Friday, August 23, 2013

8/19/13 Chicks Are Funny: July

In the weeks leading up to this show, there seemed to be a lot of conversation in the local comedy groups about an all-female line-up. Or maybe it only felt like a lot of conversation because I found myself in the midst of most of it. In person, by text, in our Facebook Playground, we were discussing the merits of funny women. The opinions seemed to fall into a few specific categories.

1) Women are funny? Don’t even get me started. That was not a happy chat.

2) If women are so funny, why do they need their own show? This was a legitimate exchange, with good dialogue and a willingness to explore the whys and wherefores. Ultimately, I shared my thought, that all-female comedy shows serve much the same purpose as the Apollo and Motown did for black musical performers. To get the attention of the money holders, invariably men and mostly white, it didn’t hurt to show that you could fill a room, sell out a show, bring a fan base. And sometimes it’s just fun to be with your own, to talk short-hand and share insider moments. Besides, it isn’t a question of needing a single-sex show. It’s just the reality that most of the shows we see locally have a 1:10 female to male ratio; usually there are 5 male comics and an audience of supportive wives. At the club level, female headliners are becoming more frequent. And some of the women you’ll read about in this review will be among those ranks one day.

3) Who said women aren’t funny? I love this. It means either there’s a new generation coming up that just doesn’t think so hard about the gender differences, or it means a number of the open micers just don’t know enough history to realize what an issue it’s been. Both of those possibilities speak to a brighter future.

In the present, however, there is this awesome show at Funny Bone, co-produced by Anna Phillips and Pam Werts. These ladies have been creating showcases for some of the funniest women on the east coast - and a few from across the border - to entertain intimate rooms and packed clubs alike. And on this night, the house was sold out. The box office was turning away anyone without reservations – even being in Pam’s entourage barely got her husband through the door. With solid promotion and the obvious support of management, Chicks are Funny was a win all around.

It’s no secret that both Anna and Pam are my girls. And, the same way I told you that I had to try to check my bias when reviewing my male comic friends, I would struggle having to tell either of them if they hadn’t delivered. Fortunately, they both consistently bring the laughter.

Pam is a naturally funny storyteller. Sitting across the table from her over Saturday afternoon scallion pancakes at Chen’s Garden, I hear every detail of the past week; even without the accompanying texts and photos, I can envision the myriad expressions, locations and situations she’s experienced since our last lunch and I spend most of the meal trying not to choke on my steamed dumplings. Tonight, I get to hear her take on graduation parties, the Amish Mafia (Drive-bys must be epic fails. Can’t they hear the carriage coming?), the ridiculous world of insurance advertising and the importance of getting smart people to start fucking again. Not only is she a funny chick, but she’s also a great MC. She’s good at reading the crowds, working the room. Just like Santa, she sees us when we’re sleeping, and uses her energy to push us back up to the proper laugh level as she ushers each comic to the stage.

First up is Anna Phillips. It would be hard for me to imagine, among my comedy chick friends, a greater contrast of energy. Anna is low-key, her wit is desert dry and lightning fast. She starts by commenting on the entrance music (Spice Girls? Really? Is that ‘cause I have a vagina?), then goes straight into breaking down some very new personal information: getting a mammogram and being diagnosed “prediabetic”. (Isn’t everyone pre-diabetic? It’s a little like being pre-dead.) The interactions with the registered dietician (She’s talking to me like I’m five years old. Eat healthy fruits – watermelon is bad. Oh, that’s bullshit, man. That’s probably why black people have diabetes in the first place.) and the x-ray tech (I don’t like nudity. I take a shower in my clothes. When she put that slime on me, I felt awkward, started moaning.) feel like time-treated bits, even though the mammogram had happened mere hours before the show. Because she’s my friend, I can tell you that this is her natural state, this is how her brain processes.

And I love that she is fearless when it comes to discussing race. She talks about white-on-white racism (I can’t co-sign on it, but I enjoy the “fight amongst yourselves” approach.), the racially divided reaction to her not voting for Obama (My black friends were like, Nigga’, explain yourself, while my white friends were like, Explain yourself, Nigger.) and the way she uses history against her supervisor (She asks me to bring her a cup of coffee, I say “yes, Massa, right away.” She says never mind, let me get you some. I like my coffee with a little white guilt.) She ends by addressing her black guilt: I tip 70% to make up for those who came before.

Anna and Pam will both be on next month’s show. See them in person, because I don’t really do justice to either of them here.

