Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guest Blogger: Indie Comedy Rocks, But What’s the ‘Alternative?’

Eugene Mirman at the Paradise
in March
A sidebar to Part I of Lucas Lewis's series on local comedy. Lewis will be recording a set Friday at The Gas at Great Scott. - Nick

By Lucas Lewis

JAMAICA PLAIN — On a warm night in late April, a crowd assembles in the living room of the Whitehaus, a three-story Victorian in Jamaica Plain that has been putting on rock shows in its basement, and in this particular parlor, for the last few years.

Only on this occasion, music is merely the sideshow: The main act is the Union Square Round Table (, a comedic variety show that started in Somerville and is normally held at PA’s Lounge in the show’s eponymous square the last Friday of each month.

PA’s accidentally double-booked this month, so the show moved to Somerville’s progressive counterpart on the other side of the river, JP. It turns out to be a fortuitous move. The room is packed with first-timers, and it’s a younger crowd than the USRT typically attracts. Rockers. Hipsters. Bohemians. Other JP stereotypes seemingly come to life.

Keira Horowitz, who has been involved with the show for most of its five years, is encouraged by the turnout. Before she goes onstage to talk about her personal history of Jamaica Plain, she says the group will probably try other locales, too.

Eugene Mirman, a successful comedian (see “The Studio” and “Onward”), former Somervillian and friend of a few of the group’s founding members, used to perform at the show with some regularity, and Horowitz confesses that until recently, she assumed he was their primary draw. Tonight’s show is evidence to the contrary.

In some ways, the USRT is the kind of cerebral, multimedia variety show you might expect from an educated collective of 20- and 30-somethings: smart (if obscure) impressions, oddball videos, faux professorial lectures aided by PowerPoint and an overhead projector.

But then there are unexpected wrinkles, too, like the married musical duo Cotton Candy performing flawless renditions of actual commercial jingles from years past, or the chocolate pudding cooked in the kitchen over the course of the show and served at the end by the mustachioed Round Table knight TD Sidell.

Unlike many of the comedy shows around town, none of the featured players seemed to be trying to “make it” in comedy.

“The Union Square Round Table is seven-or-so people who are mostly embarrassed by comedy but try to do it anyway,” USRT member Chris Braiotta writes in an email. “We try to avoid a lot of things, but we especially try to avoid being too much like dudes. We are all millionaires, which takes a lot of pressure off.”

House shows (sometimes called “basement shows,” for obvious reasons) have been a staple of the underground music scene for years, and the Whitehaus is one of the best known and longest-running establishments in the city in this regard. Its proprietors try not to publicize the exact location lest they draw the ire of the police — “ask a punk” is the classic, though now somewhat ironically invoked, phrase affixed to flyers where an address might otherwise be printed.

There seems little chance of the cops coming tonight; people are sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Basement comedy shows are less common, though this hardly an isolated incident. For a time, the comedian Jenny Zigrino and her housemates held the King Cobra Comedy Night not far from here on Greenough Street — in their living room.

Like “indie rock,” “indie” or “alternative comedy” are rather amorphous terms that encapsulate a broad range of styles. Alternative comedy is the more dated of the two, beginning with comedians like Janeane Garofalo and now synonymous with comics like Patton Oswalt.

“Alternative comedy wasn’t really a specific style, there was just a sincerity and an energy to what people were doing, and it wasn’t trying to find the lowest common denominator to get on TV,” says Rick Jenkins of its origins, which mirrored the growth of his club, The Comedy Studio. “Ironically, all those people ended up on TV because they were so good and unique and different.”

It might not have a clear definition, but it can still be useful shorthand, especially when it comes to describing the types of comedy that are on the rise in Boston. According to comedy writer Nick Zaino III, Oswalt has described alternative comedy as merely what happens when neither the performer nor audience have a preconceived notion of what standup comedy should be.

Sometimes it means a comedian whose material is unorthodox or pushes the envelope. Sometimes it's as simple as doing a standup show in a rock club.

“I think at one point it, like music, it started as a term that meant as an alternative to mainstream,” says Mirman. “But the truth is comedy clubs are a creation of the 70's or 80's. Most of the places I do stuff (now) have music or trivia.”

And sometimes they're just a living room.

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