Category Archives: Comedy

How Church Night Is Bringing Their Wacky, Hilarious Gospel to the Masses

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A pastor in cargo shorts. A youth minister wearing a rictus grin and a fanny pack. An adult altar boy in bike shorts with the mark of the beast on his forehead. They are Reverend Dr. Stevedore Maybelline Bidet Esq., Kathy Piechota, and Randy St. Oates Jr. And this is their Church Night.

What follows for the next two hours at the Black Cat’s Backstage is a church service like none other. The irreverent reverend spits fire and brimstone throughout a call-and-response sermon; the church lady recalls smoking meth on the way to Burning Man and leads the flock in a Tears for Fears sing-a-long; the altar boy (or “altered boy,” as they pronounce it) speaks in tongues and serves a shot of whiskey and a tater tot as communion. And they’re not alone: there are a pair of stand-up comics, a flying spaghetti monster burlesque dancer, and a capacity crowd of parishioners.

If it still isn’t clear, Church Night is not a real religious service: it’s a comedy-variety show that updates Dana Carvey’s famed “Church Lady” Saturday Night Live sketch for the Tim & Eric generation. For more than three years, the Church Night crew have turned bars and clubs—in D.C. and beyond—into ad hoc altars. They’ve also turned their show into an award-winning web series, which, if the success of web-to-TV series like Broad City and Drunk History is any indication, could be the first step in bringing their gospel to a global audience.

Church Night began in the summer of 2013, when Linsay Deming (AKA Kathy Piechota) was tapped by You, Me, Them, Everybody host Brandon Wetherbee to produce a show at the Wonderland Ballroom. Before then, she had been hosting a “wacky” variety-potluck show at St. Stephen’s church with her band SweetBread Jim’s, bringing together music, comedy, burlesque, and even edible food sculptures.

“I loved that she made it a family affair, both figuratively and literally,” Wetherbee says. “It wasn’t just music or art or food or poetry or whatever that made it great, it was the curation and variety behind it.”

The Wonderland show would allow her to take things to the next level. “I wanted to make a variety show that had a through-line that would keep the audience engaged,” one that would create “an immersive experience that took people out of their own reality,” Deming says. She realized that a church service is the perfect format for a variety show.

Deming soon recruited her friend Landon Letzkus and his roommate at the time, Jeremy Frank. Letzkus had already developed the Stevedore Maybelline Bidet character for another project and knew he could easily make him into a pastor, while Frank—who studied theater and dance at George Mason University—would be perfect as the show’s scantily-clad altar boy (it was his decision to make Randy mute). They held their first show in April of 2013 at Wonderland to a packed house. “I think we’re onto something with this,” Deming remembers thinking.

***

Church Night quickly established the rituals and structure of a real religious ceremony: attendees are entreated to high-five their neighbors; Deming’s character plays keyboard for a pop music hymnal; Randy gives out the shots-and-tots communion. The trio believes it is the ritualistic nature of their show that has made it so popular with audiences. “People like that aspect of going to church,” Deming says. “It’s all the other nonsense they don’t like.”

While the group did some less-than-extensive research when first crafting Church Night (“We went to, like, two-thirds of a church service,” Deming admits), all three have religious backgrounds. Deming grew up in Sioux City, Iowa and went to a Methodist church, but moved away from religion when college exposed her to new, secular ideas. Frank grew up in a “really, really small” Orthodox Jewish community in Newport News, Virginia, but—like Deming—chose to live a more secular life in his late teens.

And while Rev. Bidet’s Southern-fried sermons suggest that Letzkus had a Baptist upbringing, that couldn’t be further from the truth. His parents are members of Sufism Reoriented, a spiritual community with an ashram in D.C.’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood; Letzkus was its only child.

“I was terrified by how abnormal this was, especially in D.C.,” he explains, “but my parents went to great lengths to explain that spirituality was up to me.” As a rebellious teenager, Letzkus enrolled at St. John’s College High School, a Catholic military school in Chevy Chase. That didn’t stick, either: “It made me wary of both organized religion and the military.”

Despite the differences in their religious backgrounds, the three principals of Church Night all appreciated the community that a place of worship can provide. Both Letzkus and Frank speak highly of the communities where they grew up.

