When you check into a fancy hotel, you usually find a mint on your pillow. A nice little gift and thank you for your patronage. But, if in mid-conversation, someone offers you a mint, it usually means you have very bad breath, you ignorant, self-centered loser. Either way, it involves that skull-encased organ above your neck, and in Donald Trump’s case, I don’t mean his hair. Your brain, my friend. Your brain. The thing you own outright, unless of course you still haven’t paid off your student loan. The two most famous brains in history – Albert Einstein’s and the rubber one in the jar called “Abby Normal” by Marty Feldman’s character “EYE-gore” in Mel Brooks’ brilliant classic film Young Frankenstein – are indeed polar opposites and represent the full arc of intellectual evolution and devolution respectively or, more appropriately, disrespectfully. Troy Conrad’s “Set List,” a show where proven stand-up artists are forced to make things up in front of a live crowd, is nothing short of genius, and by total unexpected coincidence (as well as manipulative journalism) is playing at The Mint nightclub on Pico.
Like the Hollywood agent who never returns your email, The Mint is a well-established Los Angeles institution. Since 1937, The Mint has been a local landmark, where many music greats have not only played, but broke to fame as well. Stevie Wonder, Willie Dixon, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles have graced its well-seasoned stage. (And rumour has it, Cher drove by in a limo.) Current venue owner Todd Christiansen (and his front office cohorts Matt, Brandon, Casey and Deana) continue The Mint’s brave tradition of cross-genre bookings. And, just like the ever-completing circle of Life, Comedy comes home to its humble beginnings: the music scene. Many of the modern comedy greats of the last 50 years cut their comedy chops in the 1950’s Jazz Scene and the 1960’s Folk Scene. Lenny Bruce had the sinewy sax lines of John Coltrane, Steve Martin had his Hillbilly come Hipster sincere country folk charm of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Mr. George Carlin had both. No less than young and fertile master comedy imaginations being consciously nurtured and subconsciously influenced by the echoey presence of harmonic innovative improvisation, and indeed evolving into the “Verbal POV” of their ages. They were underground before it was hip to be, and it was a great time if you were lucky enough to be an anonymous shadow in the crowd. When the Arena Age exploded in the Seventies with giant rock shows and the Comedy Big Bang woke up Hollywood’s all too serious ass, the very hydroponic conditions needed to create great comedy art from nothing seemed to be swept by the wayside in favor of the ever-fearless marketeers. And even though there is no live music at Set List, the plain fact that it happens (when this reviewer saw it) in an historical music institution is no coincidence. Set List presents stand-up comedians like the great jazz artists of their day. It may seem like it’s all about improvising, but it’s really about creating something more emblematic and indeed profound. Set List is artistic self-empowerment; and on that level alone, Set List is not just a great comedy show, but indeed a very socially relevant and important one. Make no mistake; Set List is the hippest show this reviewer has seen so far on his journey as a “Capitalist and Comedy Critic” for this fine established online journal.
The idea that well-established stand-up comedians, who have spent weeks, months, perhaps years, writing and refining their original comedy material, come out on stage one by one, not having a clue what they are going to talk about is simply too delicious of a concept to immediately accept. There is no established theme of the evening, other than, “You’re on your own, pal!” Out of the nest, and here ya’ go! Many of my good readers must have seen that strange looking homunculus in the dark corner of a comedy club, frantically racing through voluminous hand-scrawled notes like Ted Kaczynski when the Feds were at the door. That is no terrorist. That is a comic. Jokes and ideas and routines scribbled on cocktail napkins all kinda made sense when they wrote ‘em down the night before at the orgy. But, as the spotlight now beckons them like gladiatorial re-birth, as the introduction of their name to 300 paying people becomes imminently a scary reality, their hearts speed up and it can quickly become a matter of self-affirming hypnosis that the proven material (“the stuff that always works”) is still not only very funny and “will work again,” but underlying is the fear of the truth that it is less likely still relevant; or even insanely worse: the “Crutch Material” they’ve been cloning and re-cloning for centuries, and was
all that funny to begin with. That can’t happen with Set List. And, thank God for that. Or should I say, “gods”: Set List Creator Troy Conrad, and producers Paul Provenza & Barbara Romen.
