy, tripping — but mostly it’s that he sees right through himself. (“Hey! They’re all listening to me! Wow!”) and we see right through him. George Carlin seen as a pane of glass — set against the black background of general world TOTAL CHAOS. He becomes a mirror — and we see ourselves.

We look pretty funny too, God-dammit.

Cracks us up. ❖

1976 Village Voice profile of George Carlin


Lenny Bruce’s Fear: He Will Run Out of Fare to the Supreme Court

The local authorities probably won’t believe it, but their best — perhaps only — friend since they arrested Lenny Bruce on an obscenity charge at the Cafe Au Go Go last Friday night is Lenny Bruce.

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A petition drawn up by the newly formed Emergency Committee Against Harassment of Lenny Bruce, addressed to Mayor Wagner, challenges “New York City police and censors,” asking if ” ‘obscenity’ is the charge the public’s protectors have happily agreed is the best with which to silence an individual whose position, though popular with his audiences, is unpopular with an official minority?” And comedian Irwin Corey, who volunteered to go on in Bruce’s place at the Bleecker Street coffee house on the night of the arrest, devoted nearly all of his hour-and-a-half talkathon to the subject of “cops.” “A cop,” said Corey, “is an amoeba,” and the Village is a place “surrounded by precincts.”

‘Behind or Ahead’

But all Lenny Bruce will blame is the ‘mores or the times.’ “I’m either behind or ahead of the times,” he explains with incongruous equanimity.

A couple of hours spent with Bruce, however, can be a pretty incongruous couple of hours. First, tagging along with him and his private-detective sidekick to the Fifth Avenue apartment of a prominent civil liberterian, for whom they play the tapes of the shows for which Bruce was arrested. Sitting in a comfortable chair surrounded by wall-to-wall carpeting watching Bruce, in his light blue pants and white shoes and tan suede jacket, sitting stiffly in another comfortable chair, deadpan, listening to himself on the machine. And then watching him get fidgety, though always attentive and polite, as the liberal lectures him on the history of the good fight against censorship in this country and explains that Bruce’s language stems from an anal fixation, when all he really came for was some specific advice on his own case.

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Focus on Strategy

Later, in his room at one of the Village’s less elegant hotels, where there is no carpeting, just blankets and miscellaneous junk on the floor, Bruce kind of nervously jumps around, occasionally flopping down on the messed-up bed with a law book, all his attention focused on working out the legal strategy to get him out from under the latest charge against him. His steadily mounting experience in cases like this has made him somewhat of a specialist on the subject. The whole scene is reminiscent of poet Allen Ginsberg spouting the expertise he accumulated in his recent battle with the City License Department for the right of poets to read their work in coffee houses. Here too the authorities are, if nothing else, succeeding in distracting an artist from his work and turning him into a legalist.

But when Bruce is finally lured out of his law book and into a more general discussion of his problems, there is no display of bitterness — against neither the police nor the law itself. In fact, Bruce displays more compassion for the police than just about anyone around the Village these days. “They die for less than $400 a month,” he points out. “And they’re ashamed of being cops. It’s a shitty gig.” He feels it isn’t fair to treat individual policemen as symbols. Newspapers, he says, depend too much on symbols. “When they talk about Alec Guinness they say he’s Chaplinesque. And when they talk about Peter Sellers they say he’s Guinness-like,” Bruce complained, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and looking exactly like James Dean.

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Key Word: ‘Prurient’

As for the obscenity law, he says he thinks it’s “correct.” “The whole issue,” says Bruce, “is not that the state should keep its dirty hands off,” as the liberal he visited had insisted. For Bruce “the key word is ‘prurient.’ Don’t get people horny.” And he says, insisting he is serious, that there should be a law against getting people aroused because “it’s bad for marriages.” He says he’s not for the repeal of obscenity laws because “most laws have been defined and tested under Constitutional law by men like Judge Black and some other pretty wise old cats … Here’s how wonderful the law is,” he goes on, getting enthusiastic. “Even if (what you say) gets people horny, if it has some social importance it’s not obscene.”

Bruce’s quarrel is not with the law as written. He feels that the obscenity law as written and correctly defined does not inhibit his freedom of speech. He is confident that, as has happened in California, if his case has to go to a higher court, the words he has been hauled in on will not be judged obscene. The only fear Lenny Bruce has is “of running out of carfare to the Supreme Court.”

Uneasy Feeling

Bruce’s features have a strange quality of appearing both sharply defined and blurry, depending on the angle from which you look at him. And as you listen to him, you get the same uneasy feeling about his words, as though sometimes he is going too far for you to follow. Part of the problem is that his subtlety cuts though and goes beyond the liberal rhetoric we have come to depend on to identify a non-fink. As his friend remarked, “Lenny is fighting for the same things, but in his own way.”


Lenny Bruce Tagged on Obscenity, Run Extended at Cafe Here 

Comedian Lenny Bruce and Howard Solomon, manager of the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleecker Street, where Bruce is heading the bill, were arrested and taken to Sixth Precinct headquarters on Charles Street last Friday night. They were booked on charges of giving an “indecent performance.” On arriving at the police station, Solomon was served with a summons from the License Department.

The arrests were made at about 10 p.m. as Bruce was preparing to go on for his only show of the night. When he failed to appear most of the audience asked for their money back and left. Comedian Irwin Corey, who was in the audience, went on in Bruce’s place.

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Bruce and Solomon spent the night in jail and were released after arraignment the next day. Solomon was released in the rec­ognizance of his lawyer. Bruce, who has been arrested on obscenity charges in several cities and has one conviction on ap­peal in Chicago, had to post $1000 bail.

The two were told that the police had taped two of Bruce’s shows, his second show last Wednesday night (which actually began at 12:01 a.m. Thursday) and his first show last Thursday night. They were also told that the tapes had been played for a grand jury, which found that there was sufficient on which to charge them.

Solomon says the police told him that the original complaint about Bruce’s performances had come from the License Department. Acting License Commissioner William Barlow refused to comment on this. Instead he issued the following statement: “In view of the fact that a hearing is scheduled before this office on Thursday, there will be no comment on any phase until a determination has been made. We do not want to prejudice the case in any way by making any comment.”

Solomon had originally planned to operate the Cafe Au Go Go as a cabaret (which would permit dancing as well as entertainment) without liquor. He told The Voice that the License Department had indicated that he would receive a cabaret license and that he had proceeded with the renovation of the basement premises on the assumption that the license would be granted. He said his application had been filed last May, and that in December the License Department told him it would only grant him a coffee house license, which does not permit dancing.

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Bernard O’Connell, then License Commissioner, refused the license on the grounds that if dancing were permitted and no liquor were served, minors could be admitted and that they would go there to dance and then hang around until all hours of the night. Solomon told The Voice, however, that he had made it clear to the License Commissioner that he would “Abide by the letter of the law” governing cabarets and would not allow minors into his cafe unless they were accompanied by adults. He finally opened Cafe Au Go Go as a coffee house on February 7.

Vanguard Okay?

Solomon also pointed out that Bruce had appeared at the Village Vanguard last January and February and that he had given one-night performances to sell-out audiences at the Village Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, on Thanksgiving Night and the night of March 28. Neither of these establishments received complaints from either the police or the License Department.

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Bruce and Solomon will be tried on April 23 in Criminal Court. Ironically, Bruce’s arrest will serve to extend his run at Cafe Au Go Go, which was originally scheduled for one week and would have ended Sunday night. Since he has to be in town for his trial on the 23rd, he will go on performing at the Au Go Go until that date.

