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At L.A.'s UnCabaret, 25 Years Of Letting It All Hang Out

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 20, 2013 9:07 pm

A lot of the stand-up comedy that gets done in Los Angeles is really just comics auditioning for parts in TV or movies.

Not at UnCabaret: For 25 years, it's been a place to hear unvarnished, rough-edged ideas being tried out — mostly for the first and possibly only time.

Michael Patrick King, co-creator of the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, has worked out some issues there. So has comic, actor and Twitter titan Patton Oswalt, who took the stage to tell a tale about a date that changed his life. The confession "I took her to see a movie in a graveyard" was just part of the setup.

Judd Apatow, Julia Sweeney, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne Barr and many others have taken turns behind the mic at UnCabaret, a singular place that's the brainchild of a woman named Beth Lapides, who started out as a boundary-pushing performance artist.

"And I had sort of a spiritual awakening, where I thought, 'I could do exactly what I do, but make it funny,' " Lapides says. "And being funny is a higher calling. It's a higher purpose."

She left the avant-garde stage for comedy clubs. And while she loved getting laughs there, traditional comedy clubs had a downside. To Lapides, they seemed painfully retro, even at the time.

"I was shocked that people were doing jokes about how men and women are different," she says. "I was shocked that people were doing shticky stuff that just seemed so old-fashioned to me — there's no other way of saying it."

So she created her own comedy club, one that operated without the old rules. It brought in funny people from the huge Hollywood talent pool — some of whom had day jobs writing for movies and TV — and freed them to talk about things in their own lives.

Lapides tells her performers to reveal things they'd share with a close friend. And she has another instruction, as well:

"When you get onstage, do the material that, if you don't do it, your head is going to explode," she says.

Horror Confessionals, Personal And Professional

Margaret Cho told stories about her grandfather, the minister of a Korean Christian congregation who had a habit of praying ostentatiously — and, to Cho, embarrassingly — at restaurants.

Writer-director Larry Charles turned in an UnCabaret horror tale from his professional life. A veteran of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he also directed one hit movie — Borat — and another one that, well, didn't do as well.

"I made this movie with Bob Dylan called Masked and Anonymous. It's gotten some very interesting reactions. Variety called it 'the height of masturbatory hubris.' The headline was 'Bombs Away.' I got a lot of that kind of stuff."

Painful experiences plus time — well, that's what comedy is.

To be clear, UnCabaret is not tailored to everyone's taste. Stories can drag on way too long; jokes can be few or obscure. And at times you can be baffled as to whether you're supposed to laugh at all. An example, this one from writer and sometime public radio contributor Tig Notaro:

"I know it might seem a little weird to just, right out of the gate, start out with a punch line. But my mother died. Tragically. Thank you so much for coming out. You guys were a great audience."

Cue the uncomfortable giggles. But after a quarter century, audiences still come to gamble that they'll be rewarded at UnCabaret. And now, if you can't make it to L.A., you can watch UnCabaret online; Amazon has picked it up for distribution as part of its move to compete with Hulu, Netflix and other streaming-video providers.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And finally this hour, we take you to a performance space in Los Angeles. It looks like any other comedy club, but there is a difference. It's called UnCabaret and this year marks its 25th anniversary. As NPR's Art Silverman tells us, audiences come not to hear the usual slick routines, but real stories with very personal punchlines.

ART SILVERMAN, BYLINE: A lot of stand-up in L.A. is really just a chance for comics to audition for parts in TV or movies. UnCabaret is a place to hear unvarnished, rough-edged ideas being tried out, mostly for the first and possibly only time. Like this one, about going to a yoga class.

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: So I go in and there's 80 people in this class. It's the biggest class I've ever seen and it's a wall of mirrors.

SILVERMAN: That's Michael Patrick King. He's one of the people who helped create "Sex And The City" and "Two Broke Girls."

KING: And the woman who is the teacher with the Madonna headset says to the class of 80 people, everybody should focus on themselves. And I was like, I can do this. I have been doing this for a long time.

PATTON OSWALT: I took her to see a movie in a graveyard.

SILVERMAN: And this is comedian, writer and actor Patton Oswalt. He's known for a role in the sitcom "The King of Queens" and the movie "Young Adult." At UnCabaret, he told a tale about a date that changed his life.

OSWALT: And it was almost like me kind of saying bye-bye to the whole nerd world. It was so symbolic of like, I'm going to go see "The Tenth Victim" in a graveyard and then just kind of leave that life behind. Like, I'm so un-nerded now.

SILVERMAN: I could play you another dozen examples of people whose names you know who have performed at UnCabaret - Judd Apatow, Julia Sweeney, Sandra Bernhardt, Roseanne Barr, many others. Behind this peculiar place is a woman named Beth Lapides. She started out as a performance artist.

BETH LAPIDES: And I had sort of a spiritual awakening, where I thought, I could do exactly what I do, but make it funny. And being funny is a higher calling. It's a higher purpose.

SILVERMAN: So she left the avant-garde stage for comedy clubs. And while she loved getting laughs there, traditional comedy clubs had a downside for her.

LAPIDES: I was shocked immediately in the comedy clubs by how old-fashioned it seemed. I was shocked that people were doing jokes about how men and women are different. I was shocked that people were doing shticky stuff that just seemed so old-fashioned to me. There's no other way of saying it.

SILVERMAN: In reaction to that, she created her own comedy club. It operated without the old rules. It brought in funny people from the huge Hollywood talent pool who had day jobs writing for movies and TV and it freed them to talk about their own lives. Beth Lapides tells her performers to reveal things they'd share with a close friend. And she has another instruction.

LAPIDES: When you get onstage, do the material that, if you don't do it, your head is going to explode.

MARGARET CHO: My grandfather is a minister or was a minister before he died. He was a minister of this Korean church and we would go out to restaurants, to family-style restaurants and there would be, like, 10 of us who would be sitting at a table and my grandfather would be praying.

SILVERMAN: This embarrassing childhood story by comedian Margaret Cho.

CHO: And he's praying. (Speaking foreign language) you know, and it's so embarrassing. And then the waiter's just standing there, like, who had the Rooty-Tooty Fresh and Fruity?

SILVERMAN: For writer-director Larry Charles, his UnCabaret horror tale came from his professional life. He's a veteran of "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He also directed one hit movie, "Borat," and another one that, well, didn't do as well.

LARRY CHARLES: I made this movie with Bob Dylan called "Masked and Anonymous." It's gotten some very interesting reactions. Variety called it the height of masturbatory hubris. It's like the headline was Bombs Away. I got a lot of that kind of stuff. Larry Charles is a complete idiot. There was a lot of stuff like that.

SILVERMAN: Painful experiences plus time, well, that's what comedy is. And I should make it clear, UnCabaret is not tailored to everyone's taste. Stories can drag on way too long; jokes can be few or obscure. And at times you can be baffled as to whether you are supposed to laugh at all. An example from writer and sometime public radio contributor Tig Notaro.

TIG NOTARO: Oh, my gosh. I know it might seem a little weird to just, right out of the gate, start out with a punch line. But my mother died, tragically. Thank you so much for coming out. You guys were such a great audience.

SILVERMAN: But after a quarter century, audiences still come to gamble that they'll be rewarded at UnCabaret. And now, if you can't make it to L.A., you can watch UnCabaret online. Remember, though, watching videos of UnCabaret performances robs you of an important part of the experience, a chance to add your own laughter to the show.

NOTARO: After my mother died, thank you so much for coming out. You guys are such a great audience.

SILVERMAN: Art Silverman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.