A week on the New York comedy scene

P>Day One


Ah, New York, New York. The Big Apple, Gotham, The City That Never Sleeps.

But, of more relevance to us, one of the spiritual homes of comedy.

New York has always meant laughs. From the wisecracking descendants of Jewish emigrees who defined a generation of quickfire stand-up, to Sex And The City.

So ingrained is the link in the psyche that wherever you look, you expect Kramer, or Woody or Chandler to pop out the nearest coffee shop causally tossing out a bon mot or two.

It hasn't happened yet, but who knows? Chortle's here for five days to get the low-down on the Manhattan comedy scene,

The logical place to start is Time Out New York - perused at leisure over a frozen yoghurt in a sweltering Central Park.

And there's a lot of stand-up to choose from - not quite so many shows as London, perhaps. But still a daunting list.

What's more, none of the names mean anything to me. As someone who's au fait with the British scene, I pretty much know what to expect from every night,. Here it's just a list of names, it might as well be the phone book.

This, though, is the daunting prospect facing any casual comedy-goer, in London or New York, How to choose your comedy based on a list of random names?

Most clubs try to get round this by giving their shows some sort of theme. But it doesn't always help. Last night's choices included The Ensemble Show, First Sunday and Sunday Night Improv. Hardly helpful,

One seemed to be self-explanatory, though. The Nasty Show.

Held at Caroline's, one of the most established and respected clubs in the city, this wore its uncompromising heart on its sleeve. But would it be as nasty as advertised?

Well, the venue itself was anything but - a plush Broadway bar, just off Times Square, with a custom-built performance beyond. Prices, though, reflected this, with tickets prices working out around £16 a head, plus the two-drink minimum adding at least another £10 to your night out.

And was the show 'nasty'? Well, in places. Mainly down to tattooed host Rich Vos, who churned out some racist, sexist stuff for the sake of shock value alone. One woman in the audience rose to the bait, and he spent the rest of the night putting her down, all variations on the "I'll shag some sense into you."

Well, nasty as billed I suppose, but it did leave a sour atmosphere for the night. Occasionally he lapsed into material, which was distinctly amusing, but it was only a brief respite from heckler-baiting. We were later told we could buy his real act on CD.

Of the supports, there was little nasty about Keith Robinson, a likeable chap with some enjoyable material - if not enough to fill his full 20 minutes, Then came Chips Cooney, who trotted out a tired old 'magic that's deliberately crap' act, followed by some of the cmost embarrassingly awful stand-up around, the sort of stuff you might expect from a novice on his first time out - not on a bill at one of New York's top club.

Talking of awful, headliner Otto is possibly the worst impressionist around, technically speaking. His lips move more than dummy George, who speaks with a voice uncannily close to his master.

Again, gratuitous insults were the order of the day, and the smallish audience lapped up every punchline that contained the word 'cocksucker' - and there were plenty of them. With such a good response to lazy insults, it's perhaps no surprise there was little content more ambitious than this. What there was ranged from the rare flashes of brilliance to lots of dreary formulaic stuff. The punchline 'run, Forrest, run' for example, making no less than three guest appearances.

All in all, then, the nasty angle covered a dearth of material, using cheap insults that usually included the words 'cock' and 'arse' as substitute for any decent gags,

There were a few laughs to be had, but the obsession with anal sex just drained my interest. Still, let's see what tomorrow holds


Day Two

A comedy pilgrimage uptown today - to Tom's restaurant at 112th and Broadway.

Not up there with the Empire State or Statue of Liberty, perhaps, but it should be a must-see landmark for every fan of Seinfeld - as its exterior was used for Monk's coffee shop, the regular hang-out of Jerry, Elaine George and Kramer.

Admirably the restaurant doesn't trade on its links with America's most lucrative sitcom, twith no 'as seen on Seinfeld' sign in sight.

As for stand-up, the Luna Lounge on the Lower East Side came recommended by New York comic Susie Felber - and she should know, as she compiles a weekly newsletter on the live comedy scene for Comedy Central's website.

It's a lovely room behind a bohemian bar in this most fashionable of districts, and the show, called Eating It, attracts a large and attentive crowd - many of whom, I'm told, are connected to the industry.

What you get is eight comics roadtesting material they don't get the chance to try elsewhere. And, like most American clubs, there's no interval, which seems unusual for Brits used to needing the opportunity to get drinks in before the closing-time deadline.

Standards were high, with an assured set by compere Mike Brit setting the tone for a fine night's comedy.

Highlights included the stupidly physical comedy of Bryan Callan, Dan Cronin's witty observations and Christian Finnegan's semi-improvised routine based around what audience members' favourite CDs say about them - a routine he says he feels unable to do at most clubs as a broad musical knowledge is outside most people's frame of reference.