An Emergency Committee Againt Harassment of Lenny Bruce was formed over the weekend as a result of the arrest. The committee is circulating petitions addressed to Mayor Wagner. The petitions charge “that ‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.”


Tears of a Clown: Charlie Barnett Cracks Up

ON THE THIRD STAIR of the sidewalk entrance to the Palace Hotel on the Bowery I catch an unmistakable whiff of aging vomit; halfway up the steep concrete stairs I step on a purple jumbo vial and shatter it, then tiptoe through a small, multicolored minefield of empty vi­als up to the front door, which is decorated with a wreath of plas­tic holly and black magic marker graffiti reading, “Don’t Smoke Cwack.” The tiny lobby looks like a cage: straight ahead is a fenced-in reception desk papered with admonitions for transients and “ticket men,” nonpaying émigrés from the men’s shelter next door. A steel-gate door to the left leads to a long narrow hallway of rooms, a steel-gate door to the right opens onto the “dayroom,” a huge holding pen of a rec room, smelling of Lysol and hissing with the static of a TV tuned to an empty station. Five or six desperate-looking men are sleeping as far away from the TV as possible. I ask the stubby-bearded desk clerk if he’s seen Charlie Barnett. “Never heard of him,” he says, suspicious. Turning to go, I ask how much the rooms are. “Six dollars, 50 cents tax,” he answers. “But you don’t want to stay here.”

It’s been a long morning already, mak­ing the rounds of comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv for news of Charlie, hearing one How the Mighty Have Fallen comment after another. “You know about his films, all those TV shows?” Sylvia, the day manager at the Comedy Cellar, asked. “God, Charlie had it made.” There was a time Charlie en­joyed carte blanche in these places, drop­ping in at midnight after a day of street shows, stealing the prime spots from the scheduled acts; moving on to another club for more. Nobody was surprised when he Made It, a little over four years ago, and abandoned the clubs for the West Coast and stardom, and there’s a polite but noticeable relish of his hubris and low profile since coming back. “Two years ago,” said Sylvia, “he was in Holly­wood. La dolce vita. Now he’s back out on the street — 3rd and Avenue A, maybe the Palace Hotel. Poor Charlie.”

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Out on the street is where Charlie al­ways was, performing on Bleecker and Thompson, behind the newspaper kiosk on Sixth Avenue and 3rd, Washington Square Park, any semi-enclosed spot where he could set up shop, start yelling, and get a crowd. His half-hour shows, wired with the racial and sexual humor of early Richard Pryor, were revved up by pyrotechnical, viciously funny exchanges with his audience: winos, druggies, tour­ists, local professionals, professional loi­terers. Greg Mullins, a William Morris agent who lives in the Village, “discov­ered” Charlie one afternoon in 1980, per­forming for about 300 hysterical people in Washington Square Park and signed him up for bookings in “some of the better clubs across the country.”

He also got Charlie an audition for Saturday Night Live during the crossover from the original cast to the next genera­tion, which Charlie made good on, being called back a number of times for further tests. Jean Doumanian, the show’s pro­ducer at the time, remembers Charlie and his talent affectionately, but not the de­tails, and nobody at the current SNL goes back far enough to comment. The “inside story,” sworn to by someone close to the show, is that he lasted through final auditions on the strength of his own material, only to lose the spot to Eddie Murphy when it was learned Charlie wasn’t literate enough to read cue cards.

Charlie’s “break” came in 1984, when the casting agent of D.C. Cab saw him passing the hat in Washington Square Park, then filmed a performance in the Comedy Cellar and sent director Joel Schumacher a tape. Schumacher, looking for performers with a “raw, spontaneous edge,” says he “fell in love with Charlie at first sight,” and cast him opposite Gary Busey, Mr. T, and Adam Baldwin. Within weeks after the shoot, Charlie went bi­coastal, shuttling between New York and a new condo on Sunset Boulevard, with week- and nightlong stopovers at clubs in Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas.

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He aced his next shot at the Big Time, a spot on an early episode of Miami Vice, playing a police snitch called the Noogie, a character that proved popular enough for 10 more episodes over the next three years and which served as a springboard for three low-budget films, more than 10 HBO comedy specials, and an episode of T.J. Hooker. Every two or three months, he’d be back in Washington Square Park, talking about how different blacks are who’ve made it big (“Out in L.A. they got big-lipped, blue-black Alabama porch­monkey Negroes lying in the sun trying to tan their asses white”), how Abe Lin­coln nodded out on his monument while waiting for Mr. T to deliver his one line of the evening without fucking it up, and how rewarding it is to work your ass off and finally get what you always wanted: Enough Cocaine To Last the Night.

Though he was funnier than ever, over the next few years it became increasingly apparant something wasn’t right with Charlie: longer and longer pauses began to crop up in his formerly seamless shows, Charlie staring at his audiences like they were made of ether, coming down to the park looking like he’d just fallen out of bed, performing for 15 min­utes, then taking off. Mullins remembers this period with fond exasperation. “You’d get to the office and your first problem was a Charlie Barnett problem: Charlie’s cancelled a date, Charlie’s missed the plane, Charlie’s in the office for a check that’s not due for another few weeks. On Miami Vice they loved his character, his performances. But Charlie could bring confusion to any set he walked onto. And then there were the drugs. Finally, a year and a half ago, I had to cut it off with Charlie. He just got to be too much to deal with.”

A little over a year ago Charlie dropped out of sight: no more movies, TV, or street shows. A few months back a friend saw him performing in Washington Square Park, badly, and said Charlie looked completely cracked out.

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A BLACK ECONOLINE VAN with Jersey plates is backing up to the curb in front of the Palace. Four mid-thirties leather boys step out, rough and ready, wearing mascara, eyeliner. I watch them unload a stack of well-traveled Marshalls into CBGB next door, grateful for their hard­core, harmless presence, only gradually becoming aware of a finger poking gently into my arm from above. A heavily beard­ed man in a beat-up, pea green corduroy jacket is standing on the first step of the Palace stairs, smiling warmly as he tells me in a rapid-fire Negril patois not to worry, he’s got what I want, we’ll go for a walk, just call him Bigger, everyone does. Does he know Charlie? Of course he knows Charlie, Charlie’s a funny man, personal friend. As we turn onto 3rd Street, stopping at the men’s shelter so Bigger can talk shop with three guys named Stretch, Frenchie, and One-Eyed Shorty (everyone here seems to go by monikers), I understand he’s trying to sell me something, but I can’t figure out what it is. Bigger sounds more like an advance man for the Palace than any card-carrying crack dealer.

“Some very respectables come here,” he says as we complete our first lap around the block, never losing his sales­man’s smile. “The suit, the tie, the stock­broker, the chemical engineer, people, like yourself. Journalists. But they cannot compete with the people who live here. In the dayroom, when we past the drug, having lunch, watching TV, you see our quality of people — singers, entertainers, civil engineers, people like yourself. Jour­nalists. Those people who come to the Palace in their limousines, go to the Prince Town University, they cannot compete with men like I, who spend 75, 80 per cent of his life on the street. You learn too much on the street. Is the big­gest college there is.”

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As we turn onto Second Avenue again I lean against the fence penning in a va­cant lot to catch my breath, while Bigger says hello to a few of his colleagues speeding around the block. All are selling crack, Bigger tells me, except for a short, sweet-looking old-timer named Hook, selling $75 “Perry Ellis” shirts for $3 apiece, and a good-looking kid in stonewashed jacket and jeans, 16, 17 years old, who looks like he’s just begun the training program. “Now I feel secure for the first time today,” the kid says, appraising a new K57 switchblade he holds opened in his hands.

