The recent premiere of Citizenfour, a probing documentary about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, has again raised questions about what goes on inside the agency’s fortress-like compound at Fort Meade, Maryland. How the NSA’s mostly anonymous workforce have handled the spotlight on their activities is not one of them.
But if you did ask about how people are weathering the controversy at Fort Meade, one answer would be Stephen Rice. A special agent for the NSA’s Security Division, Rice is also a wounded Iraq veteran—and a standup comic, whose humor often revolves around surviving adversity with laughter.
Rice, who lost his leg from an IED near Baghdad in 2003, recently recounted walking around his NSA office yelling, “Where’s my left foot? Somebody’s taken my left foot.”
After his injury, he went through a very painful year of limb salvage, involving repeated surgeries as doctors attempted to save his leg. He eventually made the decision to have it amputated. “I felt better immediately,” he says. “I feel like that’s why I’m able to joke about it and talk about it openly.”
Last year Rice was featured in Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor, a documentary centered on veterans performing standup about their injuries. When asked why he participated in the series, he says, “I think I got bored.” But Rice is happy he did, since he likely would have never pursued standup without the help of the documentary. “It kind of forced you to try something that you were scared of,” he says.
Among his many memorable jokes, there was one that made a resounding impression. Rice stands at the front of a small stage and says calmly, “Back in 2003 I was involved in a pretty aggressive study-abroad program with the United States Army in Baghdad, Iraq.” He takes a moment, leans forward, and declares loudly, “It didn’t go well.”
Rice says the negative attention the NSA has received has affected office morale, but it has also served to strengthen his coworkers’ relationships, making them more like a family. “One of the ways we get through the day is we joke with each other. We try to make each other laugh,” says Rice, currently a manager in the NSA’s polygraph division.
He says there’s a true cross-section of the population at the NSA, ranging from very introverted to very extroverted. But the majority of their humor is very routine. “It’s normal office banter,” he says, “It’s, ‘Oh wow, my three-year-old pooped on my new leather jacket.’”
During an hourlong speech for his coworkers last month, Rice showed his baby picture. “Everybody starts out as a cute baby,” he told the audience of advanced computer experts, following with a picture of himself as an overweight eighth-grader wearing an awkward pair of glasses. “But before long we’ve got to come up with another plan to be successful,” he said.
But according to Rice, humor is not only a common occurrence in his office, it’s a necessity. “We’re doing our best to protect the United States, and sometimes you just have to laugh at each other to get through the day.”
The Head and the Heart
DAR Constitution Hall
The Seattle folk-rockers released their second album in October 2013, featuring songs inspired by travels they embarked on after their self-titled 2011 debut. $34.
The singer/songwriter’s 2014 self-titled album is her first collection of entirely original tunes in 13 years. Never one to shy away from exploring the boundaries of her sound over her long career, she’s nailed what might be her most fully realized work. $55.
Some of the TV projects she’s been involved in have been panned (Smash; Sean Saves the World), but her musical talent (Broadway’s 9 to 5) has never been in doubt. Hilty applies the latter to Christmas music from the Great American Songbook. $65.
Zion’s Muse: Three Generations of Israeli Composers
The Ariel Quartet explores Israel’s relatively young but rich musical legacy, stretching from the 1930s work of composer Paul Ben-Haim to contemporary pieces by Menachem Wiesenberg. $44.
Guaranteed you’ve heard at least one of their electric-guitar-driven holiday tunes—now watch them perform their “rock opera” The Christmas Attic live for the first time. $42 to $73.
He’s shed the impressive beard but not the eclectic reggae sound that earned him a Grammy nomination. Hear tracks off Akeda, Matisyahu’s fifth album, which came out in June. $35.
Chuck Brown Band
Bethesda Blues and Jazz
The backing band of the late Godfather of Go-Go performs some of Brown’s greatest hits. Frank “Scooby” Sirius, formerly of the local band Lissen, joins the lineup. $25.
December 28 (December 27 sold out)
After six studio albums, the gypsy-punk band sounds more raucous than ever. Same goes for its frenetic live show, which has been known to involve crowd-surfing. $35.
The Brooklyn duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser gained a following for their synth-soaked remixes of tracks by Cut Copy, Moby, and LCD Soundsystem, among others. Holy Ghost’s original tracks are equally worth a listen, as their sophomore effort, September’s Dynamics, proved. $20.
The Rhett Miller-fronted Dallas band celebrated its 20th anniversary this year by releasing its 16th album, Most Messed Up. The new tunes reflect on two decades in the music biz. $35 to $85.
Ballet West’s The Nutcracker
This version of the holiday classic—created by the Salt Lake City company’s founder, William Christensen—is a Washington favorite. $56 to $165.
