I’m in the balcony of the stunning Spanish Gothic-style United Artists movie palace in Downtown L.A. — built in 1927 but now known as the Theatre at Ace Hotel — for the 25th anniversary performance of UnCabaret, the “original alt-comedy show” created by Beth Lapides in 1993.
Patton Oswalt, “the alt-comedy godfather,” takes the stage as a 15-piece band strikes into a Don Rickles-esque military march traditionally used to announce matadors at a bullfight. The intro awkwardly goes on too long, though, so when Oswalt reaches the mic, all he can do is take in the 1,600-seat theater’s vaulted ceilings, elaborate murals of Hollywood luminaries and the pièce de résistance: a massive dome above the center of the auditorium covered with thousands of mirrored crystal pendants encircled by an enormous sunburst.
“Wow,” he says with a sarcastic sigh. “I’m glad to be here, but this is sorta like celebrating CBGB in the Hollywood Bowl and attempting to relive the grungy thrill of the Ramones from your garden seats with a nice bottle of Silver Oak.”
As Oswalt tells me before the show, the real value of UnCabaret when it first hit the comedy scene in 1993 was as a unique space to develop more vulnerable material he was unable to unpack in traditional comedy venues. “It was a place where you were allowed — and expected — to dig deeper into some of the more emotional, real-life aspects of how you got to that joke,” he explains.
Oswalt credits Lapides with creating such an environment, along with the female and LGBTQ comics she included and tirelessly promoted. “It was a whole new type of show, where straight white male comedians performed alongside women, people of color, LGBT and all forms of sexual minorities. We were comedians first and everything else a distant second.”
Oswalt also largely credits his ability to be emotionally and comedically available after his wife’s tragic passing with what he learned at UnCabaret. “I’ve had a lot of bad shit dropped into my life,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “A big part of being able to bounce back from it personally, professionally and creatively was thanks to the UnCabaret. It showed me and many other comedians that our tribe was out there, and they actually wanted to hear about our dark secrets. It’s like that scene in the Blind Melon video when the sad little girl in the bee costume finally finds all the other bees.”
It all began when Lapides — then a twentysomething not yet ex–New Yorker trying to make a go of comedy in L.A. — could no longer tolerate the accepted bullshit in comedy clubs in the early 1990s. One night, while waiting to go on at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip, she heard Andrew Dice Clay women and gay bashing, per usual. “I was hating him,” she tells me. “Hating the audience for laughing at him, hating myself for hating them. Even hating myself for hating him. And I don’t do well with hate.”
Shortly thereafter, Lapides did a set at L.A.’s historic Women’s Building — where feminist artist Judy Chicago first exhibited The Dinner Party — and was struck by the uproarious response she received. “When was the last time you laughed?” she asked the women after the show, noting that they seemed “a little desperate.”
“We don’t laugh,” one responded. “We’re women, we’re artists and we’re lesbians. If we go to comedy clubs, they just make fun of us.”
That’s when the idea for UnCabaret really took hold. “[It was] one of those ideas that feels different from other ideas,” she explains. “Like God, the Big Thing, whatever you call it, is speaking directly to you and through you.”
For the next seven years, UnCabaret took up residency at Luna Park, a supper club in West Hollywood with a tiny, Euro-style cabaret room downstairs and a larger showroom upstairs. A restaurant and outdoor lounge made for an ideal for post-show hang.
Similarly ideal was the timing for such a show to arrive on the comedy scene, says my friend Wayne Federman, a 35-year touring comedian; an adjunct professor at USC who teaches stand-up and comedy history; and host of the critically acclaimed podcast, The History of Standup. He explains that the early 1990s marked a retrenchment of comedy clubs that had seen unprecedented expansion around the country in the previous decade (at its peak there were more than 400 of them). People were sick of being forced to buy overpriced booze and chicken tenders while enduring hacky routines about airplane food and nagging mother-in-laws. But UnCabaret was a different kind of comedy venue, Federman says. “Instead of the kind of well-rehearsed routines that comedy clubs required, UnCab rewarded more personal, honest and confessional type material.”
The regulars at UnCab were decidedly irregular both in gender (e.g., Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, Merrill Markoe and Margaret Cho) and sexuality (e.g., Taylor Negron, Michael Patrick King, Terry Sweeney and Justin Sayre). “Of course, this is a gross generalization,” Sayre tells me, “but a lot of straight comedy is still doing material like, ‘Aren’t women crazy?’ When you get rid of that, suddenly you’re all on the same side. That’s something indelible in UnCabaret and what really sets it apart.”
Sweeney — SNL’s first openly gay cast member — tells me that at the time, Hollywood comedy clubs were tough rooms for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, cisgendered man. That’s why UnCabaret was such a cathartic outlet for him to tell deeply personal stories. Like the one about having to repeatedly come out to his boyfriend’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted, Southern mother. The first time he did so, pre-Alzheimer’s, he told the UnCabaret audience, she hadn’t made a big deal about it. After Alzheimer’s, though, she’d forgotten he was gay — despite him doing her hair and makeup every morning.
“Every other day she’d ask, ‘Now what girl are you dating?”
“I’m gay,” he’d respond.
“Oh my Lord. You’re funning, right? You’re not telling me…” And then she’d forget and ask again.