As he watches the knife go by, Bigger’s face is absent its smile for the first time. “Everything good and bad must come to an end,” he says, turning professorial. “Thirty, 40 per cent of them get out from under the crack, the rehab program. The John Belushi, the entertainer, Charlie, 90 per cent need something to hype them onto the stage, keep them going after the stage is finished. They come to see me, they know it is an event, something’s going to happen.”

Bigger watches two huge gray rats scavenge by the fence; he smiles, musing, “Charlie once must have had a lot of money. On a personal note though,” he says, turning around, “I have been com­pletely honest with you. How come you no give me two, three dollar?” I give him some money, asking where I might find Charlie. “You just miss him by an hour,” he says. I ask Bigger why he thinks some­one like Charlie would throw it all away. “The same reason as we all,” Bigger says. “Because he is addicted.”

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A TWILIGHT CONGREGATION of 50 or so stands under an elm tree near the arch in Washington Square Park, blowing into hands for warmth, laughing and scream­ing. In the center of their circle sits Char­lie, his little butt crammed into the top of a wire wastebasket, talking about how hard it is trying to fuck a prostitute in your room at the Palace Hotel when you’re cracked out of your mind. He’s picked up a few decibels since I last saw him, and has added some of the staccato cadence and gestures of a Southern Bap­tist preacher: he sounds like a man testi­fying, but proud, unrepentant, with an “I alone have survived to tell the tale” deliv­ery. After an afternoon’s rafting through the stream of hyperkinetic zombies on 3rd Street, I recognize the sentiment.

“I had me a fine room there,” he’s yelling. “Finest room $6.50 can buy. And a stack o’ rubbers” — he raises the imagi­nary stack in his left palm, Exhibit A. “I was prepared … to meet the virus. And I had me a stem,” he lifts his right hand, ” — and $50 of what goes in it. And I had me a beautiful black woman. And she was willing, brothers and sisters. She was fuckin’ desperate.”

Charlie lowers his right fist and inhales for a long time, closing his eyes. He looks like he’s seeing something horrible when he opens them again. “When you smok­ing crack,” he says with a lowering voice, “you get paranoid. Like a motherfucker . I’d be checking out the woman, the rub­bers, then back at the bitch. And she be saying, ‘C’mon Charlie, I wanna get down.’ And I get mad. Furious. ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales, glowering, his eyes growing wide until he looks furious, dan­gerous. ” ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales again, “‘I am gonna fuck the shit out of your black ass. Just as soon as I finish.’ ” He inhales once more, then looks at his left hand. “I’m so paranoid now I put on all the rubbers. Sixteen of ’em.”

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Everyone starts howling as Charlie mimes it, each one more difficult to force on. “Even my rubbers was paranoid!” he screams. “By the time the last one’s on, they’re yelling, ‘No Charlie! Please! Don’t make us go in there! Let’s go in that bathroom and massss-tuhbate.’ ”

Two elegant kids with matching dou­ble-breasted suits, gold wire-rims, and Grace Jones coifs fall to their knees on this last joke, pleading, “Oh shit, oh shit.” Charlie checks them out, rising from his garbage can. “Jesus!” he screams. “There’s two of you mother­fuckers. The rhinestone asshole twins. But I like my man’s hair,” he points to one, strutting the width of his circle like a five-foot-four Jake LaMotta, making eye contact with anyone who’ll dare. “Looks like a fuckin’ shoebrush.”

As he settles back into the garbage can to do his imitation of a crackhead vet pirouetting paranoically down the Bow­ery in his wheelchair, a six-foot-six, 250- pound wino spills out of the crowd to join the fun, coughing up ugly fluids, roaring like a hippo. He gets an ovation from the crowd — seemingly the only response he’s had in months — and decides to stay. Charlie, who’s been dealing with occupa­tional hazards like this on a daily basis for over a decade, borrows a dollar from someone, then, like a matador, holds it up to the man, saying, “Here, Papa,” till the man sees the bill and goes for it, repeatedly, as Charlie leads him safely out of the circle.

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“How many you people like my show?” he asks, returning the dollar; he gets a huge round. “Good. Because now I collect for real. I want you to pay me! I don’t drink, I don’t steal, and I haven’t had any drugs in … excuse me, what time is it?”

The last time I saw Charlie, I realize as he passes by with his monogrammed leather baseball cap in his hand, was in this spot, but that was over a year ago. I’ve forgotten how small and fragile he is, how childlike his features are, how lean and adolescent his body looks. All his clothes seem outsized, like he’s still a few months shy of growing into them: his cap (worn backward), plain blue T-shirt, un­laced Avias, cuffed Levis, always clean and ironed. He looks more like a well­scrubbed Little Leaguer heading for a full day at the playground than a 34-year-old man who’s spent the night in an SRO.

“SURE, I’ll TALK TO YOU,” Charlie says while he’s signing autographs, con­firming an amorous Columbia Grammar student’s suspicions that it was him she saw on all those episodes of Miami Vice. Once the fans are gone, he counts the coins and bills in his hat. He isn’t pleased. “I had me a lot of money once,” he commiserates with himself. “So you want to talk about drugs, right?”

Struck a little dumb by his directness, I ask after his resume, and Charlie reels off a list of performances: his movies, a ton of cable specials, a film he wrote and starred in called Terms of Enrollment: Charlie Barnett’s Guide to Higher Educa­tion, a role in Nobody’s Fool, the list goes on. I ask if he made a lot of money for his biggest movie, D.C. Cab. “Yep, and a $1.2 million contract for three movies. Plus points and all that bullshit. Fucked that up good. Plus 10 Miami Vice episodes — ”

“What was it like working with … ?”

“Don’t like him. Don Johnson? Don’t like me either. Had a fistfight with him, right on the set, first few days. ‘Cause I stole the episode. It was called ‘Cool Run­nin’.’ I stole it. They were talking about how this black guy’s great, and the man just started fuckin’ with me, saying ‘You been on this show for a week and you think it’s yours.’ And so I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and we got into it.”

“Did you get in any good shots?”

“Nah, it turned into a wrassle. The teamsters grabbed us and dragged us off. He called me and apologized. I just did another Vice, a year ago.”

I tell him I can’t connect all that with doing street shows for chump change. He shakes his head, telling me that isn’t the problem. “I made $200 one show last Saturday and I woke up on a bench in Tompkins Square Park next morning. I did even better that night, and I was standing in the food line Monday morn­ing. I’m trying to handle these drugs.”

A woman who looks faintly familiar to Charlie comes up to talk. A friend of a friend, she tells him about the rough time she’s had since coming to New York, and Charlie reaches into his hat for a $5 bill, a substantial fraction of what’s in there. “Listen,” he tells me, “I gotta walk. Let’s do this tomorrow or something.” “Fine,” I say, then watch him walk her to the corner and say goodbye, patting her shoulder warmly, making a couple of jokes before he turns round and heads east, toward the Bowery, walking faster and faster till he’s out of sight.

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THE NEXT DAY COMES but Charlie doesn’t, nor the next or the day after. Saturday, a gorgeous day, brings a mob to the park, and an almost medieval array of performers sets up shop in the center of the fountain: Joey Joey, a unicyclist/ sword-swallower; mimes; a martial arts juggler; a six-five transsexual in green body paint imitating the Statue of Liber­ty; the Calypso Tumblers, flipping and flying over each other and making a ton of money. Everyone but the prince of fools.

By Wednesday it’s cold and rainy. The main attraction in the park is a squad of bearded men in yellow T-shirts talking in relay about the Power of Darkness With­in You, arguing with a homeless Hispanic woman who refutes all of their points with the simple reductio, “I’d marry a pit bull before any of you godless excuses for men.”