Cirque de la Symphonie
A kind of Cirque du Soleil designed specifically for concert halls—with acrobats, jugglers, and cortortionists performing feats choreographed to the music of the NSO Pops. $20 to $98.
Observe the weeklong holiday with this event featuring dancers from the contemporary West African company Coyaba and its related academy, along with other special guests. $25 to $30.
The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker
Hailing from the same country as The Nutcracker’s composer, this company has brought the production to Washington regularly since 1993. $28 to $88.
If you’re a fan of The Daily Show’s early years, there’s a good chance this Georgetown Law grad wrote some of your favorite lines: He won an Emmy for his work with the show’s original writing team. Hear him deliver his jokes his own way. $17.
A John Waters Christmas
Not to be confused with the 2004 album compiled by Waters, this show gives the kooky director a platform to poke fun at holiday memories and traditions. $49.50.
Good for the Jews
Writer Rob Tannenbaum (I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution) and David Fagin of the indie band the Rosenbergs team up for this tongue-in-cheek show of musical comedy. $20.
Podcasts may be experiencing a renaissance of late thanks to a certain wildly popular true-crime narrative, but for Washingtonian Brandon Wetherbee, their appeal is nothing new. Since 2009 he’s been hosting his live talk show, You, Me, Them, Everybody, in several cities including DC, Chicago, and New York, and has been celebrating its fifth birthday with a special anniversary tour.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, think the traditional late-night talk show format—comedy, sketches, music—with a less-primetime-friendly twist. “It’s one of the few things I started doing in my twenties that I don’t have to feel ashamed of continuing in my thirties,” says Wetherbee, who is the managing editor of Brightest Young Things. “Plus, as a married man you don’t have a lot of opportunity to meet random people—I like the show because it gives me the chance to meet complete strangers.”
He kicked off the anniversary tour November 22 in Baltimore, then headed to the Windy City for a final appearance at its longtime venue the Hungry Brain, which is closing, and stopped by the Library of Congress for a private event. Before Wednesday evening’s show at Wonderland Ballroom Wetherbee shared a few more things he’s discovered in his five years with YMTE.
On the importance of vetting guests: “I had one guy that I didn’t do a good job researching him as I should have—he wrote a book about horror movies, and it turned out he worked for a website that is blatantly sexist. On the same show I had a competitive eater, a guy who won the Nathan’s hot-dog-eating challenge. Turns out when competitive eaters aren’t eating, they just drink; he got so drunk that I ended up cutting down a 12-minute interview to 90 seconds.”
On the Washington scene: “I came from Chicago four years ago, and the scene there is four to five times bigger—always has been, always will be. There are only so many people who can afford to live here and do anything artistic, and no one comes here to be funny. On the plus side, it’s definitely easier to get a foothold, it’s a solid, supportive scene, and for a city this small, there are a lot of great venues for comedy.”
On how audience expectations change from city to city: “DC audiences are not rambunctious—they’re very polite. You can’t really pander to a DC crowd, because there’s not a lot of hometown pride—unlike New York, where there are lifers. I had Wyatt Cenac on one of my shows in New York, but you can see Wyatt perform every night for free, so no one cares.”
On the anniversary tour so far: “The first three shows were absolutely fantastic; the final Chicago show at the Hungry Brain nearly had me in tears many times. The Library of Congress show was incredibly weird but surprisingly fun—interviewing experts about the Civil Rights movement, the role the Library plays in preserving baseball and football lore, the National Jukebox Registry and Folklife exposed the audience to areas I tend to just mention in passing.
“The Baltimore show was in a packed house. DDM gave the performance of the night—and thus far in the run, it’s hard to top Baltimore hip-hop—and the owners were so happy they ordered pizza for everyone. In my five years of doing this, no one has ever turned an after-party into a pizza party.”
On what to expect from Wednesday’s show: “My DC show will be great because it’s gonna go super-long and will be really music-heavy, with performances by Furniteur and the house band, Typefighter. The ultimate goal is to be like Mr. Rogers, although I have no desire to work with children. At the end of the day, I just think everyone’s cool and I wanna hang out with them—it makes your world and their world smaller.”
See You, Me, Them, Everybody at Wonderland Ballroom Wednesday, December 3, at 7:30 PM. Check the show’s Facebook page for more information.
Vijay Iyer: Music of Transformation
The pianist/composer—awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” last year—presents for the first time in Washington his work “Mutations I-X” as well as a multimedia piece inspired by the Hindu spring festival Holi. $20 to $55.
At this show, the 64-year-old R&B legend will play the entirety of Songs in the Key of Life, his hit 1976 double album. $49.50 to $149.50.
