DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a recent cold and rainy Sunday night, the dining room in the restaurant First & Hope looked pretty empty. Behind the curtain leading to the establishment’s shoebox-sized Club Fedora, however, it was a completely different story.
Every table in the 70-seat lounge-inside-a-restaurant was full. Despite the sardine conditions, waiters were snaking through the chatty crowd, holding chairs over their heads and scanning the room for a place to seat the dozen other people who had made reservations. When a host asked two men sitting on a bench along a wall if the space between them was free, they said it was occupied, and moved to protect the coveted spot.
It was just after 8 p.m., and Un-Cabaret, the recently resurrected alternative comedy show, was about to start. A roster of big names were slated to take the tiny stage. The crowd was ready for a night of “non-jokey” comedy, raw personal material and even a little music.
A petite woman with black curls, and a short black dress over black tights, stepped onto the stage.
“Welcome to the Un-Cabaret,” said Beth Lapides, the show’s co-producer. “It’s a big experiment in uncertainty. We don’t know how it’s ever going to go.”
Lapides created Un-Cabaret in 1990 and, in January, she and co-producer Mitch Kaplan brought it back. It runs every Sunday night in the lounge at First & Hope and sells out nearly every week.
A who’s who of comedians and performers show up. Margaret Cho, Patton Oswald and Sandra Bernhard have appeared on the Downtown stage. During the oversold March 25 event, participants included Bob Odenkirk, a veteran comedian and co-creator of the HBO sketch comedy series “Mr. Show,” Rain Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor, and drag-queen comedian Pandora Boxx. Roseanne Barr closed the nearly two-hour long show.
“These people coming on the stage tonight are doing this just for you, just tonight, just this once, and that is why it’s so [expletive] crowded,” Lapides told the crowd.
Lapides created Un-Cabaret 22 years ago in the effort to give comedians a place to perform beyond the standard Westside comedy club. The acts were instructed to be authentic and deliver story-based material that they hadn’t performed anywhere else.
The first show took place in Downtown at the now-defunct Woman’s Building, a venue on Spring Street near Chinatown that focused on feminist art. It later moved to Luna Park in West Hollywood, where it ran for seven years, and then to the Knitting Factory. The show was also featured on Comedy Central.
Comedians such as Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, David Cross and even Judd Apatow were regulars at the original Un-Cabaret. Despite the attention, a not-so-final curtain fell at M-Bar about five years ago.
Lapides for years resisted the urge and entreaties to bring back the popular event.
“As an artist you hate to repeat yourself,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, three things convinced her to revive Un-Cabaret. She missed working with the comics and she wanted to try something new by adding music. Also, she fell in love with Fedora.
“The space is so [expletive] great,” she said. “It’s such a perfect fit.”
Jeremy Ingram, one of the owners of First & Hope, said that Un-Cabaret has quickly become the most popular night of the week for Fedora. It has also helped the restaurant promote other events, such as the recent introduction of a month-long Friday night residency by mercurial comedian Andy Dick.
Un-Cabaret has lined up comedians until early May, but Lapides said the show has no ending date and could go on indefinitely.
Comics Come Back
Many of the original comedians, including Cho and Odenkirk, have come Downtown for the new version. They are happy to see it back and say it still has the spirit of the early Un-Cabaret.
“It’s a very different vibe from most stand-up shows, which are usually about jokes only,” said Odenkirk after his set.
Odenkirk’s Un-Cabaret material included bits about the fears he has as a father, about never having a father around himself, and even a sex talk he had with one of his children that unexpectedly went from the birds and the bees to more graphic explanations of certain acts.
“Here I would talk about my personal life, my real feelings on something,” he said. “I always try to take it to some place funny, but I always start from reality.”
After Odenkirk’s set, Rain Pryor surprised the audience by singing a blues song with the help of the live band on stage.
A slimmed-down Roseanne Barr, dressed in black sweats and a turtleneck sweater, delivered a profanity-laced story about how hard it is for her to get along with people, especially Hollywood people.
“The thrill of the Un-Cabaret is watching really talented comedians on a high-wire act,” Lapides noted.
Barr really did go out on a limb to close her set — she sang a song. Although Time magazine once called Barr’s famous desecration of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Diego Padres game in 1990 the worst national anthem rendition of all time, in this instance the crowd cheered.
As Barr belted out the words to Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” the adoring Downtown audience members lifted their hands in the air and sang along to the chorus. When the song ended, they gave her a standing ovation. Barr walked off stage and returned to her table in the corner of the lounge.
Contact Richard Guzmán at email@example.com.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012