Next on the bill is Anne Lin. She dives right in with the difficulties of growing up Asian in a small town (I went to a small school where I was ALL the minority.), having a dad who she describes as a Chinese redneck (pick a different American dream, one with fewer Jeff Foxworthy jokes), waiting ‘til college to have sex (I’m Asian. I was an overachiever. I didn’t realize freshman 15 was about weight….). I really like Anne’s joke writing. “My dad has a deer head mounted on the wall, with Samuri swords crossed underneath. Like he’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re still Asian.’ Yeah, but not Japanese.” Or this one, about a guy who is hitting on her: “’Taiwan? I love Thai food!’ Never mind. I don’t have time to explain fifty years of Cold War history.”

Anne seemed a little nervous, and the audience was restless. Talking to her after the show, I learned that that was her biggest crowd to date and that she didn’t know where the light was, so wasn’t sure when to end. Those are performance mechanics, and I am confident they will improve over time. Right now, her strength is in her very smart writing; I am looking forward to watching Anne grow as a comic.

Martha O’Neill reminds me of an actress whose name I still can’t recall, but she’s boozy and blowzy and full of confidence. She begins her set by telling the audience how gorgeous they are (I’ve been married to my husband for 19 years. Anyone who isn’t him is doable). After struggling to get into her jeans, then looking down to discover they were her husband’s, she’s started the Cayenne/Maple Syrup/Lemon diet (My piss makes an awesome salmon marinade.). She has a nice bit about aging as an attractive woman (I walked by a construction site. Silence. I doubled back, got nothing. The third time, I actually walked into a guy who said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” to which I responded, “Hey, buddy, my breasts are down here.”) that leads to an Orange is the New Black reference (I walk past prisons at lunch. Incarceration makes this look attractive again.)

Martha’s style is powerful without being in-your-face. Sometimes, as women, we push too hard to sell ourselves; Martha gives out a very solid energy that basically says, I know I’m funny, you know I’m funny, so why pretend otherwise? Her closing bit about reading stories online with her son and searching for “big brown bear” (Mommy, what was that man doing to Santa?) is killer. Check out and listen to her pod cast, “The Joke Merchants with Martha O’Neill.”

Next on the stage is Suga Mama, a Rochester comic whose act I have been watching develop weekly at Comedy at Acanthus. Suga Mama’s style is audience-friendly, light hearted even when the jokes skew a little dark. She tells the crowd to give themselves a hand for coming out and supporting live comedy, and it’s a well-deserved acknowledgment, considering the house is packed. She jumps right in with Anthony Weiner jokes (speaking of hard…this Weiner’s a real dick. His wife is sticking by him. I hear she’s getting counseling from Hillary.), followed by a Rhianna reference (I went to her concert because I wanted to see where she was punched) and the new way she has to justify calling off work (I think my grandmother has died like three times now. My boss says I have to bring proof…I don’t care. I’ll walk into a funeral home and snatch a program, no problem!). Her closing bit tonight is about the couple who were born on the same day, eloped at 18, spent 75 years together and died a day apart: She’s up in Heaven, he shows up. She’s like, “Damn, I can’t get one day to myself?” Catch Suga Mama at open mics and local shows in the WNY area.

Thanks to Pam’s orchestration, Becky Bays takes the spotlight to people chanting her name and cheering; because of her own wit and wonderfulness, the laughter and cheering continue throughout her entire set. This is my introduction to Becky.

I’m visiting from Toronto. I was approached by a homeless guy asking if I could spare some change. I said no. He told me to go fuck myself. “Sir, that is never my first choice. I may have to, though, given our lack of chemistry.”

I honestly spit water on myself. Here is this very petite, proper woman tapping my shoulder with these simple premises - did you know birds eat one and a half times their weight in food each day? – and then landing the punch – I DO eat like a bird! – right upside my brain. I struggled not to miss a single joke while scribbling like a mad woman so I could do her justice in this review. I’m going to offer you a few of my favorites, then compel you with all my psychic strength to go to and watch her video clips. This one, you need to see for yourself!

“I can’t date younger guys. The judge was very specific….”

“The trainer told me, Becky, I never want you to do a regular crunch again. I’m waaay ahead of you. I stopped years ago.”

She’s in a museum in Croatia when she overhears Joanne from Nebraska say, “If I hadn’t run into you ten minutes ago, I would have missed this. That was God – God wanted me to see this.” So Haiti and Darfur fell through the cracks because God was too busy helping Joanne set her travel plans.

While sharing her one great skill (spelling and grammar) which has no modern application except being a complete asshole on blogs and Facebook: Oh, you “alluded” them? Hahaha. I think you mean “elude”. Oh, you should “of” done that? Perhaps you mean should “have.” When you say you allowed your seven year old to do something and you spell it a-l-o-u-d, aren’t you just really saying she’s already exceeded your level of education?