Late in the afternoon, I witness some­thing nasty: a black man in his thirties, leaning awkwardly over a chess table in the corner of the park, an intense, vacant look on his face as a patrolman with a size-18 neck frisks his torso, arms, and legs from behind. Finding nothing, the cop snarls some unacknowledged words to the wise and takes off, and the man sits down at the empty table to gather his wits. I recognize him suddenly: Alex, a weak but iron-willed chess player who used to be here constantly, falling into lost positions all over the board, then finding one saving move after another till his opponent finally dropped. It’s been some time since I’ve see Alex, and the change is frightening. Six months ago he was a gentle, solvent professional who didn’t seem a day over 25.

A few tables over, a friend of mine named Eddie has stopped his chess clock to watch the proceedings. “Damn,” he says, starting his clock as Alex takes off across the park at breakneck speed, “Alex is gone.” I ask where he’s gone to and Eddie, flashing his opponent a how-stu­pid-can-this-white-man-be grin, says, “East. See? The man’s gone east on im­portant business. What I hear,” he con­cludes, sacrificing a rook with an angry flourish, “business is booming.”

AT TWILIGHT I FIND CHARLIE sitting by the fountain, wrapped up in a polyester-­filled ski coat, watching a comic named Albert try to perform while a THC-­crazed kid standing nearby aims karate kicks at his head. Charlie greets me warmly, putting his arm around my shoulder, and together we watch Albert’s show disintegrate. “It’s getting cold,” he says. “People gotta go to work tomorrow. I hate to do this, but — ”

Charlie walks 20 yards away, drops his coat on the ground, and starts screaming, “Showtime. Showtime, motherfuckers.” Minutes later, he has every cogent person in the park in his corner and the show begins, Charlie down on his knees, pounding the bricks, screaming, “I hate that bitch. I hate that bitch. Robin, Bitch, Ass, Fuckin’ Givens wants $20 mil­lion for eight months of marriage and I know for a fact the Champ didn’t get to fuck her ass but four times. That’s $5 million a fuck. I know a woman on 3rd Street for $20. Yo, Mike,” he whispers, “spend the extra buck on the rubber — it’s worth it. And I knew,” he raises a fist in solidarity, “I knew she married my man for his money. Think about it. Would a bitch that fine fuck a gorilla for free?”

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And on he goes, one racist, sexist, ho­mophobic joke after another, each laced with some rage or foolery so extreme he can get away with all of them. Charlie is always acting something out, something childish and familiar; whether he’s mak­ing fools of the audience or of himself, he’s making you an accomplice, his witness; if the joke doesn’t get you, the anger or panic on his face will, getting Japanese tourists to laugh about their big cameras and tiny dicks, black men to laugh about how they’ve never seen a subway token in their lives, Puerto Ricans to laugh about how they’re born with knives in their hands and live 4000 to a room, women about how they sound like a small rodeo when they’re coming, jokes about every­one and everything.

Thirty minutes later, Charlie’s feeling good, with a hat full of money and a gaggle of admirers around him, easing the bridge from showtime to reality. His girl­friend, Marcie, a 27-year-old cellist with two masters degrees, has returned from visiting relatives in Germany, and he’s living happily, and — this week, at least — ­drug-free out in some obscure part of Jersey with her again. He’s been offered a movie about sea monsters that will film in Florida over the winter, and is booking himself into the New York clubs for the month ahead, the weather dropping too rapidly for him to be able to count on street shows for a living anymore.

I go over to watch Marcie sing soprano with Zeus, Chicken George, and Jodi in an a cappella quartet called The Village All Stars. It’ been a while since I’ve heard good four-part harmony, and I’ve forgotten how beautiful it can be, how much meaning it’ll lend even the most insidious tripe:

In the words of a broken heart,
It’s just Emotion,
Breaking me over … 

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A few feet away, Charlie is settling accounts with some neighborhood credi­tors — the shish kebab man, the hot dog man, a guy who lent him $5 last week­ — everyone who asks, seemingly, but for one grinning, desperate-looking charac­ter, who seems completely unfazed by Charlie yelling at him to go fuck himself, to go fuck his mama. “You just remember that next time you come to me,” the man says with a smile.

“I hate those motherfuckers,” Charlie tells me, leading us to a bench nearby. Realizing this is my formal interview, I get the tape running and ask my first question: What motherfuckers?

“Motherfucking drug dealers. They want me to kill myself,” Charlie answers. “They always smiling, saying, ‘Hey, Charlie, how many? You got my money?’ Nah, I can’t do it. It’s a fuckin’ nightmare. Heroin, you get to nod out of reali­ty. Cocaine, you hear the least little sound. Lots of guys you see are doing speedball, they say it’ll slow you down, you won’t go back and buy coke right away. And I say, ‘Wait a minute, me and you both go running back to the drug spot, you buy the speedball, all I’m buying’s cocaine, how much is it slowing you down?’ It’s just, I’m the one making the money, and they figuring, they get me into heroin, I buy 10 bags a day.”

So on a day you’re smoking crack, a typical day …

“In the life of Charlie as Crackhead. Let’s see, I do a show. I walk that way [points east]. Toward 3rd Street. When I disappear, just like that, then I’m going to get high. Over by the Palace, the men’s shelter. Tons of fuckin’ crack. Five-dollar vials. Get a stem, light it up, suck it in, blow it out. ‘Come on. Poh’lice. ‘Sgetouttahere. Try to keep the stem on.’ ”

So how much will you do at a time?

“The whole thing.”

Which whole thing?

“Whichever whole thing there is.”

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Somebody I don’t get a good look at passes by, telling Charlie he shot his girl; from the look on Charlie’s face, I get the feeling the guy isn’t joking. When Marcie comes over in between songs and nestles into Charlie’s shoulder, I ask if he’s funny at home. No way, she says, the lazy fuck just sleeps all day, then she slaps his face and goes back to her quartet. On cue, a six-foot, 85-pound Morticia Addams look-alike drifts over to say she loved Charlie’s show, smiling at him like he’s the Charlie Manson she’s been waiting for. Charlie says he’s being interviewed, explaining, “That’s an old-fashioned junkie,” as she wanders off. Then he identifies what some of our neighbors are on; half are drugs I’ve never heard of. I ask what the crack high’s like.

“Paranoia,” he says. “I was high now, I couldn’t sit here, I’d be looking around, thinking everyone’s trying to get in my pocket.”

When ‘s the last time you smoked?

“Seven days ago. I still haven’t recov­ered. It got to a point, recently, where I couldn’t even — not that I wasn’t funny, but I’d only do $10 shows. Soon as I could get $10 in the hat I’d end it.”

So why do you do it?

“I don’t know. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a high I cannot stand. Drugs make me work my ass off. I got good at being funny ’cause I needed the money to get high.”

Do you think you ‘re punishing yourself for something?

“Probably. ‘You got a low self-esteem/if you like to beam/and it ain’t what it seem/’cause you’re chasing a dream/down 3rd Street, the Devil’s beat.’ ”

Sounds like a rap song.

“Me and Marcie wrote it together. It’s called ‘Third Street.'” He takes out a dog-eared, typewritten copy of the lyrics and starts reading:

… This drug is a drug
that will kill your ambition
but ya jus’ won’t listen
coz ya can’t stop dissin’
and you’re always in position
for goin’ on a mission
it’s an everyday tradition
on Third Street.

