This weekend saw the third annual dccomedyfest, featuring stand-up, sketch and improv acts, and film. The shows I saw were well-attended, which made for strong laughter but also long lines snaking through the bar of the Warehouse Theater and down 14th Street in front of HR-57. The festival promoted its open-pass system, which meant you could buy a ticket for a single day or all weekend instead of just a single show.
But while this meant more freedom to attend shows, it also meant you weren’t guaranteed a seat at any of them. The more prestigious your ticket, the better your chances of getting in—VIP passes and then Weekend Passes got to jump to the front of the line, much to the chagrin of those who had been waiting, some upwards of an hour, in the blustery weather.
Once inside, the mood brightened. While most of the performers were not very well known, they knew how to get laughs out of folks. Comedians from all over the country were competing not only for the audience’s affections but also for the attention of bookers for The Tonight Show and Late Show with David Letterman and several national club promoters.
At Friday’s College & Club Audition Show, HR-57 took a break from its mission of preserving jazz as an art form to host some comedy. Amidst posters of Billie Holiday and other jazz icons, bookers for colleges and clubs across America judged stand-up performers to choose the headliner for a three-show comedy tour. The club’s somewhat formal ambiance was immediately taken down a few notches. Though the emcee, Nate Craig, wore a suit complete with black tie, he topped off—or rather bottomed off—the outfit with red and white running shoes. Mike Bridenstine wore a “Team Ca$h” t-shirt , and Rory Scovel came on stage in a “Coors” knit hat that looked like it had been around since about 1978. Sean Flannery performed with beer in hand. But the contrast of the jazz club’s typical performances with its current one was made even starker when Renee Gauthier whipped out her aqua mini boom box, set it on top of the somber-looking piano, and proceeded to shake her butt to the music.There was plenty of laughter and audience participation—though not necessarily the good kind. Drunken shouts and hollers forced emcee Craig to spend time between sets scolding rather than joking, but he couldn’t completely quiet the rowdy crowd. Other audience members participated without meaning to; one woman in the front row took heat for her piercing laugh from nearly every comic—but she kept right on laughing.
Subjects ranged from getting a date to spell-check to poverty. Two comedians made almost the same crack. One said he’d once heard a publicist for Terrell Owens say her client’s overdose must have been accidental because “T.O. has 25 million reasons not to kill himself”; then the comedian noted that his own salary gave him only 68 reasons not to commit suicide. Another suggested that even if he knew the world was going to end the next day, he’d be able to have only a slightly good time, buying all the drinks he could with his $51.
Hari Kondabolu seemed to be the crowd favorite, but it may simply have been that his fans were loudest. The drunken table in the back had begun shouting his name a few sets before he went on, and his biting commentary on race and American society certainly got laughs. But it was Myq Kaplan, who also joked about race and religion, who officially won the chance to do a club tour to several venues around the country.
This being DC, political correctness was bound to be challenged. Drug users and the mentally handicapped were lampooned, and race came up several times, not only from the non-white comedians—and not only from comedians, for that matter, as the audience got in on the conversation as well.
The real political humor came last Saturday at the Political Comedy Convention on the Warehouse Mainstage. Jeff Kreisler, whose political-comedy cred includes a tour called “Comedy Against Evil,” hosted. Despite the web site’s warning, “Don’t like what the last guy said? Don’t worry, just wait 5 minutes and it’s somebody else’s turn,” the comedians all leaned pretty clearly left, with rants against Bush and the GOP an almost universal theme.
Race was once again an issue. Elon James White, born in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, spoke of white people’s surprise that a black man from the ghetto could speak proper English and he joked about his frustration with his original neighborhood—both its rough, violent aspects and the process of gentrification that is occurring now.
Hari Kondabolu came back again to stir up racial tensions with several of the same jokes. While some in the crowd were repeat viewers of his set, he still got a lot of laughs, and his new material made up for the repetition. At one point he said he wanted to give a tip to the “brown people” in the audience, telling them that they should dress in a fashion that Americans can understand—he then removed his shirt to reveal a red, white, and blue jogging jacket emblazoned “USA” and dotted with stars. He called it his “angry white people protection jacket.” White also implied that his dress was calculated to gain trust: “I was told that as a large black man, to be on this show I had to wear a blazer—I don’t know why. I guess I can’t rob you if I’m in a blazer?”
Race wasn’t the only issue the comedians made light of. They joked about the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even September 11. “Shock and Awesome,” an improv troupe, played a USO group entertaining the troops in Fallujah. They asked the “troops” for a suggestion of something that happens on the base every day. The response: “Torture!” The troupe balked momentarily at the suggestion, but one of its improvised comedy games did involve “torturing” a “criminal” into figuring out what she was accused of.
The comedians welcomed the chance to talk about serious topics—topics, they said, were often lost on audiences in other cities. While the crowd’s behavior didn’t always suggest “intellectual,” the laughs convinced performers that, at least in DC, people get the smart jokes and—some of the time, at least—are willing to not take issues quite so seriously. All in all, the dccomedyfest gave Washington a lot to laugh at. Particularly ourselves.