Bring on the funny!

By Jason Wojciechowski on May 16, 2004 at 9:37 AM

So we went to a benefit for Stop Smiling Magazine at The Bowery Ballroom. It was my first visit to one of the notable venues in downtown Manhattan, and it was a fun time. The magazine got a bunch of comedians to come in and do sets, and had a Comedy Central honcho on hand to MC things.

Said honco was terrible. He was unfunny, didn't keep the crowd motivated, and ... did I say that he wasn't funny? For a guy who's in charge of things at a network dedicated to funny, he couldn't deliver a joke for the life of him. Or write one. Which is completely explained by the fact that he used to write for Jay Leno.

It didn't help that the first comedian he introduced, Neil Hamburger, was similarly atrocious. He had some sort of odd schtick with a weird voice, a suit with a corsage, spilling drinks, auctioning a broken George Foreman grill, and lots and lots of unfunny playground-style jokes ("What's the difference between J-Lo and ..."). Maybe five people (out of a solid couple hundred) liked him, from what I could hear, but he insisted on doing what appeared to be his full set, which sucked for the whole room, and really made it hard on the next performer, Eugene Mirman.

Mirman was funny, if bizarre. He had videos which he projected onto the screen behind the stage, including one that was a pretty funny parody of anti-marijuana commercials. He seemed to be a bit obsessed with robots. Frankly, I don't remember it very much. He was sort of mediocre, but it was a welcome enough relief from Hamburger that he got a decent round of applause from a well lubricated crowd.

Certain members of that crowd were better lubricated than others. The woman in front of us appeared to be on some drug or drugs and repeatedly waved her arms in the air rapturously, perhaps mistakenly believing that she was in a revival tent with Billy Graham. That idea left her mind midway through the show, as she whispered something to her male companion and then led him off in the direction of the bathrooms. I'll not insult you by articulating what they were probably heading off to do.

Mirman was followed by Todd Barry, a small balding man who claimed to be performing in his own backyard, noting "Maybe you've seen me walking." Which isn't funny on screen in any way, but was hilarious with his delivery, a generally monotonic deadpan spoken while cradling the mic stand, tilting it over enough to his right so he could reach the microphone. As that implies, he's pretty short. I saw him after the show, and he can't be over 5'5". He was the first traditional "observational" comic, and he was also the first genuinely funny performer. I don't really remember any of his jokes, but he made my face hurt: it's hard to keep smiling and laughing for that long.

The only woman on the bill, Laura Kightlinger was more energetic than Barry, and also more personal, less observational. She moved around a lot, channeled Rodney Dangerfield a little, and did a bit about screaming at her stepfather (who she didn't grow up with) for daring to suggest she drink Diet Coke to help with her hangover. She was funny, though her constant referring back to her notes and some dead jokes helped her kill any momentum Barry might have built for the show.

Demetri Martin, another white guy, but this time with a guitar, was my favorite comedian of the night. He didn't actually sing; he just used the guitar as kind of a pace setter and background noise generator. He had a similar delivery to that of Barry, but he may have been even less expressive 95% of the time than Barry was. The exception might be in his most memorable bit: Martin informed us that sharks were scary ... in the water. If he met one on land, they wouldn't be so tough. He'd probably tell it, "Fuck you!" In fact, this was the opposite of how he felt about lions. "Come on into the swimming pool! Ahh, you're a cat!" (This was particularly funny because it was a reference to two prior jokes: One about someone being a cat person, and one about the difference between peeing in the pool and peeing into the pool). This was funny enough, but I didn't see the finale coming: "If I see an alligator, I'm screwed."

Barry had his notes on stage with him as well, but it wasn't as obtrusive as with Kightlinger, as he barely glanced at them, rather than actually stopping his set to rifle through them. That didn't stop the final comedian, Patrice O'Neal, the co-headliner with Kightlinger, from blasting the previous three comics for being "heroin addicts" and miming them looking through their notes. O'Neal brought more energy than all the other acts taken together, and he needed it, because he didn't really have many jokes. His set took the theme of men vs. women, particularly men who bow down to tofu-eating, wheat-germ-drinking women. It was sort of funny ... until he kept on going with it over and over and over again. And laughing at his own jokes the whole way through. He had a funny laugh, and it made me laugh, but his laughing combined with a little more mean-spiritedness than I was prepared for (he was the only comic to really interact with the crowd) turned me off.

I missed the first part of the last act, which was basically three guys stripping down to American flag thongs and humping each other. It wasn't funny, and they screamed things about George Bush and whatnot into their mics, which hurt my ears and didn't really provide me with any new information or desire to do anything new in my life (I'm already voting for Kerry. Would they like me to vote twice?). Some people laughed, but it was sort of weak, and no-one could see because the humping took place too low to the ground (as humping usually does) for it to be in anyone but the tall folks' lines of sight. Then the MC came on and told us all to go home.

As I said before, I had a good time, and my gin and tonic wasn't bad for a club drink in a plastic cup, and I've got a few new comedians to keep on the lookout for on TV and at the clubs around the city.