“So what girl are you dating now?”
Markoe — who’d taken a long sabbatical from stand-up to co-create Late Night with David Letterman — tells me that in some ways, UnCabaret saved her life. “I was looking for a performing outlet,” she recalls. “There was no easy way to get back into stand-up after taking years off to do the Letterman show. The old system of Comedy Store/Improv needed you to show up with working old-style jokes with big punchlines. But Beth was asking for funny storytelling about what your life was actually like. I was writing magazine columns and doing video reports on local news that fell into that very category: observations on stuff. So suddenly I saw a path of re-entry.”
“I heard a lot of folks who are now famous comedians speak to their upbringing or their personal shortcomings in frank and startling ways,” Markoe recalls. “Like Bobcat Goldthwait on hysteria and marriage difficulties; Bob Odenkirk talking about a childhood moment where his father left the family and handed 8-year-old Bob a checkbook and said, ‘You’re the man of the house now’; and David Cross telling stories about being raised by a father so irresponsible and sociopathic that he brought home a pack of beer nuts for the kids for dinner.”
The straight, white men who graced the UnCab stage — Oswalt, Goldthwait, Odenkirk, Cross and Greg Behrendt chief among them — were of a different, brainier breed: a little more sensitive, a lot less rapey. Those I spoke with said that sharing the stage with female and queer comics allowed them to investigate masculinity in a more nuanced, self-reflective way. Behrendt, for example, a consultant on Sex and the City and cowrote the New York Times bestseller “He’s Just Not That Into You,” told a story at UnCabaret entitled “Mantastic,” investigating what it meant to be a man in the mid-1990s.
“I’d just gone through a big breakup and gotten sober and was spending a lot of time by myself,” he tells me. All of which helped him realize how much he liked wandering the aisles of the furniture store and admiring lamps. In the story, he explored his sudden obsession with kitchen appliances. “If I just had this toaster,” he recalls, “I was convinced I’d have the life I always wanted.”
“It may seem like the hot new thing,” comedian Dana Gould told the L.A. Times in 1994, “but it’s really the old thing. This is what comedy clubs were like at the beginning, back in the 1960s, when Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman were performing high-minded material for jazz aficionados. I’m still a big fan of regular comedy clubs, but I can do a set at the UnCabaret that kills, and at the Improv it just sits there. There’s a different rhythm at these alternative comedy shows, and the audience feels more like a bunch of your friends. It’s a great chance to graze with your own herd.”
As Federman explains, the newly born alt-comedy audience was thirsty for risk-taking and would “sniff out and reject mainstream comedy-club bits and premises.” For example, when I ask Oswalt to tell me about the most memorable performance he’s seen at UnCabaret, he immediately points to Rick Overton, a longtime friend of mine. “Rick was a very old school, mainstream, brilliant comedian who came from the 1980s world of brick wall A&E’s Evening At The Improv,” Oswalt explains. “He went up at UnCabaret one night and completely deconstructed what that seemingly fun, ‘safe’ 1980s comedy was actually like behind the brick wall: a lot of cocaine, competition and self-loathing.”
“I found it to be so fascinating and the audience was just blown away,” Oswalt continues. “When he first went up, they kind of bristled, like, Ugh, what does this mainstream comic have to say… But then when he explained that the mainstream world was actually way darker and more fucked up than anything they imagined, it was like someone turned all the lights on.
“Like when people are really into the 1970s punk scene but when you tell them what the birth of rock ‘n’ roll was actually like in terms of the sex, substance abuse and violence, they’re like, Holy shit! Because there was actually way more darkness at the beginning of things when it was still forming. In a weird way, you’re allowed to be more open about your trauma and your pathologies in alternative comedy, and there’s actually less weirdness, violence, fucked-up sexuality and drug abuse because everyone’s very open about it. But in the 1980s, a lot of it was still being suppressed and tamped down, and so, you got some really, really fucked-up stories. Rick just kind of opened the box on that, and it was fascinating to watch the audience react.”
“I remember that set,” Overton tells me. “I recognized it was an audience that knew that a priest, a rabbi and a horse didn’t actually walk into a bar and that we have fears and pain. They understood that it was a gesture of great courage to laugh in the face of such darkness. They welcomed it in a way that I was pleasantly surprised by, knowing that it might not have been received the same in a standard road club. In that rarefied air, you’ll find a whole other side of yourself. I saw so many brave artists at UnCabaret revealing things they’d hidden all those years, and I was honored to be in their company.”
To that end, Lapides says, “Sometimes I feel UnCabaret’s completed.” Then she considers the Louis C.K./Bill Cosby/#MeToo landscape and gets discouraged by the still mostly male lineups at comedy shows. “There are ‘women’ shows and there are ‘gay’ shows, but there aren’t necessarily shows set up for women and gay performers to be comfortable with straight, male-gendered comics. All of whom, I think — and their audiences — benefit greatly from sharing a stage. There’s something refreshing about men behaving well in comedy that I’m committed to preserving. So UnCabaret will return. [UnCabaret was forced to go on hiatus when its usual venue closed earlier this year.] It will be different; it will be something else; but it will be exactly what it is. Because that’s the way things are when they change. And we’ve got to change to be happy.”