Starting the show off with way too much energy than we deserved was emcee for the night Sean Green. Sean kept it charming, short and sweet by explaining the simple rules of the evening, like a cop, asking if we knew the rules of the road. And there really was only one rule: Make up your stand-up set on the spot. Suggestions flashed on the black back stage wall act as visual cues for the stand-up to start talkin’. And there they go. Lazy-ass comics being forced to make up stuff about “Rodent Politics,” and inconsequentially segueing into the “the last man to use the moon-based bathroom,” was a very fun sentence to write. The amazement comes in several forms here. First off, the imagination of the “get drunk and play Scrabble” suggestions to begin with, but also the well-oiled ability of the comedian (for the most part) to go with it without hesitation or pause. There was the occasionally hemming and hawing as a comic here or there stared down at the suggestion as if it were a draft notice for the Civil War, but, like the surprised cat who looks at you when you catch it rooting through the garbage, any self-doubt was always encased in humble clear glass jars of public self-acknowledgement. And, if the comedian gets stumped on a subject, he or she can always resort to the “Audience Box”, a small box awaiting use on a stool by their side, which contains hundreds of fortune-cookie like random suggestions. In the end, the box often served as nothing more than a fake life-preserver, a Twilight Zone prop; its “help” often proving more fatal than the bird in hand.
Jeff McKinnon was the evening’s first experiment and his opening bane was “Silence Sucks,” which he matter-of-factly morphed into a routine on Marcel Marceau being gay. Flashed topics such as “Tropical Fish Cabaret” and “Global Warming Cookbook” were handled like a plumber trying to fix too many leaks, leading to “My Big Closer” (that’s actually written above the last topic of all performers’ sets): “Earthquake Circumcision”. My first thought was that Jeff took the suggestions too literally, as if he were a marionette, but, then I thought about it. That just might be his thinking and writing style. And, after all, he’s making this shit up on the spot in front of not just the audience, but colleagues, some of them movers and shakers and some without diarrhea or Parkinson’s. This first act confirmed my theory of Conrad’s Theory:
That the real comic is always hiding in there somewhere
. You just gotta trick him out. Following Jeff was Alonzo Boden, whose opening line, “If I paid attention to those emails, I would know how this shit works!” got the first giant laugh of the evening, which was not only deferential, nearly apologetic for temporarily losing ground, but spoke directly to the audience as well, who themselves may not have yet absorbed the concept as much more than “comics making shit up on stage.” Watching Alonzo was like watching a person trying to catch birds with his hands, and yet, that became his act as he fettered away with “Erection Chess,” “Google Therapy” and “The First Person to say WTF!,” which he brilliantly pinned on Eve, Big Finishing to cheers with “Saddam’s Steam bath,” which has “an average temperature of 100 & Fuck!”
This show is about how good comedians are as writers; indeed thinkers. It’s like being in the balcony of the operating theatre, peering down on famed and brilliant Dr. Laurie Kilmartin as she dissected herself from the awkwardness of her first topic, “Psychic Morticians,” moving forward with “the downside of being dead,” which she characterized as “easier than being on this show”; and she did it with the professional control of Sigourney Weaver in Alien (the first film) as she tore through “Taxidermist Tweets,” “Strippers in Church,” and her big closer, “Occupy Disneyland” which was smartly peppered with a nice little call-back to a “Metrosexual Gravedigger”. Jake Johanson was not only next, but he was the first comedian to incorporate the actual game into his banter (I know comics hate that term…”banter”) with gems (and that word) like “Which brings me to my next topic.” Brilliant! Because, in my humble truth (no opinions here) the seamless incorporation of self into the situation – any situation – is the hallmark of any great comedian: Comedy content is mostly dependent on context. (Not so much in reverse as it would disprove god; read more in my fictional book: “I Know Not the Fuck What I Speak” available nowhere.) Not only that, but the game not only shows the sinewy veins and skeletal tissue of the stand-up art-form that Set List Creator Troy Conrad wants to expose, but reveals inspired comedy blood pulsing through it to the brain and from the heart.