“My mother said, never assume. It makes you a bitch.”

Go to Becky’s web site and listen to her tell the tales of meat chunk showers in 19th-century Kentucky, people who believe everything happens for a reason and Haida beds. Follow her on twitter. Personally, I’m waiting for the “Becky Bays Quirk-A-Day” desk calendar.

Working our way to tonight’s headliner, the audience has been engaged, excited and expressive: Erin Judge comes out swinging. “Lots of promises in hip hop music to do it until the break of dawn. Guys don’t do that. Maybe if you start at, like, ten minutes to dawn.” “I’m bisexual. If you don’t know what that means, is, you’re my type. Unless you’re a type that wouldn’t like me back, like gay dudes or the Amish.” People can’t seem to wrap their mind around her bisexuality. “’You have so many choices, oh my god, Erin, how do you deal with it, so many choices, so many choices.’ There are two, okay? Dudes and chicks. Dudes are dumb and chicks are nuts…with chicks, I end up saying stuff like, ‘honey, please stop crying. sweetie, I’m sorry, don’t cut yourself’…with dudes, it’s more like, ‘Don’t pee on that!’”

Erin is a skilled balance of all we’ve seen on this bill. She has an assured manner, a bright presence, an invigorating energy and funny material that she weaves from personal to political, like Arachne building a flawless tapestry. When she says she doesn’t want to be a maid of honor (can’t I just write a check for $800 and avoid the fake nails, horrible hair?), it feels like a conversation you’d have with your sister. When she kicks it up a notch (Brides wear veils. I’m pretty sure we declared war on people for that…our women only do it on the day when their property and rights get turned over from their father to their husband….), it feels more like an Advanced Feminist Theory lesson taught by an ultra-cool grad student.

Here are a few of my favorites from this show. “In case I get mugged, I carry two iPods. One is loaded with songs about stealing and remorse.”  “People say, ‘I don’t mind God – it’s his followers I can’t stand.’ That’s how I feel about Dave Matthews.” “My mom showed me how to put condoms on bananas, which is great because most bananas I have sex with don’t know how to put it on themselves.” “This car doesn’t run on fear of abandonment and low self-esteem.” “I personally have never understood the appeal of 69. For me it’s like this. I either want to be at work or on vacation. I don’t want to be getting emails from my boss while I’m at the beach.”

There’s so much more about Erin that I’m sure you will love. Go to, where you can pick up a copy of her cd, “So Many Choices.” Follow the link to her blog, So Make It Up.

I am so grateful to Pam for batting her lashes – or bobbing her breasts, whichever – to get us into this show. I hope every last one of the naysayers who seemed puzzled at an all-female line-up will come check out the next Chicks are Funny on August 28th. Carlisle Carey, Jaye McBride, Sabrina Davis, Anna Phillips, Pam Werts and headliner Liz Russo will provide another much-needed night of laughter, and Funny Bone Syracuse is a great room in which to take it all in.

Back to question number three. Who said women aren’t funny? Not this girl. A month later and I’m still giggling. Glad you joined me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

8/15/13 Jeremy Essig in 3-part Harmony

Prologue: This piece was pulled together from notes taken December, 2012, and July and August 2013. I apologize in advance if some of the jokes aren’t exactly as he tells them, but my memory and my notebooks are redefining their relationship with each other, exploring other options. I trust that I’ll do well enough but, let’s face it, I’m no Jeremy Essig. Enjoy!

I first saw Jeremy Essig live when he featured for Brian Posehn at The Comedy Club last December. I dug his material and was looking forward to telling you all about him. As the night progressed, it became apparent that I enjoyed his act more than Brian’s. (Subjectivity, people! I liked Brian, I swear. I just liked Jeremy a lot more.) Posehn himself said “Jeremy’s super smart. Now you can take off your thinkin’ caps….” If you know me at all, you know smart is one of my trigger words. Anyway, long paragraph longer, I never finished or posted anything about the show. I kept my notes and looked for an opportunity to see Jeremy again.

And, lo, it came to pass that the weekend of July 25th arrived, bringing Jeremy back to the Comedy Club, this time as a headliner. Real life had me booked until the Saturday late show, but I made it. And what a show it turned out to be.

