Notes from AltCom, part one

AltCom fest organizer Brian Joyce paced backstage at the Somerville Theater minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. showtime and tried to pump up his performers. "It’s a healthy crowd," he told the comedians. "There’s not a stretch of empty seats downstairs." Eugene Mirman couldn’t help but laugh right away, telling Joyce his pep talk really helped. Actually, there wasn’t a need to worry. By the time Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman took to the stage at 8:25 p.m. to open the festivities with their "Comedians National Anthem," fans had filled most of the seats in the lower orchestra level.

Nevertheless, Mirman felt like addressing the seating situation upfront, inviting folks from upstairs to come downstairs. "Why spread people out, unless you’re different races?!" he announced with his usual absurdist flair. "This is Boston!" Mirman had plenty of fun throughout his 20-minute set, especially by poking fun at himself and his tendency to color his routine with local jokes and town names. "Now to stick it to the old Fleet Bank machine!" he said at one point. Later, he enjoyed ad-libbing a thought about a local audience member attacking a bear and yelling at it, "You’re queah!" that he completely skipped over his usual punchline and tags on his bit about bears. He tailored another portion of the set for the Boston-area audience with a clever video spoof of ads for, the Boston Globe‘s online portal. Mirman also included a recent observation from his trip to Philadelphia for last month’s Democratic debate, talking about anti-abortion protesters, and ad-libbing a retort to his own description of the presidential race as "Obama and the lady."

Also worth noting about Eugene Mirman: Michael Showalter followed him around offstage with a video camera (for a documentary? for a spoof? just because? we’ll investigate this further), and Mirman told the other comics beforehand that he and his fellow Stand-Uppity Tour performers (Andy Kindler and Marc Maron) are looking forward to hitting the road together next week. Actually, that tour starts Sunday in Kentucky! Moving on…

Emo Philips joked with Todd Barry beforehand about Barry being limited to a 20-minute set. "If you’re having fun," Philips told Barry backstage, "you’ll want to fight that impulse…to stay onstage!" Barry also joked with me about the New York Times review earlier in the week of his performance opening for Flight of the Conchords, noting how reviewers often resort to lame jokes in critiquing a comedian. The Times, for the record, said this of Barry on Thursday: "A comedian whose deadpan delivery was drier than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting." I won’t attempt anything of that sort here. Leave that to the couple of audience members (fans of Barry’s, it’d turn out afterward) who felt compelled to shout out oddities during his set. And that’s even after Barry told his joke about an audience member "who wanted to challenge him…comedically." Argh. Barry also had to bear witness to a couple near the front who stood up and apparently walked out. Not his fault. "How awkward would that be if I cleared the room?" he joked. Not as awkward as what happened next, when he asked a guy in the front row if he was the most famous person to ever talk to him. "No," the young man replied, and then, after a pause, offered: "Wesley Willis." I hadn’t heard of the late, overweight, schizophrenic, homeless musician, but Barry had. He joked about that, then went on with his act, and I thought he’d close on his Facebook jokes, but just then, Mirman’s laptop computer — still onstage — beeped loudly. "Eugene got a new Gmail?!" Barry said. Another pause to regroup. A couple more jokes. And by then, Barry had gone 28 minutes. Again. Not his fault. Just one of those odd sets that gets derailed by the audience and other factors out of his control, forcing him to take extra time to get the show back on track.

Kaplan and Sherman also attempted at this point to remind the audience not to get in the way of everyone’s good time. They did not, however, fully prepare everyone for doktor cocacolamcdonalds. How could they?

This one-man band from the UK has wowed crowds in Edinburgh and plays the big Leeds and Reading festivals later this summer. He’ll also be swinging down to NYC on Monday for a show at the PIT. You have to see and hear this guy, and even then, you might not believe it. He bounded onstage wearing only face makeup, a scarf tie, colorful briefs and sneakers, and alternated between a keytar and other odd instruments for a few musical numbers. First up: "When you generalize, the general…lies." Another song he wants to be more R&B, so a GameBoy supplies the beats. His truncated set (this only showcased him for about 18 minutes) also included an appearance by his performance poet, Ray: Man of Words, who closed with a "cover" — in this instance, his rendition of the theme rap song to TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You could hear doktor cocacolamcdonalds on the radio, disc or iPod and chuckle a bit. But his humorous success proves it’s really all in the presentation.

He also proved to be a good transition between the stand-up of Mirman and Barry to the headlining performance of Emo Philips.

I spent so much time trying to jot down notes between giggles the last time I saw Philips that this time, I wanted to sit back and absorb his set as a fan. What really hit home with me now was what also connected deeply with me when I first devoured Emo’s E=MO2 over and over again as a teen. Sure, his jokes and one-liners are amazingly funny. But what makes him amazing is how devious and mischievous he is. It goes beyond clever. The guy opens with remarks about appreciating us appreciating live stand-up comedy, and somewhere in there is a joke about incest. He knew enough about Boston to work in baseball jokes, and also, perhaps unbeknownest to some in the crowd, a dating joke with a wickedly funny and subtle nod to the Kennedys! Philips also manages to jab at religion, politics, the homeless and so many other topics with his trademark wit and mannerisms that you’re usually too busy laughing to get how wonderfully subversive it all is. For example, here he is on capital punishment: "We shouldn’t execute the mentally retarded. No. Right? But what if they do something wrong?" Or this little ditty: "I like the South, but, of course, I’m prejudiced." By the end of his 55-minute set, the crowd couldn’t help but give him a standing ovation.

AltCom continues Saturday night with Patton Oswalt, Morgan Murphy, Jim Jeffries and the Walsh Brothers.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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