Comedian and innovative comedy producer Paul Provenza has become the Gordon Ramsey of Comedy, taking us inside the comedy kitchens with his and Bab’s Roman’s “Green Room” on Showtime (and before that, “The Aristocrats”) and now this; the next logical step: testing comedians at their own game. An “AIRF test”. “Am I Really Funny?,” “really” in this case meaning absolute. Jay Leno can’t play this game; he relies on writers. (Well, Jay would probably do very well at this, but you know what I mean. This game ain’t for softy successful guys.) Aussie Monty Franklyn smoothly followed with “Italian Sausage Envy” and “Dyslexic Astrology” and closed with darker than dark, “Death Camp Microwaves”. Following him was Dylan Brody, the King of False Awkwardness, who made it all seem very real with quips like, “The creative process is anxiety producing”. Dylan (one of my perennial favorites) is the best damn comedy writer I’ve seen since Mitt Romney’s campaign manager. He’s Woody Allen meets Sun Yi. Next was local comedy guru David Feldman who at first seemed as uncomfortable and confused as an Orthodox dry cleaner just getting in a huge order for starched hoods. And yet – because Feldman can’t help it, he was truly the funniest of the night. Dealt the low hand of “Psychedelic Diarrhea” (well under his intellectual pay grade) Feldo hilariously took us back into the classroom to learn of Freud’s parental teachings, segueing into a delightful little number on global imperialistic history, but equally, was charming – and dare I say: Human – with freshly cooked authenticities such as, “I wish I had a joke right now!” And it reminded me what the entire evening was all about. Laughter. CPR (Conrad, Provenza, Romen) and crew actually care about the quality of the comedy going into their black-board comedy stew. They not only care, they know their onions. Puckish British import Matt Kirshen (whose enormous smiling teeth are part of his regular stand-up) desperately succeeded in putting his rubber stamp on just how good his own joke creations and tellings thereof, are, with a big Cruise-ing smile. Picking up on something Feldman was saying about Nazis, Kirshen pointed out that “the camps really needed a makeover anyway” and therefore was the most fascinating to watch because Matt’s mind is constantly working, turning over and over, like a bisexual prostitute on a time-clock. Closing out the evening was Wil Anderson, a high-energy, fast-talkin’ glamour cowboy from Down Undah, who morphed the “just silly” suggestions as “Giraffe Office Cubical’” into seemingly long crafted relevant social diatribes. He was amazing.
And that’s just the point of Set List. To make you forget that what you’re watching and hearing is being created in the very moment. It’s like the lobster in the tank you pick; you can never imagine it being killed, even after you’ve eaten it. Sure, I would’ve liked to have occasionally seen the subjects of a more substantial and real newsworthy category, rather than continual random silliness; and I also thought it might be interesting to lose the seeming randomness of suggestions (which were projected from a carousel slide), making it more of a “directed comedy set” with somebody actually picking and choosing curated suggestions based on where the comedian was already going – But that’s just how I like
burger. Troy Conrad’s Set List has found The God Particle of Comedy here. And if there was a Nobel Prize for The Evolution of Comedy, I would nominate Troy Conrad (along with Provenza & Romen) and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. Then again, if you’re asking me, I would also nominate Snooki. After all, the only real substantial difference in the two is that unlike Snooki, Set List’s controlled comedy chaos is intentionally funny. It’s like “Mission Im-Prostitute”. (ahem...)
I give Set List my first 8 out of 8 Menorahs!
Enjoy the Veal,
Steven Alan Green
Set-List plays regularly at Nerdmelt and UCB and will be at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Just for Laughs, and is now a TV show on Sky Atlantic in the UK.
FACEBOOK TWEETS OF THE WEEK:
I drink so much coffee, my name is Macchiato.
I never metaphor I didn’t like.
Liberals tend to be much more intellectually minded than Conservatives.
Conservatives tend to be richer than Liberals.
Moderates tend to be poorer and smarter than either.
Extremists tend to be dumber and richer than them all.
GENERAL COOKING QUESTION: When microwaving fish, is it necessary to remove them from the tank first?
Jesus never worried about demographic.
I noticed dusting the Vatican didn’t yield the God Particle. I’m just sayin’...
Mitt Romney would make the greatest president of all time. And, there is no such thing as global warming. And Santa Claus is real.
Chaos and Calmness were married today and are expecting a baby boy named Commerce.
They’ve found new evidence that Amelia Earhart landed near and lived on a South Pacific Island. Downplayed, but just as interesting, they say amongst Earhart’s artifacts, they found Obama’s birth certificate.
Apparently Tom Crusie and Katie Holmes split because of Scientology. Tom wanted to raise Suri as a full-fledged orthodox cult member, but Katie wanted to raise Suri as Reformed. In the end, a settlement was reached when Tom and Katie both got iPhones; now they can both have Siri.
And, when God said, “Let there be light!,” just who exactly was he speaking to?