You know that classic Lloyd Bridges running gag from “Airplane” where he picked “the wrong week” to quit drinking coffee, doing drugs, sniffing glue? As soon as Dario Joseph took the stage and gregarious drunk guy started heckling, I knew I picked the wrong week to wait for the final show. Admittedly, the whole audience was strange and gave tepid responses to Dario, Sarah Benson and Austin Lafond. I expected Jeremy to be able to win them over, to handle hecklers and deliver a good set, which he did. It’s just that, if you read this blog much, you know I believe absolutely, and without wavering, in the role the audience plays in a live show. This random group of people disappointed me. Jeremy did not.

He began talking about porn, saying he doesn’t watch a lot of it. And that dudes shouldn’t send other dudes porn. “She knows where the cum is at!” Dudes also shouldn’t end sentences with prepositions. She needs to go back to school to learn where the cum is, period. I love this. Anyone who can turn a porn promo into a grammar lesson is my kind of guy. And that’s what I enjoy about Jeremy’s material. It’s like he’s standing at the crossroads where common thoughts meet ideas best kept transcribed by monks and, without haranguing you for not knowing the tough stuff, makes it all accessible. There’s the inanity of a person of power in a Catholic school telling him he has to cut his long hair that’s inappropriate for a Catholic boy, while he glances at the picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. Or the thought that the real drug problem we have today is not too many drugs, but a mismatch between type and location. (Small towns, where there’s nothing to do so everyone decides to brew up a drug that keeps them awake for three days in a row. “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on. Better not miss it.” Small towns are meant for ‘shrooms, acid, so they can see shit that’s not actually there: things like money & hope and opportunity.)

His bit about his dog hitting on black guys is one I really enjoy, because it takes a friendly path to a potentially bad place. His first thought was that he doesn’t mind that his dog is into interracial relationships. His second thought: why did he assume his dog was white? (You assume your pet is your race, but you adopt them. I have a friend who adopted his daughter from Korea. “What’s her name?” “Ashley.” “I don’t think it is.”) Race perceptions, our need to remake things in our own image, these thoughts can strike deep, when you care to let them. Personally, the way our brain and society handle differences is one of my favorite areas in which to provide training: high risk, high reward, when done well. Jeremy makes it look easy.

And that’s what I meant when I used that crossroads analogy earlier. Jeremy’s approach to difficult topics, like homophobia and misunderstood sexual communication, is to make them funny, less personal for the audience and easier to process. When he talks about dating a dude once by accident (invited to dinner, chicken was delicious, the problem was post-chicken), he takes what could feel threatening and turns it into a common experience. (It’s one thing to think I’m gay, but I’m not easy. Think I’m gonna’ put out for chicken? You didn’t make a side dish, sir.) Everyone can relate to being undervalued in a dating scenario. His concept that all relationships end (because one of you will die first) was something I heard from my Social Psychology Professor during a horrible college break-up. On his cd, Monque, he talks about people using culture as their excuse for wrong behavior (Can’t blame Michael Vick – dog fighting is part of his culture. That’s an excuse now? Because I’m German….), and chastises Cincinnati for making rules that protect racists. (Your school system passed a rule that students can’t wear Confederate flag t-shirts. I say let ‘em. They’re only gonna’ wear ‘em once. Stop making laws to protect idiots. Let nature do the job for you.)

His literary/pop culture references are rock-solid. Starbucks is like a caffeinated Lord of the Flies. In response to Build-a-Bear’s Make and Take model, “Don’t think so, Tom Sawyer. Not whitewashing your fence.” When asked to be Godfather to his niece? “Neat! I just saw a movie about that.” Buying her 3 American Girl dolls after telling her she could never have one because of her diabetes. Drunkenly giving some playing pointers to Joe, and then finding out he’s the guitarist for Fall Out Boy.  Referring to the show inside a McDonald’s as dinner theater for poor people.

For his shorter sets, he’s constructed a great framework from the simple notion that his five-year old self would be so impressed by who he is now (Wow, you have $20 in your pocket?) He doubles back nicely for closure after sharing a great Gary Sinese/Chuck Woolery tale, and I’m paraphrasing here: if five-year old you knew that someday that guy on the tv would call you an asshole, he’d think you really made it. There’s something so oddly endearing about that joke, about much of what Jeremy says in his act, about Jeremy himself.

Jeremy Essig embodies some of my favorite traits of smart comics. His material is witty, it resonates and it invites you to take a next step. It encourages you to ask a follow-up question. It allows you to look at some real, potentially explosive topics, shielded by the protective armor of shared laughter. It’s the heart and soul of what I find valuable in the stand up I love most.

Friend Jeremy on Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @jeremyessig. Check out his videos on YouTube. Go to to get tour dates, info on his upcoming moves and to pick up a copy of Monque. You’ll dig it. You’ll dig him.

Trust me, even though I’m no Jeremy Essig.