The R&B superstar postponed the release of his eighth album, originally expected by the end of the year, so braving the arena crowds might be the only chance to hear his new material for a while. $42.50 to $178.
Rural Alberta Advantage
Rock & Roll Hotel
The name might bring to mind delicate folk music, but this Toronto act puts out robust indie rock that’s at once wistful and upbeat. $14.
Orion Weiss With the Salzburg Marionettes
The American pianist pairs with the Austrian marionette theater, in existence since 1913, to offer adults and children a new way to experience classical favorites. $45.
Fans of the TV series Friday Night Lights know Lucca for his poignant cover of “Devil Town.” The former Mickey Mouse Club member was also a finalist on the reality show The Voice in 2012 and released a new EP in March. $17 to $25.
After performing in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, the Israeli troupe brings its vocal theatrics to Washington, reproducing the effects of a full orchestra through beatboxing and other sounds. $28 to $72.
Washington Chorus: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis
One of the greatest choral works comes to life with help from conductor Julian Wachner, soprano Julia Sophie Wagner, and tenor Vale Rideout. $15 to $70.
Sixth & I
The two Barr siblings started out in jazz and indie rock before settling into their current woodsy Americana style, accompanied by classically trained harpist Sarah Pagé and bassist Andrès Vial. The group’s second album, Sleeping Operator, came out this fall. $13 to $15.
We Were Promised Jetpacks
Rolling Stone named this Scottish punk outfit’s In the Pit of the Stomach one of the best under-the-radar albums of 2011. With nearly 40 stops on their current tour, on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s unlikely their new album, Unravelling, will need such a distinction. $20.
National Symphony Orchestra: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite
Bulgarian conductor Rossen Milanov leads a performance of Stravinsky’s breakout work along with Busoni’s Piano Concerto, Opus 39, with pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Washington Men’s Camerata. $10 to $85.
Fillmore Silver Spring
The rapper—who has collaborated with artists as diverse as 2 Chainz, Taylor Swift, and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo—performs songs from Underground Luxury, released in December. $30.
The Dismemberment Plan
After breaking up for nearly a decade, the DC indie rockers got back together in 2011. Watch them perform their latest, Uncanney Valley, while their reunited front holds. $25.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
With a name as quirky as its sound, this Baltimore four-piece offers psychedelic funk rock tailor-made for dancing. The band released its first full-length album in July. $15.
Sutton Foster With the NSO Pops
The actress (from the erstwhile ABC Family show Bunheads) and Tony winner sings Broadway hits from shows including Anything Goes and Shrek the Musical, in which she originated the role of Princess Fiona. $20 to $88.
Kalanidhi Dance: Krishna, Love Re-Invented
This work by Malaysia’s Sutra Dance Theatre tells the legend of the Hindu embodiment of love through Odissi, one of India’s classical dance forms. $40.
Neil Greenberg: This
American Dance Institute
Choreographer Greenberg partners with sound designer Steve Roden and lighting designer Joe Levasseur for this new piece, which examines the collaborative process and the human desire to make meaning. $31.25.
Ballet ADI Evening With Loni Landon
American Dance Institute
The house company, Ballet ADI, performs a commissioned work by New York artist Loni Landon exploring gender and how people occupy various spaces in their lives. Also on the bill: a new piece by Washington Ballet alum Runqiao Du. $31.25.
The DC native, one of In Living Color’s original cast members, has appeared in Strictly Business, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and other movies. $20.
One of the first openly gay female comics to appear on network TV, Westenhoefer has earned fans for her brash, up-front style. $45.
The deadpan comedian has branched out from standup to books, movies, and radio—he became a panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! this year. See his new show to find out how humor has landed him in hot water. $27.50 to $37.50.
Marley—no relation to the reggae musician—became a Guinness World Record holder in 2010 for longest standup performance. He managed to go 18 hours without repeating jokes, so you’ll almost certainly hear something new this time around. $17 to $20.
Not that many comedians today can say they have a puppet version of themselves. Wyatt Cenac is a member of that rare and envied class. The Dallas-raised funnyman is best known for his stint as a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show, where the aforementioned Puppet Cenac came into being, but his low-key standup is equally hilarious: His 2011 special, Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person, explored the peculiar minutiae of modern life such as why you should never accept a friend’s invitation to Medieval Times and the fact that cat videos are more popular on YouTube than messages from the President. He also had a stint on Netflix’s excellent animated series Bojack Horseman as the voice of Wayne, a BuzzFeed writer with a secret agenda.