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I get the feeling Charlie’s self-conscious about reading, and I look down, nodding to his faltering beat, surprised at how lame his rapping is, how little snap is in his bravado. Charlie’s a consummate clown, capable of becoming anyone in­stantly, and this would seem a simple enough persona. By the last page his voice is almost inaudible, incredibly plaintive, and I look up. His eyes are closed and I realize he’s no longer recit­ing, that he never really was:

I jus’ gotta get high and I don’t know why
I wanna take away the pain but then it’s back again
I’m just sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ greedy and needy and seedy.
I’m finished with the filth and the crime
crack crack crackin’ it up all the time
crawling through the gutter and slowly dyin’
Jus’ can’t stop buyin’
on Third Street, the Devil’s beat. * 

I wait out a long moment before re­sponding: Sounds pretty dreadful.

“It is. Right from the start. I want to stop. I’ve been running good and bad with it, going to NA [Narcotics Anony­mous] meetings. One day I’ll smoke, then I’ll stop for a week, then I’ll do it for a month. Pure paranoia. If your hand was here, I’d watch my bag. I don’t trust nobody.”

I look at his hands, which are enor­mous: huge, spatulate fingers, each fin­gernail as wide as two of mine. “I’ve got these E.T. fingers,” he shrugs. “I was born with an enlarged heart, then I got rheumatic fever when I was a year old.”

Where were you living then?

“Well, I was born in Boston; when I got that they said I was in North Carolina.”

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Charlie talks a little of his past, sketch­ily, and with a tenderness that belies the content of what he’s saying. His mother, he says, “was fucked up, stepdaddies and shit.” His one memory of his real father takes the form of a joke: “My dad cracked up in the Korean War; by the time I was a year old he’d told enough neighbors he was Jesus they put him in the nuthouse for five years. When he came out, he didn’t say he was Jesus anymore. He said he was God — which was fine, ’cause that made me Jesus.”

Charlie doesn’t have any jokes to tell about his childhood in North Carolina, just some bitter, impressionistic memo­ries of being largely uncared for by rela­tives, of the stigma of his semiorphanage and complete poverty, of being beaten by teachers in class and by the kids after school. “They used to never promote me in school. I used to always get whuppings. The kids used to beat up on us afterward, and it was an embarrassment to play with the Barnett boys. My older brother and me, the black sheeps on the street. My mother dumped us off down there, and I didn’t see her for 11 years.”

When he finally returned to his moth­er, at the age of 12, she was “still fucked up” and he was practically illiterate, which in the Boston of the early ’60s meant an effective end to his education. (After the Saturday Night Live auditions he taught himself to read.) He remembers adolescence as a series of racist reform schools in Massachusetts, which taught him only “how to fight, to stay alive, and what drugs did what for your head.”

“Comedy,” he says, “came much later, as a kind of gift I never knew I had. I learned I could make people laugh, that I loved to do that, and that after a while I could make a living at it. I never thought of making it, I never thought of audition­ing for anything. Everything I ever got came from someone seeing me on the street and wanting me.”

Joel Schumacher, his director on D.C. Cab, remembers an “incredible need to succeed in Charlie, and a shyness and innocence that I formed an immediate attachment to. He was like a kid who’d fallen asleep dreaming up one of his street shows and then woken up on a Hollywood set. A lot of people got very interested in Charlie very quickly,” he recalls, “making him all kinds of offers. It confused him, brought on all sorts of con­flicts and doubt. I felt a little culpable, and wondered if I wouldn’t have done better to have left him in the park, where at least he knew the turf. He’s such a complicated, fragile person, a true origi­nal. Over the years he’s really paid the price for being so. Even when everything was going so well, there was a kind of Judy Garland-John Belushi side to Char­lie, very angry, self-destructive, very much the same anguish, finally the same response. In our Marie Antoinette era, we say, ‘Just Say No to Drugs.’ But what does that mean to someone like Charlie? Just say no to a lifetime of anger?”

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Greg Mullins says that Charlie’s is “the saddest case I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in the business 14 years. I remember one night, during one of Charlie’s drug-free periods, I took a colleague to a show of Charlie’s that just wasn’t working. He was clearly uncomfortable onstage, un­funny, not like himself at all. My friend said, ‘Greg, how do we get him back on drugs?’ It’s a cruel story, but it illustrates the point: Charlie’s humor comes from his life, and his life’s been a cruel one.”

“I’ve had a fucked-up life,” Charlie nods. “My life is fucked up. I’m an angry man, and I’m an angry comic. I’m funni­est when I’m mad. But you have to be on, and you’ve got to be quick. My brand of humor, you can’t be, shit, what’s that word? The audience will take over, you have to be so bold they’ll just accept you, so they say, fuck it, we have to, ’cause he’s too crazy for us to reason with him. I say all that vulgarity — sex, all that shit, people will — I get hecklers. They don’t like what I say and speak on it. So I dog ’em. You can’t be laid back worth a fuck. Some women get angry during the shows, ’cause that’s where a lot of my anger comes from and that’s where it goes. I used to have a hell of a temper, used to always beat up on women.

“It’s funny though, my father died this summer, and I went to see my mother, first time in years. When I was a year old, she was in trouble and sent me away for 11 years. When I came home, she was in trouble, and when I saw her this summer she was still in trouble. Only now I was a junkie, and I had to forgive her a lot of shit. We both just started crying.”

“Charlie,” Marcie told me later, “has lots of sides to him: his image side, which is really up for grabs, day-to-day. He’s got a very ‘personal’ side — the ‘Fuck it, I might as well just be honest’ side. He’s got what he calls his nigger side, which is very proud, and pretty cutting. And there’s the real Charlie, that only people like One-Eyed Shorty know, bums and addicts. More important, it’s how Charlie knows himself. King of the Park. Lots of times we wouldn’t have enough money to eat, and Charlie’d give them half of it, ’cause they had nothing. It comes from knowing what it’s like. Sometimes he’d be walking through the park at 7 a.m. after a night of partying, without a dime and hungry. He’d yell, ‘OK, I’m collecting for yesterday’s show,’ and they’d pay up-a quarter, 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but at times like that it can be a lot of money.”

The Village All Stars are retiring for the night. There’s no one left in the park to sing for but the Rastas selling drugs by the chess tables, and they’re here for the night. Charlie really wants to go, rushing Marcie, saying a quick goodbye to me. Last week this time, Charlie was east­bound once the show was over, and it’s clear he’s still programmed that way, strongly, only what he wants now is to go home while he still can. When the five of them head up Fifth Avenue, Charlie’s a few steps ahead of the others and looking back over his shoulder, impatient at their dawdling and singing, which he keeps telling them is “completely homeless.”

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THE COMIC STRIP on 82nd & Second is a welcome anachronism among the nou­veau quiche cafés and boutiques of the Upper East Side, a place you’d sooner expect to pop up in some Jack Webb vehicle of the ’50s. Inside is the warm comfort of old wood, old beer, and old jokes; the clientele at the dimly lit bar (ex-comics, mostly, and comics waiting to go on) arguing about George Bush seem like they might as well be talking about Duke Snider or Abe Beame. I find Char­lie, glum and angry, sitting with Marcie in a graffiti-scarred oak booth opposite the bar. He’s been given the best spot, at 1 a.m., but there are four comics on be­fore him, and he says he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be anywhere.

It’s been a month or so since I first met Charlie. I’ve gotten a powerful second­hand taste of what running good and bad with a major league drug habit’s like, the good time spent largely recuperating, the bad in tremendous isolation, in a place where I certainly can’t follow him. Char­lie is remorselessly candid about his life (it’s the source of his comedy, and he doesn’t seem to know how to be any other way), but piecing it together from what he says is puzzle work. Events he describes in a deeply historical tone often turn out to have taken place two days before, and his mood swings are baffling and sudden: one afternoon, I’d find him performing in the fountain at the top of his form, wearing his sleeveless CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt, doing a perfect moonwalk as he explains he’s just trying to get the shit off his shoes, then I’d witness one of his $10 corner shows and quick getaways lat­er that week. The end of it all seems to be the mood I find him in now, depressed, hostile, confused, utterly disgusted.