“We live in a relatively secular circle of friends, and none of us are particularly religious now, but church is really great at bringing people together, looking out for each other, having this core group you can count on seeing,” Letzkus explains. “Maybe the most baffling part of [Church Night] is that we set out to do a comedy show and we ended up with something adjacent to a religious experience,” says Frank, although Deming adds: “But ours is based on absurdity, not on substance.”

***

That absurdity has forged a community of Church Night fans—whether they have religion in their background or not. Kusuma Prabhakara has been going to Church Night for about two years, and says that she has never ascribed to and was not raised under the auspices of any belief system. For her, it’s Church Night’s satire of organized religion’s hypocrisy—“the bullshit fundraising, the highly-flawed selling salvation to the desperate, the over-the-top theatrics, the forced modesty, the pandering drivel”—that keeps her coming back.

On the other end of the Church Night spectrum is someone like Katie Beard, the daughter of missionaries who grew up in the Baptist church. For children of pastors and missionaries, there are two paths in life: following in their fathers’ footsteps or discovering the secular world. “I have blue hair and tattoos,” Beard writes, “so you can imagine which way the pendulum swung for me.”

But even as she has moved away from the church, Church Night provides a “safe space” to revisit the religion of her youth like “a modern-day 700 Club.” “They are helping me to relive these situations in ways that can make us laugh at ourselves,” she says.

Still, the makers of Church Night take great care to walk the line between transgressive, loving parody and reverence for the good aspects of religion. “We don’t want to make fun of faith or belief in something spiritual or bigger than yourself,” Deming explains. “We’re just taking the structure of church to make a show about these morons who are using religion for their own personal gain.” Or as Frank puts it: “They’re dumb as shit, and sometimes they ask the lord for guidance but he’s got other stuff to do.”

While religion provides the structure of the show, the Church Night crew stresses that it’s all in service of their comedy. Deming is influenced by Mr. Show and Amy Sedaris and grew up doing sketch and improv; Letzkus watched Saturday Night Live with his family and eventually got into underground favorites The State and Stella; and Frank points to the physical comedy of The Carol Burnett Show as a key influence. The format of Church Night allows them to provide different flavors of entertainment: sketch, stand-up, and burlesque; jokes about everything from bodily functions to more biting material about politics. “We want to span the gamut of comedy as much as we can,” Deming explains.

To that end, the trio launched Church Night TV, a five-episode webseries that they produced with filmmaker Theodore Jones, who is also Deming’s husband. The idea was to bring Church Night to the cable access format, adding guest interviews, commercial plugs, hot dog breaks, and segments like the Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee-inspired “Inside Kathy’s Volvo” and a spoof of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. With no real budget and full-time jobs, the show took a year to make, but it was worth it: Not only did it strengthen their character work and writing, but the series won awards at LA Webfest and was an official selection at Miami Webfest and Webfest Berlin this year.

“Our dream would be to get Church Night to a place where we could have a show on TV or streaming or whatever and tour the live show,” Deming admits. “That’s the dream, but why wait?”

Doing Church Night TV DIY-style let them cut their teeth and left them with a digital calling card that can open Church Night to new audiences. “It takes a little while to find the people that are into what we’re doing,” she explains. “We’re not for everybody. We’re the opposite of cool.”

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

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Comic Release: D.C. Comedy Scene is Gaining Steam, But Can it Rival NYC And L.A.?

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The basement of the Big Hunt is nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to its devilish decor, claustrophobic ambience, and red-light glow. The name was especially fitting on a recent Friday night.

A capacity crowd was there for an alt-comedy show, but the mood was tense, as if the people assembled didn’t sign up for an evening of absurd, surreal, and awkward bits about parental sex and nuclear winter. For some, it was comedy nirvana; for others, comedy hell.

“It felt like a lot of first dates were going bad in there,” says comedian Jamel Johnson, who performed that night. “Generally there are two kinds of audience member: one that wants to laugh and another that challenges you to make them laugh. You see the latter more often at local shows. Fools just act different when they’ve never heard of you.”

The audience might not have heard of Johnson before, but that will probably change soon. The six-year veteran is on his way to Los Angeles, where he’ll be one of a number of growing fish who have fled the District’s small-pond comedy scene for better opportunities in L.A. or New York.
For decades, the District has been a proving ground for comics on their way to bigger and better things. Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Patton Oswalt, Rory Scovel, and Wanda Sykes are just a few of the comedians who have started their careers here. In recent years, rising talents Aparna Nancherla, Seaton Smith, and Brandon Wardell have followed.