Cenac visited Washington earlier this month to perform in BYT’s Bentzen Ball, and returns November 23 for a show at Black Cat in support of his second standup special (also featuring puppets). Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn, Cenac’s directorial debut, is now available on Netflix and as a limited-run vinyl album; we chatted with the 38-year-old about the “more personal” sophomore effort, why he likes Washington audiences, and the nefarious appeal of Shake Shack.
You were in DC recently for the Bentzen Ball—how did it go?
It was fun. I felt bad because I got into DC like an hour before my show and I left right after, so I didn’t really spend any time in the city. I took a 3 PM train down and went straight to the 9:30 Club, did the show, and got on the train to head back. I ate Shake Shack in Union Station because the lines in New York are too long.
I guess going to Shake Shack is at least sort of a DC experience.
Shake Shack is great; I don’t get it that often, but I think if I was a person that did that New York to DC commute, I would be tempted every time. I would get logy and fat from all the fries.
As someone who covered politics a lot on The Daily Show, do you feel like you have any kind of special connection to Washington?
I always enjoy DC crowds because there is an awareness of what’s going on in the world, in part because many of the audience members are working for people who are influencing what’s going on in the world. There’s something kind of nice about that. I imagine there’s also a bit of catharsis for those people to get to be in a room and laugh at the stuff they see closer than the rest of us do.
There’s currently a big appetite for satire, but on the other hand places like Facebook have started identifying articles as satire because so many people weren’t picking up on it.
I don’t spend much time on Facebook, but I read something about that. It kind of reminds me of how in magazines, they have the special advertising sections where it’s always a giant three-page ad, but they doll it up to look like actual journalism. On some level that’s a satire of its own, because it’s trying to fool you into thinking boner pills are that important. It’s a matter of healthy living and good exercise—that’s what Sting always said.
Does knowing that people might not understand that something is satire affect how you approach comedy? Or is it the audience’s responsibility to figure it out?
I think it depends on the place where you’re doing it, and on that particular audience. If you say something in a show and it feels like audience doesn’t get it, you kinda know right away and you have to decide in that moment whether to double-back and explain it or just keep going. That’s kind of the joy of doing this stuff: You do something and you hope to find something that audience will relate to and find funny and be amused by, and if they don’t, you take it back into the garage and tinker with it and hopefully fix it up, and then you take it back out and try again.
It seems like noawadays some people have made a habit out of being outraged over social media. Do you think there are more subjects that are off-limits now in terms of what you can joke about?
I think people have always been outraged; now it’s just that they are able to find one another online, and if you can get enough outraged townspeople with pitchforks and torches, you can potentially get the subject of your outrage to respond to you.
In the past, there were people saying and doing offensive things, and you never knew. The only side of it you ever saw was if they said something that was outrageous, and an audience laughed, meaning it worked. I may think something is off-limits and another comedian may not, so if that other comedian gets a laugh, then they are right—it works. I’m right, too, in that if it’s something I’m uncomfortable with, I may choose not to put it in front of my audience. It’s that knowledge that we live in a world where everything can be both funny and un-funny at the same time—it just depends on who you are as both the person delivering and the person receiving it. I am not the standard-bearer—what makes me uncomfortable is not necessarily what makes the world uncomfortable—so as an audience member and a deliverer, I have to understand and reconcile that.
What can people expect from your new stand-up special?
This one to me feels a bit more personal, a bit more how I enjoy doing a show. The first special I shot was in a big theater, there were 400, 500 people there, and it was a great experience. But the most fun I have doing shows is in little cramped spaces—places like Union Hall in Brooklyn, where I shot this special. I try to create something that would give the viewer more of an experience of how I enjoy doing a show, the places that are comfortable to me, and hopefully it comes across that I seem more comfortable. It’s three years later, so it’s a similar perspective but slightly different. It’s a little more intimate.
And you also directed it?
I did. That’s part of the personal aspect of it—this was really born out of a desire to put out a special, and rather than sit around and wait for something to come together, I just went on my own and did it. In doing that, it became this sort of do-it-yourself thing: “Oh, okay, I’m making this special happen, and oh, looks like I’m putting it all out together.” It was a fun experience.
Did you always have Netflix in mind, or did you make the show first and then shop it around?
I made it first and presented it to Netflix, a guy over there named Devin Griffin. I also put out a record, and I gave him the audio of that and little of the footage from special, just so he could see that it didn’t look like it was shot on a bunch of iPhones. And he got what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure they’d go for it, so I thought, “Maybe I can take it some other place,” but Devon got it, and we made it happen.
Do you think you’ll get to spend any time in DC after your show in November?