Still, things are looking up. There’s a tentative two-week offer from a big club in Fort Lauderdale, coinciding nicely with the sea monsters he’ll be costarring with nearby. Charlie, a professional comedian above all else, knows how to take the good in the same stride as the worst of it. Though he’s feeling like shit, he’s all busi­ness tonight, hustling agents who’ve come to see him, talking shop with club-­owner Richard Tinken, a big man in the comedy field and someone in a position to do him some good. He settles back in the booth and tells me about life in L.A., how he got sick of the condo swimming pool after a month, then retired every afternoon to the sauna in his apartment, sweating the drugs out. After a cold shower he’d walk down Sunset Boulevard past the Chateau Marmont (the luxury hotel where John Belushi OD’ed) to the Comedy Store or over to Venice Beach to do a street show. I ask Charlie how the clubs in L.A. compare to New York. “Same shit,” he says, “nice places.”

The Comic Strip’s eight-by-10-foot stage is only a few inches above the audi­ence level, so well-lit it’s practically glow­ing in the dark, 200-seat room surround­ing it. It’s a full house tonight, 98 per cent white: aging jocks from the boroughs in threes and fours, awkward, half-drunk couples, flocks of tourists. A lot of the women look like they’ve been dragged here, and it is a fairly macho scene. The beginning of a 10-man, all-night bachelor party has a lock on the first-row tables; the groom, a kind of Spuds MacKenzie on two legs, has an audible head start in the booze department and pride of place under the microphone. He’s been heck­ling the shit out of the last two comics.

Limited to 15 minutes, Charlie hits the stage running, and by his second joke is walking up and down in front of the first-­row tables, asking the two black couples in back to smile so he can see them, giving high-fives to Bachelor #1, yelling “How the hell are you, fuckin’ A, how’s the wife, how’s my kids?” then stepping onto a second-row table to ask a stony­-faced middle-aged woman where she’s from. “From St. Louis,” she says. “Do the women there masturbate?” Charlie asks politely. Apparently they don’t, or would rather not say, and this enrages Charlie. “You lying bitch,” he yells, walk­ing to the stage and flopping on his back. “What the fuck is this?” He puts a finger to his groin and starts convulsing up and down the stage until the woman, who can’t believe what she’s looking at, snick­ers under her hand a little. Charlie keeps it up, his mouth open and gagging, his eyes going white, and finally the woman starts roaring, louder than the bachelors in front of her. When he finishes, Charlie leans back on an elbow. “Now you re­member?” he asks, nodding his head. “I thought you would.”

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AFTER HIS SET, I offer Charlie and Mar­cie a ride to Port Authority in the cab I’m taking downtown. Turning onto Times Square, wall-to-wall crowds at 3:00 a.m., I ask Charlie, who’s been pretty quiet the whole ride, if he’d ever perform in a place like this. “I do perform here, all the fuckin’ time,” he says. “That corner over there.”

I take a long look at the furtive little congregations forming and unforming at the “Meat Market,” the corner of 42nd and Eighth; it’s been said that over $1 million changes hands on this corner ev­ery day. To me, it’s like watching a bee­hive, only more alien, dozens and dozens of people moving back and forth, no one seeming to leave. To Charlie it’s just an­other crowd: “Huge audiences,” he says, looking out the window with me, “any time of the night. Hookers, winos, crack dealers, heroin addicts, drag queens, pimps. They pay real well. You’d be amazed at how well they pay here. Good place to work on your heckler lines, any new material. I learn how to time my routines here.”

I’ve never heard Charlie talk about ma­terial before, or timing or routines, any of the buzzwords of his work; it’s easy to lose sight of his craft. I ask if there are any other comedians he likes, and he says, “Richie,” really softly, with incredi­ble tenderness. “Lenny.”

At risk of patronizing Charlie, I ask him: “Why on earth would men like that destroy themselves with drugs?”

Charlie turns to Marcie and says he wants to go for a bite before getting on the bus back to Jersey. I wonder if he hasn’t heard me, or if he’s just impervi­ous to such questions. “Because he’s a drug addict,” he finally says, looking lost in thought as he steps out of the cab. “What more reason do you need?” ■


John Belushi: He Who Laughs First

It’s not easy to offend. We’re so tolerant, the folks in the National Lampoon Show can’t even get a summons for burning dollars on stage. They’ve got to go a long mile to pass the limits of acceptability where satire begins. But there al­ways are limits. Our ever-so-liberal consciences finally shudder at mockery of the blind, paraplegics, blacks, Jackie Onassis. We’re horror-struck by our laughing. The sane agree: they’ve gone too far.

Too far for the Lampooners means something different: when the audi­ence stops laughing. Laughter, according to the director-star co-au­thor of the National Lampoon Show, John Belushi, is good. If they’re laughing, even if they hate them­selves for laughing, they’re having a good time.

Belushi is a satirist not because he’s mean, he says, or neurotic, like many satirists, but because he likes to make people laugh. He likes to laugh himself. The touchstone for all his material is whether he and his friends think it’s funny. Unlike mass-market comics, who must gear their message to their audience. Be­lushi trusts his material to find its own audience of kindred spirits. He does not want to browbeat or abuse or humiliate his audience, merely to communicate with them via laugh­ter, not preach to them (although some of his skits bear a moral load), but share with them the way he is.

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On stage, Belushi plays the ma­lignant hulking heavy — the security officer checking the audience for exportable aliens, a greedy Cypriot archbishop advertising his Big-Ma­karios hamburger chain, the macho stud who thinks he can seduce a girl by insulting her. His cherubically overripe face is made sinister by a beard and eyebrows that he will suddenly arch almost out of his skull. (In college he played Cardinal Wool­sey.) In “Lemmings,” the previous National Lampoon show, which parodied the rock scene, he “did” macho of machos Joe Cocker. It’s no surprise that when 12 years old. Belushi’s idol was Brando, whose “The Wild One” he tried to imitate. (By imitating Brando’s performance as a gay in a subsequent film, “Re­flections in a Golden Eye,” Belushi happened on his startling Truman Capote imitation. One wonders from these multiple mirror tricks whether a Capote might not always be hiding inside a Brando, and vice versa.)

Belushi is so aggressive in his act, one is surprised by his mildness and modesty. Now that the National Lampoon Show is closing for a breathless nine-month tour with a new cast, he is just another out-of­-work actor waiting by his telephone praying producers will not oblige him to come to them. In two years in New York he has never had to audition and the prospect unnerves him. “Because you’re in a revue, they think you can’t act. You’re not serious. I did serious acting in col­lege and stock companies. I can do it. But nobody believes you.”

Complaining, though, is not Belushi’s way. When asked, “Does that bother you ?” he shrugs, “Yeah, it bothers me,” as if his being bothered was both obvious and unimportant. What matters is his good fortune. Born in Chicago in 1949, he grew up studying Brando. At the University of Illinois, he formed a satirical skit group. He also did serious acting. He left college in his Junior year, when he discovered Second City in Chicago, where the likes of David Steinberg. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin got their starts. It amazed him that the kind of skits he had been doing as a lark could be considered serious work. He joined. One day a director called, looking for someone who can “play an instru­ment, do imitations of rock stars, improvise, do comedy.” “I can do all of it,” said the unabashed Belushi, and landed the role of the announcer in “Lemmings.”