That tradition was the focus of the 202 Comedy Festival, held in April. “We wanted to have a festival to celebrate all the great comics who have developed in D.C. over the years and to get everyone back in one place,” says Sean Joyce, the comedian and promoter who co-produced the festival, which featured more than 100 comics across 18 shows on four days of programming.

But while the festival had a decidedly local bent—about three-quarters of the festival’s talent was based in the D.C. area—its opening and closing shows were headlined by some of D.C.’s most successful recent exports. That comics have to leave D.C. before they become a headliner at a local festival says something about the state of comedy in the District, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the local scene.

The 202 Comedy Festival was the culmination of Joyce’s groundwork: Under his Underground Comedy banner, he produces stand-up shows every night of the week and has built a new infrastructure for D.C. comedy. With shows held primarily at the Big Hunt and Bier Baron, his mini-empire provides local comics with much-needed stage time at places besides the D.C. area’s establishment comedy venues (the D.C. Improv and Arlington Drafthouse).

“Thanks to Sean Joyce, there’s this whole level of comics that can get up every single night and really try to do unique and interesting stuff,” says Brandon Wetherbee, the host of the You, Me, Them, Everybody podcast and managing editor of Brightest Young Things.

Nancherla left D.C. for L.A. in 2010, and recently returned to headline 202’s closing show. The District’s comedy landscape now looks different from when she left it, she says, but the spirit remains the same. The McLean native, who has written for Late Night with Seth Meyers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, says that D.C.’s DIY attitude is what makes its comedy scene great. “Whoever is active in the scene helps structure which shows are going on,” she says. “A lot of the stage time would be people putting on their own shows.” But eventually, playing the same circuit felt “stagnant,” and Nancherla felt the itch to move.

“When I started here, there were a lot of people that I felt were upperclassmen to look up to,” she says, “but when you feel like you’re the upperclassman, then it’s time to leave.”

Johnson is the next D.C. “upperclassman” whose time has come. He has earned a reputation as one of the best comics in D.C., whether by himself or as part of his “avant-garde musical comedy band and variety show” Romane & Lettuce.

“Jamel Johnson is the funniest stand-up comic in Washington, D.C., in terms of consistency and quality output,” says Wetherbee. “Even when he’s performing stuff I’ve seen a dozen times, I still enjoy watching him.” He adds that Johnson’s intangibles—his ability to read a crowd and play any type of room—have made him the “litmus test” for D.C. comics.

Johnson, a 28-year-old Woodbridge native, works relentlessly, performing at eight or nine shows a week. Not only was he on four bills during the festival, but Johnson was coming off a major week: He opened for Louis C.K. at the Lincoln Theatre and was part of a show Kevin Hart filmed in D.C.—a new Comedy Central stand-up showcase called Hart of the City.

“The Kevin Hart thing was very unexpected,” Johnson says. As part of the show, he filmed both a stand-up set at the Big Hunt and a conversation with Hart at Ben’s Chili Bowl. “I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one time with the man, but he was very chill and definitely about his paper.” (That’s an understatement: In 2015, Forbes calculated Hart’s one-year earnings at $28.5 million.)

The bookings were the most recent in a string of shows that have put Johnson on the path to L.A. He started performing there back in 2014, an experience he compares to “seven people talking about what award show they wrote for, and your boy.” But despite his outsider status, he was able to get on shows like The Meltdown, the popular stand-up showcase hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray that has spawned a Comedy Central show of the same name. After gigs like that, Johnson knew a change in location would soon be in the cards.

“When I went to L.A. and had success getting on shows, I was like, ‘fuck, I’m gonna do this here now,’” he says. “It wasn’t because of the ceiling [in D.C.]—the reason was because the money aspect. I feel like six months in L.A., if you’re really grinding, who knows.”

Johnson says he has “no goal and no plans,” but has “never been this busy before in [his] life.” And while the move will mean leaving his hometown, he seems excited for a new set of challenges in a place that appreciates the novelty of a “new guy” on the scene.

Even as D.C. prepares to graduate one of its best, the city has no shortage of underclassmen ready to fill the void. A handful of “the city’s brightest 20’s-ish comedians” were the focus of It’s Lit, a show hosted by Shelley Kim (she originally wanted to call the show Fuckboys and Poets, but decided to go with the more marketable name). The 23-year-old started doing comedy during college, and even though she’s not seasoned enough to make a move yet, Kim sees one in her future. “I think it’s possible to have a comedy career outside of L.A. or New York, but those cities just have more opportunities to do comedy full-time.”