This time, I hope to hang out a little bit. I have some friends in DC, so I’d like to catch up with them, go grab a meal someplace. I can’t remember if I have to go somewhere else after—I think I might have a couple days off, and if so, hopefully I can hang out. I enjoy going to DC; everyone’s always very nice to me there. I heard the folks who went to Bentzen Ball got to take Segway tours, and some of them even went bowling at the White House, so I’m a little bummed out I missed all that.
I didn’t know people really bowled at the White House.
I guess you gotta know the right people! There’s a two-lane bowling in the White House, so maybe I will celebrate the tour by throwing a few gutter balls in the White House bowling alley. Assuming I can get into the bowling alley—I’m guessing security is a little tighter than it was before, so it might not be that easy.
Wyatt Cenac performs at Black Cat Sunday, November 23, at 7 PM. Tickets ($20) are available online.
Anyone expecting a reprisal of the drama from 2010’s so-called “late-night wars” at Sunday’s presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor would be quickly disappointed. After Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein introduced the sold-out event, which raised $2 million for the performing arts center, he ceded the stage to Jimmy Fallon, Leno’s Tonight show successor, whose heartfelt, snark-free tribute made it clear he considers their relationship more mentor-mentee than competitors. As if to make doubly sure the audience understood the point, later in the evening came a video bit featuring Fallon and Leno singing a duet about the situation to the tune of West Side Story’s “Tonight, Tonight.”
That sense of support rather than competitiveness would prove to be a theme of the evening, which featured remarks from many comedians who expressed a debt of gratitude to the longtime Tonight show host, 64. Chelsea Handler, tempering her typical biting sarcasm with genuine affection, explained how Leno helped her launch her standup career on the Tonight show, and made her feel like “one of the guys” despite being one of the only women in late-night. Wanda Sykes also credited Leno for being the first to have her on his show as the featured comedian (“though a white guy did cancel right before”), and brought the house down with the first—and funniest—Ebola joke of the night. (“This stuff is so scary, I’m just going to go back to ‘black’—I’m not ‘African’ anything.”) The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal thanked Leno for continuing to make standup a priority despite his television success, and Late Night host Seth Meyers catered to the Washington crowd by highlighting Leno’s long tradition of political humor.
The portrait that emerged was one of a humble and hard-working man who loves the power of a good joke and cares deeply about supporting other comedians—and about building up his car collection, a well-known penchant that received more jabs throughout the evening than Leno’s famous jawline. Robert Klein, JB Smoove (with the only other Ebola joke of the evening), and Jamie Foxx and Betty White (via video) also feted Leno; in between, clips were shown to illustrate highlights of his long career—his inaugural Tonight show appearance in 1976, sporting an impressively thick, black mop of hair; his 1986 Saturday Night Live opening monologue; the bits that became his hallmarks as a Tonight show host, such as Jaywalking and Headlines. Longtime friend Jerry Seinfeld described meeting Leno in 1978 as a 23-year-old and showed a poignant clip of a Tonight show appearance by Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, the latter’s irrepressible zany energy streaming from the screen.
Leno, seated in a balcony next to his wife of 34 years, Mavis, and surrounded by his longtime collaborators, received several standing ovations throughout the evening, beginning with his entrance as he flashed Richard Nixon double Vs. Throughout the performances he clapped and nodded, even offering an occasional good-natured heckle of his own. (When Garth Brooks, who came out to deliver a monologue in Leno style, gloated that humor wasn’t so hard and then stumbled on a line, Leno shouted, “Not so easy, is it?”)
After Kristin Chenoweth performed a musical number accompanied by former Tonight show musical director Kevin Eubanks, Leno himself took the stage to accept the award. After poking fun at Rubenstein’s public-speaking skills, he joked that he had always found Twain dashing thanks to his full head of white hair but pointed out had he been alive today he probably would have been upstaged by “a younger, more talented Jimmy Twain.” He talked about his early influences, including Richard Pryor; the experience of “getting older in a young business”; and his love of playing pranks on his father; then expressed his gratitude to his wife, recommending that everyone “marry their conscience.” As the performers filed out onstage once again to end the evening with yet another standing ovation, they served as a visual reminder of Leno’s continuing influence on the comedy landscape, both in shaping its past and in paving the way for the new generation.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will be broadcast on PBS November 23. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.
When Super Troopers came out in 2001, its particular brand of slapstick slacker humor propelled it to instant classic status. Thirteen years later, it remains eminently quotable—and responsible for many of those memorable lines is Kevin Heffernan, who played mustachioed liter’a cola fan Farva in the film. Heffernan is one of the original members of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, which started as a college sketch group and went on to make Super Troopers, as well as Beerfest and Club Dread. He’s also appeared in several other movies and TV shows, including Veep, Workaholics, and How I Met Your Mother (as Ted Mosby’s porn-star alter-ego).