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Next came the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which he acted in and helped write, and of which he later became Creative Director. The show was a popular success but offended too many sponsors to maintain the requisite advertising, Then came the present National Lampoon Show, which Belushi directed, having de­vised it with his other original cast members.

Belushi is grateful to the National Lampoon organization but not uncri­tical. “It’s a security trap. Good money, a lot of freedom. They let you write your shows and put them on with no hassles with producers or red tape. They spend as much as you need. But it gets so you can’t escape. Nobody considers you legitimate because you’re National Lampoon.” Now the Lampoon wants Belushi to help write a movie, but Belushi isn’t sure. There’s still that Brando dream glittering in his eyes.

It’s not going to be easy for him. “I couldn’t stand acting in a lousy play,” he says. “I like acting on my own stuff because I know it’s good.” He is uproariously critical of bad acting, especially of the overacting of the Negro Ensemble Company, which he parodied in a skit called, “Raisinette in the Sun — or, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Act.” If I were a director, I’d be wary of Belushi, not because he’s difficult, but because his standards are high and his wit lacerating.

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He has another revue he could do, but he’s tired, for now, of revue work, although that may be just post-closing doldrums and not a per­manent attitude. The single route of the stand-up comic he avoids like death. “I hate clubs,” he says, almost shuddering, “the noise at the bar, the talking. When I was at Second City, I met Shelley Berman for a few seconds on an airplane. Because Berman used to be at Sec­ond City, I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m at Second City now.’ He looked at me for a moment and said, ‘stay out of the clubs.’ That’s all. Then he said it again, ‘Stay out of the clubs.’ ”

Nightclubs, for Belushi, mean iso­lation, hostility, standing alone on stage and trying to communicate with a boozy crowd who couldn’t care less. The joy of theatre for Belushi is social: working and laughing and inventing together. Al­though he occasionally sits down and writes out a solo piece, most of his writing is improvisational, which, he says, “is as much writing as sitting down at a typewriter. You suggest something, you do it, then you work on it, remembering the good beats.”

Most of the hysterical high-points of the National Lampoon Show were developed improvisationally. For in­stance, having Jackie Kennedy on a celebrity panel show was one person’s idea. Having a starting gun was someone else’s. Having Jackie, in her unforgettable pink pillbox hat and dark glasses, duck under her seat at the sound of the gun, was yet another person’s idea.

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I asked Belushi if the Jackie skit wasn’t “too far.” He shrugged: “Everybody laughs,” as if laughter were the ultimate justifier. Strange­ly, it is. If the skit was merely cruel, as many people thought “The Dead Sullivan Show” was, then one couldn’t laugh, at least not healthily, wholeheartedly. The Jackie moment is not laughing at assassinations, but at our absurdly reverent attitude toward the woman. In laughing at her, we reduce her to a more human, familiar size. Similarly, the skit about Mary Tyler Moore as a blind girl is not cruel to the blind but equalizing, making them no more sacrosanct than the rest of us. Blind people who’ve “seen” the show, says Belushi with a grin, come up afterwards saying it was terrific and they know even better blind jokes and thank God someone was finally  treating them like the rest of the world.

To be a successful satirist, one must love life. It is the love that tells you when is “too far.” I know John Belushi is compassionate because his depictions of monsters are less horrible than pitiable. His insight into the weakness hiding behind the stone appearance should stand him in good stead if he ever gets his chance to play the hero, the Brando.


Why Chris Gethard Is Walking Away From His TV Show

On Monday afternoon, in a long Facebook post, Chris Gethard announced the end of The Chris Gethard Show. The series has a long and somewhat torturous history: It began as a monthly live show at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade in 2009, when Gethard was an instructor at the legendary improv theater, and moved to the public access channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) in 2011. Comedy Central commissioned a pilot in 2013, but declined to pick up the series. The show aired out of MNN’s 59th Street studio until 2015, at which point Fusion picked it up — and cut it down from an hour to thirty minutes — for two seasons. For its third and final season, which ended in May, TCGS hopped to truTV. And now, more than 200 episodes later, it’s over.

A freewheeling phone-in series with an anarchic spirit, TCGS had a punk-rock heart and an air of spontaneity that is rare for television these days. The late-night show had a simple conceit, centered on host Gethard; his “sidekick,” longtime UCB artistic director Shannon O’Neill; and “internet liaison” Bethany Hall, who would facilitate live Skype calls from fans all over the world. Regular viewers came to know and love recurring characters like the Human Fish (David Bluvband) and Gethard’s nemesis, Vacation Jason (Riley Soloner). Despite the looseness of the format, most episodes were built around concepts like, “Show Us the Weirdest Thing About Your Body,” the first episode to air on Fusion, in 2015, with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The season two finale, “Fight for the Fish,” features a wrestling match between Gethard and Vacation Jason (Jon Hamm shows up and dons a sumo suit). The season two episode “One Man’s Trash,” from May 2016, was an instant classic: A dumpster is wheeled out at the beginning of the episode, and Gethard and guests Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer spend the entire hour taking audience guesses as to what’s in it.

In his Facebook post, Gethard, 38, writes that the end of his namesake show was a mutual decision between himself and the executives at truTV. “With my hesitation to continue and truTV’s need for numbers improvement,” he wrote, “it’s time to throw in the towel.”

The Voice spoke to Gethard — who is looking forward to some down time before jumping into his next project — about the reaction to the show’s cancellation, the struggle to break into the mainstream, and making TV with heart.

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This must’ve been an intense week for you. How are you feeling?

I’m feeling pretty good, honestly. It’s been pretty nice to feel people’s love as they reach out and also, as I said in the thing I wrote online, it feels like a bit of weight off the shoulders. I’m sure it’ll hit me at some point and I’ll get tremendously sad and grieve it. But for now, I gotta say, I’m letting out a sigh of relief that the pressure is off.

There are over 200 comments on your Facebook post. Have you read them?

I’ve read a lot of the reaction online, yeah. It was really beautiful. I’d say 95 percent of it was just really nice, people telling me what the show meant to them, saying that it had some effect over the years and that’s really overwhelming. When I think about it, the fact that anyone gave a shit is still so remarkable and flattering to me. There was three percent of it that was like, truTV fans that were like, “Good! Now we can get more of the programming we like back.” Then there’s the two percent that really rattles my nerves, which is old fans who say we sold out anyway, celebrating our demise.

So much late-night TV these days feels geared to producing short clips that can go viral, but your show felt almost like the opposite. It had this kind of “You had to be there” vibe, like going to a late-night UCB show — like the point of it was to hang out for an hour.

Well, I certainly wasn’t opposed to having clips go viral, and we tried our best. We had a whole team of people who were trying to make it happen. My hope would always be, float out that clip, get people interested, and then they’d want to come in for the whole long-form show. But I think my experience is just proving more and more, that is not how people’s attention spans work right now. There are other shows that I think are built to accommodate that more and sadly I think ours is a little bit more of an experience where you had to buckle up and come along for the ride. It just wasn’t happening. I know I sound a little dismal and defeated, but what can I do? I feel like nine years of banging my head against the wall is enough banging my head against the wall.

At the same time, and maybe this was the show’s tragic flaw, but I think it worked because it was smaller and more intimate — it felt like something special in this little corner of a really crowded TV landscape. There aren’t that many shows that really foster a community the way yours did. Do you think that’s possible to do in TV these days?