Apparently, no matter how long you’ve been a comic in D.C., the twin sirens of the coastal capitals are irresistible. But that doesn’t mean D.C. must suffer as a second-class comedy city. In fact, the District’s status as a feeder system for the big leagues keeps the scene from stagnating, offers audiences a wide variety of styles, and lets comics find their voices away from the eyes and ears of industry professionals.

Plus, there are more opportunities to perform and watch comedy in D.C. than in recent years. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, if there was one open-mic location a night, that was a lot,” says D.C. Improv owner and manager Allyson Jaffe, who has seen the D.C. scene grow during her nearly two decades at the Improv. “Now there are multiple places running open mics every night of the week.” The club is still the preeminent venue in D.C. for national headliners, many of whom now bring their own opening acts. That’s led Jaffe and her team to get creative with their programming, booking local comics for weekend showcases in the lounge and mid-week shows in the main room.

Bars like Wonderland Ballroom feature long-running shows, theaters like the Howard and Lincoln nab marquee names, and venues like the Black Cat and 9:30 Club are booking more comedy shows than ever. In April, Arlington Drafthouse opened a downtown D.C. location modeled after the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And while the 202 Comedy Festival offered a hyper-local approach to booking, Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball has given national comics a reason to visit every fall, with about a score of slots reserved for local comics each year.

“People don’t necessarily think about D.C. as a comedy town, but the audiences are really smart, passionate about the world, and well-informed, and they make for good comedy audiences,” says Nancherla. “The scene has been active in various forms for so long that it just sustains itself in different iterations.”

Many of those generations were on display across the 202 Comedy Festival’s four days, often in the same show. Johnson opened for D.C. success stories like Nancherla and Smith at the Black Cat, and relative newcomers like Kim opened for new successes like Wardell in the Big Hunt basement. It was a winning formula, with several shows selling out and packed houses every night of the festival.

“It was more than we could have asked for,” Joyce writes. “We would be crazy not to have another festival next year.” And if history is any guide, some of the names will be familiar—even if they had to leave D.C. to get that way.

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

Sort-of celebrate the holidays with You, Me, Them, Everybody

You, Me, Them, Everybody is the combination talk show / podcast hosted by DC resident and Chicago native Brandon Wetherbee. Since posting about YMTE in April, Wetherbee has upgraded his DC gig from a Monday night spot at Petworth’s Looking Glass to sister bar Wonderland Ballroom, in the prime, Friday night pre-gaming slot. He’s also continued to take the show on the road, taking the mic to Chicago, New York, and Baltimore.

In time for the holiday season, You, Me, Them, Everybody presents Holiday-ish, a show recorded live at Chicago’s Hungry Brain. Like YMTE, the 20-tracks find indie comedy side-by-side with a variety of musical styles.

Twee indie pop duo Kitchen Table, Illinois bookend the album with a pair of cute holiday tunes. Musical highlights include the Nicole Atkins-ish Angela James (“Misguided Angel”) and the soulful duet “Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Tiger Cry. The comedy is a mixed bag of twisted holiday memories and off-kilter family traditions. Ever Mainard reminds me of Maria Bamford, and her “Christmas is here at Starbucks!” bit will ring true with anyone who’s worked retail during December. However, note to all comedians and musicians: comedy rap (“Christmas in Dem Jeans”) and Def Comedy Jam parodies (“Alonzo Washington ain’t Scared”) have been done better and with more finesse.

For fans of YMTE, what’s missing is the host. I could’ve gone for a holiday-themed monologue – one of Wetherbee’s trademark acerbic rants. Still, like every YMTE, it’s a chance to discover something new, whether it’s a fresh voice in underground comedy or a promising band to follow.

Stream the album at Bandcamp or (as Marc Maron would say), toss YMTE a few shekels so Wetherbee can continue his late night adventures.

My latest obsession: WTF with Marc Maron

I will admit, I’m a bit late to the podcast game; it’s probably a by-product of my old anti-Mac attitude. For what it’s worth, I now work on an iMac, write on a MacBook Pro, and play with an iPod Nano and an iPad. With my new found fondness for the Jobs product line comes an appreciation of a medium made possible by it: the podcast, and chiefly WTF with Marc Maron.