Heffernan is in town this weekend to perform three shows at Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse with fellow Broken Lizard member Steve Lemme, with whom he has a podcast, a web series, and a Netflix special. We caught Heffernan by phone as he was museum-hopping with his kids to ask about Super Troopers 2, weird fan interactions, and his memories of DC.
Tell me a bit about your show.
It’s a two-man show I do with Steve Lemme. A couple years ago we started doing some standup shows; we wanted to mix it up, and we knew there were fans of our movies out there that we didn’t interact with a whole lot, so it was fun to go out. So we just started doing standup shows, and we’d never really done it before, so it was a lot of fun. We don’t do it full-time, but we’ll go out and do these shows. We each do a traditional set of standup, and then there’s some audience participation stuff, we’ll bring people out of crowd, and then also we’ll tell stories from the makings of our movies, like behind-the-scenes stories.
What would be surprising about the show for someone who’s never seen it before?
The thing people are surprised about a lot of times is that we do this. A lot of people know us from the movies, but they don’t know us from standup, so I think doing standup is a different animal for people who are fans of ours. We’re trying to make it accessible to everybody, so if you’re not a huge fan of the movies, we still do tons of stuff that’s not related to the movies.
You and Steve have worked together on so many different things—how does that affect how you go about putting a show together?
We’ve definitely learned what works between us. It’s mostly us making fun of each other. Knowing each other for so long, we’ve gotten very good at making fun of each other, which I think is the big part of a show.
How do you prepare for a show?
Steve and I will normally go eat a steak, and we’ll sit at dinner and run through our show. It’s kind of funny because waiters will walk up and they’re not sure what they’ve walked in on—it’ll be just the two of us, it looks like we’re a couple arguing at the dinner table.
Do you know where you’re going to get that steak in DC?
Oh, I don’t know yet; we need to decide where to go. We use it as an excuse to get away from our kids.
How old are they?
I have an 11-year-old, a 9, and a 6. My wife is here too—she’s a doctor, and she’s at a conference here, so we tied it all together. I do some shows, she goes to the conference, and then we go monument sight-seeing. It’s all the stuff you’re used to living here.
Do you remember the worst show you’ve ever done?
We’ve had a couple of those [laughs]. I remember one time we did a show at Hobart College [in New York]; it was part of a freshman orientation. So it was like a series of orientation lectures and then us—a sexual harassment lecture, then a couple other lectures, and then we were gonna come up and tell jokes. And it didn’t quite go over well.
Do you think people just didn’t realize it was okay to laugh at that point after all the sexual harassment talk?
I think people were just tired of it. They wanted to leave.
Then we had another show in Tampa, a double bill with Kevin Hart, and I don’t know what the reason was, but he went first. So it was in a college gym—there were probably 4,000 kids there—and Kevin did his set and finished, and then I’d say about 3,000 of the people stood up and walked out. And so we went on and did our show, and the sound of 3,000 people walking out of an arena is deafening. We laugh about that to this day, having 3,000 people walk out on you.
How did the rest of the show go?
I think it was okay—we took the last thousand people in this giant arena and made them come as close to the stage as they could get.
They were probably all pretty stoked about that.
They were happy. You could tell that the people left were fans.
What would you say has been your biggest professional accomplishment thus far?
Probably getting Super Troopers made. That was certainly the turning point. We’d spent many years trying to get it made, and we had a feeling it would be successful; it was just a matter of getting it done. So finally we got it done, and brought it to the Sundance Film Festival and sold it, and I think that was the big moment for us, when things kind of shifted.
And are the rumors of a Super Troopers sequel true?
It’s gonna happen. I think the rumors are all swirling around when. We’ve written the written script and have the deal set with Fox Studios, so now it’s just a matter of putting the rest of the pieces together. The plan is hopefully in early 2015—if all goes according to plan, my hope is we’ll do it then. But we’re still putting all the pieces together, there’s still a few question marks, but everyone’s really gung-ho to get it done.
What’s the line people quote at you the most when they see you on the street?
Oh, yeah. People yell—and that’s the funny thing about our shows, is that’s how we get heckled. People will yell out not, “You suck,” but they’ll yell quotes from our movies. But the ones I get are—wait, I don’t know what’s printable—but they’ll call me a chicken f**ker. I get that a lot. A LOT. And then I do a joke in there about my favorite restaurant Shenanigans, and people will throw that at me a lot. And a lot of people will walk up with their cell phone and ask me to leave their outgoing voicemail message.
Do you do it when they ask?
Yeah, why not, right?