It’s funny, because if we did anything it was build a community. So I guess it’s possible — we did it. The real question now on my mind is, “Is it possible to build a community that can grow to a mainstream size?” and we came a couple inches short of the goal line on that. So I don’t know; I don’t know if that’s what people are interested in right now. I was happy to give it a shot and I have no regrets because the community was a very active one, it was one that I was really a part of in a big way. I don’t think I was just some figurehead from afar. I’ve spent the days since we announced the show ending thanking a lot of people who have tweeted at me, sent me messages — people who watch the show and used to show up at the studio, people who used to call in. I know who they are, I know their names. They really did mean a lot to me and the show meant a lot to me, and the fact that the show could be a gathering place where I got to meet all these interesting, unique, odd people — it was the best thing about it.

It almost feels like an earlier era of the internet, where certain websites would foster similar communities — like the website Videogum, maybe a decade ago. Or the GLOW, the 1980s wrestling show that the Netflix series is based on — it was scrappy and goofy and small-scale and I don’t know how long something like that can last without changing fundamentally. It almost spells its own doom.

That’s totally true. One thing that I cop to is, I still have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s not the same chip on my shoulder I had when I came up with this idea. You mentioned GLOW, and there’s a whole bunch of examples of these scrappy local TV shows. I think of Uncle Floyd, who I grew up with in New Jersey. I think of Steampipe Alley, this weird kids’ show I grew up with. Clearly somebody was fighting to get those things through. Nothing that weird can exist without somebody fighting. I think I’m just ready to fight some different fights. I’m older now.

There’s also a real embrace of sincerity on your show that can be hard to come by on television, and in comedy. Do you feel like that’s something people are craving more of?

My assumption, knowing my career, is that now that we’ve ended my show, eighteen months from now sincerity’s gonna become the biggest thing in the history of the world. That just seems to be how things go for me. Now that I gave up, it’s gonna become all the rage.

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How does that make you feel?

If I was gonna worry about that I would’ve ended [the show] many moons ago. I just had to keep my head down and do it because it was fun.

I did an appearance on a talk show a few years back. One of the executive producers pulled me aside before I left and he was like, “You know, your show is really popular in writers’ rooms.” And I was like, oh, that’s really cool, got the respect of my peers. And he was like, “No. Your show is really popular in writers’ rooms — watch your back.” At first I was like oh, he’s telling me everyone’s gonna rip us off. There was a part of me that was real worried about that but I was like, you know what, rip us off, take what was good about it, make it better. I think what was good about the show was that it had a lot of heart, and if people rip off having heart, find ways to make it more palatable and more mainstream — big thumbs up at this point.

You’ve still got your podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous. Does that feel like a nice change of pace from doing such a chaotic live show?

There’s no pressure on it — there’s not like a big brain trust of people that get together and rubber-stamp everything for approval, which is how TV works. On a creative level, I feel like the entertainment I love the best feels really personal, feels a little small. I think I think The Chris Gethard Show really fit that description when it was at its highest peak. The show was maybe starting to grow to a point where I wasn’t necessarily feeling that as much. Doing smaller stuff feels good. The podcast feels good; it’s one-on-one. And I’ll tell you what always feels best, and will always feel best till the day I’m on my deathbed, is performing live. Just getting onstage in a roomful of people where I can see their eyes, I can react to them. They can see me, I can see them, and we can all feel like we’re a part of something together.


The “Variety” ’10 Comics to Watch’ Showcase at Just for Laughs Was…Interesting

Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” showcase, an annual series at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, got off to a great start. The lineup of comics, picked by a team of the magazine’s editors, writers, and critics, included Insecure’s Amanda Seales; SNL writer Julio Torres, soon to appear in the new HBO comedy Los Espookys alongside Fred Armisen; Daily Show correspondent Dulcé Sloan; American Vandal and Big Mouth writer Jaboukie Young-White; and rising stand-up star Joel Kim Booster. It’s a testament to the slowly but surely changing times that almost every comedian on the bill was either queer, a person of color, or both.

Then Darren Knight came onstage. The final performer of the evening, Knight and his routine felt out of place from the get-go. Knight, who is from Alabama, is only a couple of years into his comedy career and is apparently known for his “Southern Momma” character, which, according to Variety, has “garnered a windfall of social-media page views.” If you don’t believe the magazine, just ask him: Knight spent about half his time onstage at Montreal’s Monument-National theater thanking the organizers of the festival — he couldn’t even remember its name — and boasting about his supposedly meteoric rise to stardom. (Knight’s website claims he is “the fastest rising comedian in American history.”)

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Knight began by making a groan-inducing “joke”: “To our wives and girlfriends,” he drawled, “may they never meet!” Then he told a bunch of poo jokes. The crowd tittered. One guy couldn’t seem to stop cackling, but not at the so-called punchlines; he was just uncontrollably giggling throughout. As his routine came to a close, Knight declared that he wasn’t going to get up onstage and talk about race or sexual orientation, because that’s not what people paid to be there for. They were there to laugh. At this point, basically everyone in the audience loudly booed, and Knight left the stage. The evening’s host, Chris Redd, came back out and lamented that the show ended on such a weird note, and the audience streamed out of the theater, puzzling over what they’d just seen.

Amanda Seales, Dulce Sloan, Taylor Tomlinson, Julio Torres, and Jaboukie Young-White at the Variety panel

Even before Knight gave his parting shot, I couldn’t understand how he’d ended up on the showcase. He simply did not seem to be at the same level as the other comics; maybe Variety, which put together a notably diverse lineup, wanted a token Southern white guy to round it out. Fair enough, but surely there are Southern white male comics out there who aren’t complete and total hacks whose idea of funny is the fact that men cheat on their wives and also sometimes have IBS. I saw one such comic, Rocky Dale Davis, just a couple of days ago at the New Faces showcase, and he built much of his set around his identity as a white guy from Alabama. He was also funny.

I’m not saying every straight white male comic has to center his act around his identity. (Although that’s something that most queer comics and minorities kind of do feel the need to do; performers like Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby have spoken about the pressure they feel to put the audience at ease by declaring that, yes, they’re lesbians, and they know what they look like.) I just can’t figure out how Variety’s editors decided Knight deserved to be on the same bill as Torres, Young-White, et al.; the cynic in me assumes they wanted to throw a bone to anyone who might complain that straight white men were underrepresented on their list (lol), that they wanted to appear hip by including a YouTube comic, and that they fell for Knight’s self-boosting talk about his stratospheric career trajectory. What they didn’t seem to consider was if the guy had any talent.

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After the show, a few other performers took to social media to call out their fellow “comic to watch.” Early Saturday morning, Seales posted a short video to her Instagram page, of Knight being booed off the stage, and wrote, “This clown ass hack Darren Knight embarrassed himself royally by being made to close out the Variety Comics to Watch showcase at Just for Laughs Montréal after…speaking the same ‘challenging racism has no place in comedy’ sentiment during an earlier panel.” She added, “Comedy is a tool that uses laughter to heal, to uplift, and to educate. If you ain’t doin that, get off the stage. WE DON’T FUCK WITH YOU COMEDICALLY.”

Soon after the show ended, Young-White tweeted, “This comic said, on stage, that comics shouldn’t talk about race or sexuality and got booed by Canadians do u kno how trash u gotta be to get booed by Canadians.”

This morning, Comedy Hype posted a short video to its YouTube page, which shows Redd confronting Knight backstage: “You sat there and bombed the whole time, and decide what comedy is?” Knight is shown walking away. Seales posted similar footage in the form of an Instagram story, followed by a short clip that shows Sloan telling another man, presumably Knight’s manager, “Drop him as a client, he’s not good for you.”

Booster pointed out that what made Knight’s set so noxious wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it. “No matter what your terrible opinion is, if you’re a comedian onstage the least you could do is present it as a joke,” Booster told me. “He didn’t do that. He was right that the audience paid to laugh and he didn’t even attempt that in his lecture.”


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 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.’ ”


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.

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.


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.”