Unless you’re a comedy devotee or Air America’s only fan, you probably don’t know who Marc Maron is. The 47-year old came up in the alternative comedy world, first as a doorman at the famed Comedy Store before a stint as a member of Sam Kinison’s cocaine-fueled crew. He later shared stages (and apartments) with comedians like David Cross, Dave Attell, Louis C.K., and Sarah Silverman (pictured below with the latter three in a 1995 New York Magazine feature about a comedy Renaissance). But while his contemporaries received TV shows, headlining tours and film specials, Maron got… angrier, battling drug and alcohol abuse until getting sober at the end of the 90s.

In 2004, Maron joined the progressive radio station Air America, the Little Station That Could. After two stints (and as many firings) as a political pundit, Maron started WTF, surreptitiously recording the first few in the Air America studios. Ditching his political diatribes, he focused inward, ranting about his disappointments, from his two failed marriages to his bitterness about the success of his friends (and ex-friends). The title, and theme of the show, attempts to answer that everlasting question: “What the fuck?” – in all forms – from “righteous indignation” to “why not live a little?”

Every Monday and Thursday, from the comfort of his home in Highland Park, CA (aka “the cat ranch”), Maron publishes WTF. The show mixes a monologue and interviews, all with Maron’s vitriolic, self-obsessed-yet-self-loathing style. His subjects are comedians, writers and like-minded performers. He usually has a checkered past with the ones he knows, mostly due to his aforementioned anger and bitterness, leading interviews to take the form of public group therapy; “Are we okay?” becomes a frequent rejoinder. But through it all comes honest portrayals of comedians as complex, often damaged people. For true fans of comedy, WTF has become required listening.

Maron has done 185 episodes of WTF, so where is a newcomer to begin? Here are a few of the better podcasts available for free, as well as notes on a couple that are behind a very affordable pay wall ($9 a year).

Free For All

Henry Rollins (143) – Rollins’ evolution from punk standard-bearer to spoken word artist is one of the most interesting journeys in pop culture. Rollins speaks with Marc about the murder of Joe Cole and working with Charles Manson.

Dave Foley (146) – From Kids in the Hall to Newsradio, Dave Foley was at the center of TV comedy in the 90s. Wonder how he ended up hosting poker games on basic cable? Foley delves deep into his divorce and its life-altering aftereffects.

Michael Showalter (162) – After two decades on TV, as a member of The State and Stella, Michael Showalter is taking a break from the LA game and teaching at NYU’s Graduate Film School. The Brown University grad and Maron have the funniest conversation about semiotics you will ever hear.

Garry Shandling (177) – Another recent obsession of mine is the ahead-of-its-time The Larry Sanders Show. Shandling is a charming subject, whose self-deprecation is only matched by Maron’s.

Gallagher (145) – Yes, that Gallagher. The watermelon smasher has recently revealed a homophobic, racist streak which Maron aims right at – causing the first walk-out on WTF. So fuck Gallagher.

Worth the Money

Louis C.K. (111, 112) – Former best friends, Maron and CK get to the bottom of their falling-out and find a way forward. It is a shockingly personal and honest interview, as funny (Maron wonders why Louis named his show “Fuck you, Marc Maron”) as it is heartbreaking (Louis chokes up describing the birth of his daughter). For fans of either it’s worth the cost of admission.

Robin Williams (67) – The legend sits down with Maron for a very un-Williams hour: Williams avoids the pre-written jokes and the frenetic need to please that he usually displays in interviews. His honesty about everything from life and death to accusations of plagiarism is a breath of fresh air.

Carlos Mencia, et al (75, 76) – After a favorable interview wherein Maron doesn’t challenge Mencia’s self-serving push back about joke thievery, he speaks with former friends and brings Mencia back to get the record straight. The pair of interviews paints a portrait of a deeply disturbed man.

Zach Galifianakis (20) – Fresh off The Hangover, Zach talks with Maron on the set of Due Date. Probably one of the last interviews where Galifiankis pulls back the curtain as he did in The Comedians of Comedy.

Judd Apatow (103, 104) – Maron does a two-parter with the architect of the last decade’s comedy landscape. Clips of a teenaged Apatow interviewing Jerry Seinfeld are a great find.