What’s the weirdest fan interaction you’ve ever had?
We were just talking about one the other day. We did a show in Minneapolis, and we had a lot of friends who came, and they all came backstage. So it was a group of people, friends of friends, whatever. And after show we all went out, we went to three, four, different bars, catching up. So it got down to end of night, maybe 1 or 2 in the morning, and there were six or seven of us left, and one was a guy that we didn’t really know. So at that point we said, “Who are you friends with?” And he’s like, “I’m just a guy who snuck backstage during the show,” and he hung out with us for four hours as if he was a friend of one of these other people. Usually you’ll get a guy who’ll do that and call his buddies, and be like “I’m at this bar, come hang out,” but this guy went all the way to the end of the night by himself. He seemed like a normal guy; I guess he just wanted to hang out by himself.
Do you guys still keep in touch?
We send each other Christmas cards.
Are you big on interacting with fans over social media?
We try. You have to be diligent; you have to be faithful to keeping that up. I think Lemme and I go in waves, and then it breaks down after a while. But we try. It’s interesting because in last three, four, five years that we’ve been doing standup shows, it’s changed—you used to go into a town and do local morning radio shows, and that was the way to reach the crowd, and now it’s definitely social media, so you really do have to try to get yourself out there.
Do you remember the first time you visited DC?
I came a bunch of times as a kid. I grew up in Connecticut, and we have friends of family who live in Virginia, so I came when I was probably seven or eight. We did it all—the monuments, the Smithsonian, all that stuff. I loved it. I thought it was great. We would just go around and take funny pictures with my parents, posing at different statues.
Is this the first time for your kids?
It is—we live in California now, so we were like, “Ah, let’s bring ’em!” And now they’re lovin’ it. We’re at Air and Space as we speak, so they’re liking that.
Who’s your favorite fictional president?
I definitely like Michael Douglas in American President. Wait, that’s boring. Who was the president in that Mike Judge movie, where everyone gets really dumb? It was Terry Crews, right?
You mean Idiocracy?
Idiocracy, right. Wasn’t it Terry Crews? It was a big, scary black dude.
That sounds like Terry Crews. [Ed. note: It was.] So why American President?
I just really like that movie. I’m a Rob Reiner fan.
That movie was interesting because it’s strange to think of a sitting President going on dates.
Yeah, he was a dog. He was dating people in the White House. He was a single dad!
If you were going to meet the real President, what’s one piece of advice you’d give him?
Well, we went by the White House yesterday, and I thought maybe we’d catch a glimpse of him. I heard he’s staying in town to deal with the Ebola crisis—so my advice would be for him to wear gloves.
Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme perform Friday and Saturday at Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. Tickets ($25) are available online.
Just in time for Sunday’s presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center has announced plans to roll out a new program focused on comedy. Thanks to a $5 million donation from Capital One, the performing arts institute is launching Comedy at the Kennedy Center, “focused on elevating comedy as an art form and uniting the local community together through laughter,” according to a press release.
The donation, doled out over five years, will fund programming that includes existing events such as the aforementioned award ceremony and the continually running comedic whodunit Shear Madness, as well as an annual series that will bring three big-name funny people to town to headline the Concert Hall—in 2015, it’s Mark Twain Prize recipient Jay Leno in April and Kathy Griffin in June, plus another who’s yet to be announced. Between those “signature” shows will be occasional free comedy nights on the KenCen’s Millennium Stage.
Meanwhile, if you’re out and about this weekend, keep your eyes peeled for Ross “The Intern” Mathews, who’ll be roaming DC on Saturday filming man-on-the-street bits to pay tribute to his former boss Leno before he’s honored at the KenCen. Check out Capital One’s Twitter feed for updates on where Mathews will be.
Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball returns for the third year October 1 through 5, offering a smorgasbord of comedy by performers both instantly recognizable and up-and-coming. Tig Notaro once again curates the festival’s lineup, in addition to performing at both the opening and closing nights and hosting a dumpling-making class and brunch at the Source with fellow comedian Jena Friedman in between. (Visit Best Bites for full details on that event.) Read on for the scoop on which tickets are going fast and a Washingtonian reader discount on the closing ceremonies. The full festival schedule is available online; check out #BentzenBall on Twitter for daily updates on special guests, the status of shows, and other news.
WHAT TO KNOW
According to BYT’s Svetlana Legetic, while tickets to most shows are usually available the day of, a few events might get close to filling up. One such event is the closing night at Lincoln Theatre featuring Reggie Watts and Tig Notaro. Washingtonian readers can get a special discount: Enter the promo code YouAreSpecialToMe on the online ticket sale page for $5 off the $30 tickets.