A couple of bigger names on the Manhattan circuit also appeared. Patrice O'Neal, an imposing figure who is occasionally seen on British shores, tried a broad range of material, but was perhaps a little too keen to over-analyse what worked while still on stage, and the gorgeous Sarah Silverman, who had some great offbeat one-liners, even if her set was too raw to flow fluently.

A great show all-round, especially considering its ethos as a place where new ideas can germinate, and one that can easily be recommended to anyone seeking out comedy here.



Day Three

To the snappily-titled weekly club Giant Tuesday Night Of Amazing Inventions And Also There Is A Game, a name that cannot really be resisited

The ambitious night takes place in the plush back room of a smart Upper East Side bar, all comfy sofas and modern art. And, it has to be said, several leagues above the down-at-heel function rooms which host the majority of British comedy clubs.

It offers an eclectic mix of performers: stand-up, sketches, character comics even, this week, an improvised puppet-based double act.

Standards, it has to be said, are variable, Several acts seem one-gag gimmicks stretched very thin - and some of the stand-ups peddle unexciting material (incomprehensible train announcements, for example) or rambling anecdotes that never reach a punchline.

Those taking part all seem to be of a better technical standard than an equivalent London club, though - slick and confident to the end, even if the material gives no reason for such surity.

The evening, though, is held together by Francisco Guiglioni - a Boliviguayan entertainer created by comic Andres du Bouchet, and his backing band Muddle Of Pud.

Guiglioni never takes anything too seriously, although the character is ostensibly an earnest chap, warming the crowd up (and rescuing them after the patchier acts) by getting them to recreate stupid sound effects.

The band, too, add an extra layer of fun, playing the acts on and off with idiotic jingles. But the highlight of the night is the game - well worth its billing in the title.

Tonight's extravaganza was a variation of 'Am I hot, or am I not?', with Guiglioni taking things to ridiculous extremes. Very silly, and very funny, and a cracking way to end the night.



Day Four

A gruelling evening's comedy awaits tonight, so by way of a warm-up it's off to the matinee of The Producers on Broadway.

Mel Brooks's playful adaptation of his classic film comedy is fantastic fun, even for those of us usually unmoved by musicals. It's witty, often stupid and unafraid to go for the old-fashioned knob gag when it's called for. And two musical numbers are worth the price of admission alone - the gloriously over-the-top realisation of Springtime For Hitler, obviously, and the chance to see a dozen choreographed little old ladies in a big song and dance number, complete with Zimmer frames. Where else could you see that?

It's not the newest show on the Great White Way, but it's still one of the hottest. Tickets officially start at $100 - a lot more if you go to a tout (or scalper) - and are still sold out months in advance.

So to the other end of the spectrum his evening - two free stand-up shows. The first, B3, is in yet another hip Lower East Side bar. It could well be a dingy basement, but so well lit it comes across as atmospheric.

Here is a relentless stream of comics - 15, plus the host, in around two-and-a-half hours of interval-free stand-up. It needs stamina, this, and audience members do drift away as the show wears on.

And really, the standard of gags is pretty dreadful. And because there are no laughs, you find yourself analysing the acts all the more.

Across this, and the other nights we have seen, there is little variety among a large proportion of the acts.

Most call themselves actors, and their frame of reference is all too often limited to routines about going to auditions - and sometimes just cathartic stories about how other comedy clubs screwed them, which can only alienate genuine punters. Fortunate, then, that at least three-quarters of the B3 audience are acts themselves.

Also, there's a tendency for them to follow a formula, in which the stand-up is merely a way to get from one set piece to another, set pieces which tend to showcase their acting ability rather than their comedic ones as they impersonate various characters in their lives. Oh, and their own persona is always one of hapless loser.

The other trait at this show was for comics to deconstruct their sets as they go along, as if in a workshop. Again, the pitfalls of performing mainly to your peers. The worst example of this was a theatrical Jewish queen, who was obsessed with producing a good performance tape from the gig, rather than a good performance.

A couple of notable exceptions on the night were opener Jonathan Corbett, half of whose set was excellent (though the other half was greeted by little more than the hum of the air conditioner), and more established act Tony Woods, who span a hilarious yarn about an encounter with an emu in Australia.

After that, a quick dash to Chelsea, where the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre - a typically rough-around-the-edges fringe space - hosted the late-night laff-fest Hump Show.

Compered by the effusive double act Eddie Pepitone and Sean Conroy - who, enjoyably, revelled in their own ineptness - this was a much higher quality affair, and one that clearly attracts a dedicated band of regulars.

Of the six acts on the bill, only one - a sketch troupe - stank. A refreshing ratio after the B3 debacle.

Highlights were the smart and sarcastic Amanda Melson, the slick 'loser' material of Josh Comers, and the splendid Tami Vernakoff, who evoked a well-drawn picture of her world with witty observations on the minutiae of life.

Published: 26 Jul 2006

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