Sunday, June 08, 2008

Did Somebody Say Enema?: Show and Tell Part 1

"If you felt our sketch needed a butthole reference, Jesus did have a butthole and it was bloody, just like yours."

Oh yes. Yes, yes, The O'Debra Twins. Lead us onward, your raggedy masses, misfits, weirdo’s, possible criminals. Lead us to our Big Glam Candy Mountain, where no one will mistake us for homeless people, where well shots are no longer three dollars apiece, where everyone wins the beer chugging contest and home is only one catatonic subway stop away. Or give us one night a week to feel like a family. A dysfunctional, rectally bleeding family.

They have just finished the opening sketch to my initiation, about a bible-based exercise program called Body of Christ. The storm encroacheth; the annihilating wind to disintegrate all my assumptions about art, human behavior, the constraints of public decency.

When my older brother, who has lived in New York for a few years, heard that I would be coming to the city to study poetry, his first response was,

"Oh my god, you're not going to be in the Bowery Poetry Club, are you?"

"Yes, I am."

"That place is like the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. Never has there been a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

I found out later that he had only ever attended one event: Show and Tell, where he had performed an unpracticed standup routine with poor results.

There are only three rules:

1. Do not put your genitals on the O'Debra Twins.

2. Respect the performers and they will respect you.

3. Limit your time on stage to six minutes.

Only one of these is followed with any kind of rigor, and then possibly only because to violate it would lead to police involvement. After reminding the variedly intoxicated crowd not to sexually assault their hosts and that they will be publicly humiliated for heckling too aggressively, the twins pull out of a water pitcher and the lineup is arranged. My two most emotionally schizophrenic hours ever spent at a performance were about to begin.

First came Rachel Parenta, a comedienne whose seemingly trumped-up and hyperbolic jokes about flying to the New Orleans Jazz Festival to stalk her ex-boyfriend turned into a disturbing, confessional narrative about flying to the New Orleans Jazz Festival to stalk her ex-boyfriend, annually. Laughs are scattered.

My antennae begin to tingle. The cantina band strikes up its opening notes. After a forgettable musical act and a self-righteous political monologue about censorship ending with the entire assemblage shouting "UP MY ASS," Gabriel Lockwood takes the stage. I am afraid of Gabriel Lockwood. Sometimes, before I go to sleep, I have my mom look under my bed to make sure Gabriel Lockwood is not there.

His hands are shaking from the moment he begins to read from his manuscript. The drone increases in intensity until his whole body is quivering, bent over the microphone, voice tripping over the unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness Kafka-on-Meth account of the unfathomable horrors of, well, something. He does not seem to be breathing. Just when I think he's going to start speaking in tongues, the timer buzzes. His trance disrupted, he offers a meek "thanks" and descends back into the audience.

And then there was Reverend Jen, leading us up the next vertical grade of the open mic rollercoaster with her bizarre ministrations. The first thing I notice is that she is wearing a full-body latex cat suit. The second thing I notice is that she is wearing elf ears. Wait, is she wearing elf ears, or does she have elf ears? I still don't know. My notes consist of one word: AWESOME.

"I've decided that I'm going to be a superhero all the time."

Her voice is indescribable, a kind of adorable rasp, like Tom Waits meets Dakota Fanning. She reads an autobiographical narrative about being taken to a party in a trailer park, where everyone is taking turns using a friend's unconscious body as a urinal as punishment for his lack of drinking fortitude. I cannot do the humor justice, but the whole club was rapt in spasmodic laughter.

I think this is the moment where my loyalties cemented. I was on board the good ship Show and Tell, and my trust in my captains to guide me safely through the salty tumult of outsider talent was unwavering.

One boring standup set later, a fourteen-year-old girl named Katherine was staring out at us from behind a pair of glasses, a porcupine puppet on her left hand. Not only was the porcupine never explained, it served only as a tepidly deferential, non-ventriloquistic commentator that mumbled encouragement to its visibly nervous host and pantomimed various actions recounted in the story she was telling. It concerned taking a train trip with a boy of the same age with whom she had been desperately in love for a long time. It was less than riveting and, as such, the bar lapsed into drunken rowdiness, incurring the wrath of one of the O'Debras. Then, I almost fell out of my chair for the fifth or sixth time that night. Katherine had abruptly launched into song and her voice was arresting. Not quite beautiful but alarmingly sorrowful and profound for someone her age. It was a song to her unrequited love, watching him sleep on the train. "You gather your hair in back like God was going to grab you by the ponytail."

Then we hit the bottom of a trough. I felt like I was going to start hemorrhaging grey matter out of my ears and would not have been surprised if the next performer unzipped their skin to reveal their true unicorn form and offered to grant our wishes.

