At Upright Citizens' Brigade Theater, Fred Armisen drops in on an old network of comedian brothers-and-sisters-in-arms
The line outside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea last night was dense and enthusiastic, despite the cold. Everyone was there to see the monthly show called Variety SHAC, though several people in the crowd were telling their companions about a notable past appearance at the night, an unexpected but welcome guest spot by Zach Galafianakis. That was probably mostly on account of the night’s rather more expected guest: Fred Armisen.
In recent months, the variety has been intact, but the SHAC has not—the name is an acronym made from the first initial of each member of the troupe—with both the H and the C missing from the lineup. Heather Lawless, a comedian and actor, sold her pilot to Adult Swim last year and has been working as an actress on the Adult Swim program The Heart, She Holler, while Chelsea Peretti, a writer and actor who starred in the pilot of Louie, got signed as a writer for NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. So then the actual variety, at least in the past few shows, has come in the form of numerous guests to augment the remaining S (Shonali Bhowmik) and A (Andrea Rosen) pictured below. Among last night’s scheduled guests were a New York-based comedy dance troupe, a musical theater act, "Daily Show" correspondent Aasif Mandvi, and "Saturday Night Live" and "Portlandia" star Armisen.
Aside from Mr. Galafianakis, current and former "Saturday Night Live" cast members seem to be the go-to guests for the SHAC, and it’s been a winning recipe for building a following and building anticipation. Cheap beer and the ever-increasing cachet that’s come with being affiliated with the Upright Citizens’ Brigade are close second- and third-place reasons for lining up, though.
Once inside, the number of people scrambling to find seats—repurposed and rather ratty theater seats, folding chairs, benches, possibly some cinder blocks—seemed impossibly more numerous than the line outside had implied. The line for that cheap beer—$3 for PBR, $4 for Yuengling—bisected the venue. Underneath the house lights, the crowd was rather uniform: young, white, a little scruffy, college-age or recently graduated; people for whom the thriftiness of the $5 cover is nearly as appealing as the show itself.
The lack of high covers or two drink minimums are just two of the ways U.C.B. Theater has turned the comedy-club concept on its ear. Originally opened out of economic exigency, the U.C.B.’s first theater (there’s now one in L.A. and another in the East Village) was set up by its namesake comedy group since they ended up losing money or barely breaking even when they played other venues. The improv training classes the group offered, also something borne out of financial needs, had the unintended consequence of turning U.C.B. into a sort of comedy graduate school, an update on the Second City or the Groundlings. The whole U.C.B. scene is a tissue of connections and friendships. Variety SHAC took place at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO until tonight’s host, Shonali Bhowmik toured with David Cross, made the connection to U.C.B., and got the act a new home.
On stage last night was a guitar connected to a lone pedal. As the house lights dimmed, Bhomik introduced the show, explaining that it had started out long ago "with the notion that [they] could try out original things." It was a little ironic, then, that her act tonight involved a pretty straight cover of KISS’s "Beth" in front of a YouTube-sourced montage of KISS images. Outside the context of a comedy night or the U.C.B. theater it certainly might not have seemed all that original. Bhomik had audience members hold up their smartphones (in lieu of lighters). With rectangular boxes of light in front of her, and slightly surreal images of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons flashing behind her, the overall effect was a mixture of emotional earnestness—hey, it’s a pretty tender song—and Internet-age ironic distance. Such anxious immediacy underlay much of the show.
The night’s other musical guests—music made up a surprisingly large portion of the event—also played with conventions, tweaking traditions and focusing heavily on musical theater. The Wagstaff Municipal Theatra performed the first five minutes of West Side Story, except instead of Sharks versus Jets, it was Sharks versus characters from Fiddler on the Roof. Two members of the Cocoon Central Dance Team performed a tap-dance routine, which they called the "Lunch Box Shuffle", ostensibly from an old musical called Fairweather Friends.
Fred Armisen is a canny demythologizer of things as cutesy as having a tap-dance troupe performing in a hip comedy club. "Portlandia" is essentially based around making light fun of just such young-white-liberal tropes (along with pickling, bike culture, dumpster diving, and on and on). His act was also musical, though it was also the most experimental performance, most in keeping with Bhonik’s initial orientation. He went through a few impressions: someone waiting in line at a hotel listening to muzak; the first person to be really into doo wop; a fox decomposing in "fast motion."
"I am not a fan of jazz music,” he said. “Let’s talk about it, because you are also not a fan of jazz music!" At that he queued up some hard bop, acted bored. That one kind of tanked, but his charisma carried the audience. He finished out his set with a cover of the Beatles’ "Blackbird," poorly played on purpose, a sort of inverse of his old character Jens Hannemann’s “Complicated Drum Technique.” It was hard to determine exactly why playing the cover poorly worked so well—Armisen seems to have a sort of sixth sense for comedy-through-music—but it had the crowd in stitches.
Andrea Rosen, up next, performed a conventional stand-up routine with a vicious twist. Premised on her being a new mother, virtually the whole of her five minute set was devoted to talking about her baby boy’s genitals. She marveled at the "adorableness" of his balls and the great size of his penis, and imagined her son’s future sexual experiences in graphic detail. Her set killed, and it was improbably, obscenely funny.
Aasif Mandvi’s set was the highlight of the evening. He read a selection from his forthcoming book of autobiographical essays. Even if the audience was overwhelmingly white, his piece about the South Asian immigrant experience in the United States got the most laughs of the night.
Mandvi spoke about his father, who came to America for a single word, "an American word, a fat word, a word that could only be spoken with decadent pride. And that word was: 'brunch.'" His father seems endlessly quotable: "Bloody Americans, they know nothing about food but there’s nothing they won’t eat!" Mandvi detailed road trips from his youth with his parents and siblings, all of them wearing matching IHoP shirts. But instead of "Pancakes", their custom-made shirts say "Patel." The gambit behind such quixotic attire was that the family would, it was hoped, get free brunch at IHOPs around the country. A young Mandvi found the uniforms mortifying, particularly when his father explained with pride to confused waitresses that his son had made them. The story turned poignant when Mandvi’s father explained the hunger and poverty his own father had endured, and the pride he never lost, on the way to giving his family a better life.
Much of the best comedy is premised on being an outsider, on being mortified by the act of living, and it’s for that reason that Mandvi’s set was the toast of the show. Once the house lights came up, the theater emptied out surprisingly fast, nobody sticking around in hopes of cornering Armisen or Mandvi or those tap dancers. Yet it was, in the end, a success, a night of feeling less weird and alone.