Wednesday’s opening show at Lincoln Theatre is “getting up there,” though it’s not yet sold out. Tickets ($30) are available here.
Saturday’s show at 9:30 Club—which is apparently the designated multicultural night—features Retta, Wyatt Cenac, and DC native (and former Washingtonian intern!) Aparna Nancherla, who’s been on Conan and FXX’s (now-canceled) Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Tickets ($20) are available here.
One event you definitely can’t get tickets to? Saturday’s planned show at Lisner Auditorium, which was supposed to feature Rosie O’Donnell and (once again) Tig Notaro but was canceled due to an unspecified family emergency.
WHO TO SEE
You’ll recognize plenty of names and faces from movies, online series, and a ton of TV shows: Parks and Recreation (Retta), The Daily Show (John Hodgman, Wyatt Cenac), Curb Your Enthusiasm (Jeff Garlin), The Office (Kate Flannery), Drunk History (Kyle Kinane). Want to find some new favorites? Here are a few more performers to look out for.
The New York Times in 2013 called this Brooklyn-based performer a “magnetic improvisational comic.” She’s been featured on IFC’s Comedy Drop and toured with indie rocker Father Joh Misty. Her style is most often described as “absurdist,” so don’t say you weren’t warned.
When to see her: Opening night at Lincoln Theatre (tickets are $30)
The Chicago funnyman is part of the Comedians You Should Know collective and was featured at last year’s Montreal Comedy Festival. He also looks a bit like Jack Black and enjoys using the hashtag #withmydick.
When to see him: Thursday at Fillmore Silver Spring (tickets are $20)
The Puterbaugh Sisters
Tiffany and Danielle—yes, they’re really sisters—are cast members of Chicago Underground Comedy and host a variety/comedy show called Entertaining Julia (which was started by another Bentzen Ball participant, Jena Friedman).
When to see them: Hosting Saturday’s 8x8 at Black Cat (tickets are $15)
The writer and performer has contributed to the New York Times, McSweeny’s, GQ, and This American Life and wrote the 2012 book Tasteful Nudes ... and Other Misguided Attempts at Personal Growth and Validation.
When to see him: Thursday at 9:30 Club (tickets are $20)
You can catch this DC local alongside fellow Washingtonian John Mulaney in Fox’s new comedy Mulaney, premiering Sunday. You might also recognize him as the “Pimpin’ Referee” in a Sierra Mist Web ad campaign.
When to see him: Thursday at 9:30 Club (tickets are $20)
She could double as a life coach, thanks to her Web series Yell You Better, which involves asking readers to write in with a problem and then berating them into getting over it. If F-bombs offend you, I wouldn’t recommend clicking the video link (everyone else should definitely check it out).
When to see her: Friday during Church Night at Wonderland Ballroom (tickets are $4.99 to $9.99)
In August 2000, John Mulaney, a Catholic kid from Chicago, arrived at Georgetown, and a week later he was accepted into the school’s fledgling improv group, cast by fellow comedian Nick Kroll. He would soon follow Kroll to New York, sleeping on the elder comic’s couch while he hit open-mike nights. That trail led him to an Emmy-winning stint writing for Saturday Night Live—and to Mulaney, a sitcom debuting October 5 on Fox. Besides Kroll and Mulaney, Georgetown has become a breeding ground for off-kilter, quick-witted comics: Mike Birbiglia, Funny or Die’s Owen Burke, comedy writer Brian Donovan, and Parks and Recreation’s Alison Becker. Mulaney, now 32, talks about Georgetown as a comedy spawning ground.
Why do you think Georgetown’s improv group has been such a career launcher?
When I was there, it kind of felt like the only game in town, at a school that didn’t have a ton of theater. They’ve since built a huge performing-arts center we’d have loved to have. But it was just a very funny group of people—I’m surprised more people I did improv with didn’t go into comedy.
So with little else in the way of performers, you were the outsiders?
In retrospect, we were pretty much just left alone. We sold tickets—the money covered us and the children’s theater; we didn’t have to ask for grants. If I had gone to an NYU or an Emerson that had a lot of performing arts, it would have been very different.
Did that self-sufficiency carry into your career?
It definitely helped doing standup early on. We would do shows at the coffee shop at Georgetown’s Lauinger Library and have to set up chairs, so in New York it seemed natural to just walk into a bar and ask to do a show. There’s the idea that if you want to do a TV show, you have to make one—you can’t wait for someone else.
How does Washington compare as a comedy town?
DC Improv is really good, and in the past few years the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse has turned out to be an awesome venue. When you have two central hubs like that, a lot of young comedians can get stage time, and that’s what makes a comedy town.
This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Washingtonian.