Instead, a bald guy is screaming at us. Two people sitting at a table close to the stage had been having a conversation during his nonsensical screed about who knows what and he was clearly panicked and infuriated. Thirty seconds remain. He spends them explaining a detoxification program he's put himself on, whereby he drinks various disgusting undrinkable things in order to pass bladder stones, and he has here a glass of olive oil, and a glass of lemon juice, and a glass of tomato juice, and he's going to dri...BUZZ.

"Do it! Let him drink it!"

Time is extended; I count my lucky stars as I watch a grown man chug the ingredients of a failed salad dressing so he can fish crystals out of his poop. I look around the room for intergalactic ragamuffin smugglers and their wunderkind charges. One more act to go.

He looks seventeen, trying very hard to be a twenty-something troubadour. "I'm sick. If I shoot boogers on you, I apologize in advance."

He continues talking, then a guy who looks like James Carville saunters up the aisle and shouts, "I wanna see those boogers, GOD DAMMIT!"

Pause, Bob Dylan starts talking again.


He has sat down, is staring intently, completely serious, nodding slowly. It's time to go.

The break falls at around one in the morning. Since I had a half-hour commute to my Brooklyn apartment, I couldn't stay, though by that point I was fairly seasick anyway.

Diane O'Debra announced the opening of the beer-chugging competition enrollment, requiring us to submit creative suggestions to the question, "What do I have up my ass?" I scribbled "a smaller ass" on a slip of paper, dropped it into the pitcher and wandered, dazed, out into a strange and lawless new galaxy.

Iconoclasts in the Mist: Show and Tell Part 2

It had all started to feel normal, shuffling past a man wearing a sequin dress and a wig and an overweight and heavily tattooed woman in a Vegas-style cabaret bikini to find a seat. I recognized almost everyone. There was Jordan Carlos, friendly TV comic who was surprised when I could quote his jokes back to him from his Comedy Central appearances; there was John, willowy Lower East Side veteran with the grating voice; there was Angry Bob, obese, hateful Angry Bob; and there was I, the quiet kid with the Moleskine, sad to be amongst the peanut gallery for the last time. Of all the performances I had seen during my time in the city, Show and Tell still remained the most entertaining, the most challenging, the most genuine.

A new face sits down across from me and asks me if I'm performing. I tell her no, find out she is planning on doing a comedy routine and ask her if she's been here before. She has, only a couple times. "A naked guy" is the best she can offer in response to my question regarding the strangest act she's seen. Child's play. I tell her about the bladder guy and, five minutes later, he sits down next to me.

"Hey man, how'd the oil thing turn out?"

"It went well."

"Are you going to do it again tonight?"

"No, I'm going to do an entire standup routine with thirty-two stitches in my head."

As jaded as I had become over the previous six weeks, this crowd still found ways to render me speechless.

He removes a bandana to reveal a gnarled bird's nest of flesh and suture thread.

"What the hell happened?"

"Fell off my bike. Broke my collarbone, too. And got a concussion." He pulls his shirt to the side to reveal a massive bruise on his chest.

"But it's alright, I've got a pocket full of Vicodin."

He pulls out a prescription bottle and giggles.

The reading of the names begins. Jeff Dickerson is called; Diane O'Debra chastises him for the second time for his fart-based rendition of the national anthem. "Do you know how long it took to get the smell offstage? Weeks."

But it's not all scatology in this twilight zone -- Show and Tell, perhaps because of its character or its reputation, attracts fairly big names. Seth Herzog, a well-known comic, opened the night with stories about accidentally signing up to entertain troops in Kuwait.

The real comedy arises about halfway through the show, when Abbie, a middle-aged woman doing a routine about her failed relationships, makes a confession.

"Cocaine is the drug to give me if you want a running commentary with your blowjob."

There are a few moments of silence, and then the audience gradually erupts into cheers, groans and hysterical laughter of recognition. It is a revealing moment.

Most of the content is light fare -- mediocre to good standup with a couple of decent music sets interspersed -- which is both a disappointment and a relief. My mind was saturated and my astonishment muscles were sore from flexing. All but one of my friends had, at this point, stopped coming with me, whether from lack of interest or low weirdness thresholds.

Despite all appearances, the grotesque spectacle is not really the show's greatest virtue. What sticks out most are the moments of lucidity, when a performer reveals something genuinely artful, often more by accident than anything else. I saw film-score-worthy music, HBO-worthy comedy and countless snapshots in time that were just too perfectly strange to adequately summarize.

Show and Tell is a crucible and a Rorschach test, from which molten talent can be easily retrieved, forged, and upon which swims a blotchy and chaotic pastiche of human potentials. There are many things the show is not. It is not necessarily good, as it is an extremely inconsistently bejeweled treasure chest. Nor is it always enjoyable -- some of the rough bits are agonizing. But it is, above all, authentic.

After the last act, I gathered my things, wished Mr. Stitches good luck with his set, and wound my way through the seats to the exit. Of all the spaces I had occupied in New York, in mind and body, I would miss this one the most. The smell will linger for months.