Pioneering Alt-Comedy Club UnCabaret Returns to Live Shows … But Is Sticking With Intimate Zooms, Post-Pandemic, Too

When the pandemic hit, there were many aspects of the performing arts that adopted a livestream model, of course, as a necessity and a stopgap until normal life — and normal live — could resume. But what if there was something about delivering a performance on Zoom that was (to borrow an “Achtung Baby” 30th-anniversary phrase) even better than the real thing? That’s been a question with music, where some fans have enjoyed an intimacy with homespun livestreams that they don’t always feel in concert halls. And it’s even come up in comedy, where a room full of in-person LOL-ers would seem to be an essential part of the equation.

UnCabaret is not your typical comedy club, having, since the 1990s, promised a more conversational brand of stand-up as one of L.A.’s most important and progressive comedy institutions. Led as always by Beth Lapides, who often acts as interlocutor as well as host, it was better-suited than most to pivot to an alternative medium, already being fairly “alt” by nature. So the collective’s semi-monthly Zoom sessions provided a kind of familial anchor throughout the rough patches of quarantine for many participants and viewers, with more interaction between the comics in the frames, and more month-to-month “to be continued” storytelling as the pandemic went on.

Now, live UnCabaret shows have resumed on a monthly basis at El Cid in east Hollywood. (UnCab’s last home, Rockwell in Los Feliz, went out of business during the shutdowns.) But guess what? Viewers and many of the performers weren’t ready to zoom out on the Zooms just because they could tentatively make their way into a room together again. And so, uniquely, UnCabaret is continuing with a hybrid model — live shows and online shows, each of which have their own particular pleasures and moods. In other words: They’ll continue to do sit-down, even as stand-up returns.

Tonight’s Zoom-based UnCabaret, the last of the year, features some of its tentpole performers, including, besides Lapides, the online show’s usual opener, Alec Mapa, its standard closer, Jamie Bridgers, frequent participant Alex Edelman (on a Sunday night off from his well-reviewed off-Broadway one-man show, “Just for Us”) and a band led, as always, by musical director Mitch Kaplan. Guest “sets” — a word that almost seems wrong in a format as casual and unconventinal as UnCabaret’s — will come from Kira Soltanovich, Greg Behrendt, Lauren Weedman and Debra Digiovanni. (Find details about tonight’s show on Facebook here or sign up for free tickets on Eventbrite here.)

It’s a diverse cast representative of the comics and writers who typically come by UnCab, live or not in-person, who in the last 18 months have also included semi-regulars like Julia Sweeney, Laura Kightlinger, Justin Sayre, Judy Gold, Jackie Kashian, Jen Kirkman, Hannah Einbinder, Baron Vaughn and Erin Foley, along with single or occasional visits from Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard, Byron Bowers, Jake Sheers, Dana Gould, Wayne Federman, Tim Bagley, Isaac Mizrahi, Laraine Newman, Merrill Markoe and Michael Patrick King. Musical guests have included Jake Shears, Jill Sobule and even Phoebe Bridgers (yes, that’s Jamie’s daughter, and a frequent presence in her comedy).

“I never had the idea that it was time to give up the Zooms,” says Lapides, who has many first-hand tales of what a lifeline the show has been for viewers and performers alike. “I feel that our hybrid situation is in alignment with the hybrid situation that we’re living in. We’re not in quarantine, but we are not in full force out in the world. And the Zoom is really our way of connecting people — and I feel like full connection hasn’t really been made yet. I personally do love doing them, and a lot of people are like, ‘Please, please, please — I don’t know how I would be getting through without you.’ And I don’t feel like people feel like we have gotten through. So we’re here to serve, and there seems to still be a call.”

Not that it hasn’t been a thrill to be gathering in person every month since September at El Cid. (The next live show is Jan. 21, marking a move to Fridays for the in-person gatherings.) “It’s been great for people to play off each other and to be together and have the surprises of a live show. It’s thrilling to see people’s faces and to feel the energy, even if the audience is masked and people are still feeling their way to what it means to be at a live event. But I do still love the Zoom shows, so I don’t know — can’t mama love both her children?”

Jamie Bridgers says that, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Zoom shows were a salve for performers’ and viewers’ deep anxieties: “There was a consistency that was really comforting when everybody was freaking out about, literally, life and death.” But the comfort factor hasn’t gone away. “I think what I like about the Zoom part of it is, I am seated, I do it from my own dining room table, and it feels like a conversation with friends. And when I’m listening to the other comedians do it, to me it feels like I’m seated at like the perfect dinner party. Occasionally people will weigh in on someone else’s thing, or Beth will bring someone else in to talk for a couple of seconds about something. And how many times in my life am I going to go to a dinner party where you get Alec Mapa, Laura Kightlinger and Lauren Weedman? Frankly, I’m not sure anybody would want to be at that actual dinner party, because it would be kind of crazy, but you know what I mean?

“You know, it’s not for everyone,” Bridgers cautions. “Many of the topics are blue; some of them are experimental. I certainly don’t think it would be fun for a Trump supporter to tune in. But I think we’ve got a self-selected group of people who are receptive to a certain type of comedy. And sometimes it gets a little bit raw, but I like that. It also feels like a safe space to me” — reflecting UnCab’s ’90s origins, when Lapides founded it as a feminist- and LGBTQ-friendly spot that would counter the ugliness and prejudice-confirming comedy of acts like Andrew “Dice” Clay.

“I really appreciate the fact that Beth definitely tries not to get people who are going to tell any kind of jokes that make people feel less than,” says Bridgers. “In fact, some of my humor sometimes goes a little old-school and I have to pull it back. I’ve had jokes where I’ll call her and I’ll go, ‘I thought of a really funny joke that I can never tell’ — more of a mean Joan Rivers kind of thing — and then I’ll tell Beth and she goes, ‘Oh, that is a good one. Yeah, you can’t ever tell that.’” Not that anyone is likely to think of UnCab as a censorious place — there’s definitely a feeling that anything goes, and then some, except for degradation (self-debasement excepted).

But what’s it been like for the last 20 months, with apparently many more to come, of doing comedy without a live, laughing audience on Zoom?

Not everyone who is an UnCab regular thinks the online version offers equal satisfactions. Julia Sweeney was a seemingly enthusiastic participant, but now that the live shows are back, she’s sticking with those. “The feeling that people want to keep hearing you talk, through laughter, is so important,” Sweeney says. “So for me, the online was hard — even though I’m glad Beth is doing it and I’m glad it opened up the audience to people who aren’t in L.A. or people who can’t leave the house or don’t want to, for some reason. I totally get that — I’m mostly in that category, at all times. The last show I did for UnCab at El Cid a few weeks ago was just like taking a warm bath because you could hear everybody.

“I just have a knee-jerk feeling of embarrassment if you’re talking and no one’s laughing,” Sweeney continues. “You can see their faces and they look like they’re smiling, but I need more than that. I always left feeling that feeling you get when you ran into someone on the street and you said too much and talked too long, and you realize they liked it for the first three minutes and they didn’t for the last seven minutes. And then you’re going, ‘Why not just say ‘hi’? When people say ‘how are you,’ just say ‘fine’! Don’t say more!’ … If I were in charge of Zoom, I would say, ‘Crack that nut of letting people hear the laugh’ —but then I guess you have to make sure you don’t hear them talking, and I don’t know how you do that. Maybe there’s some other way to show approval. Do people need those little buzzers that they have for TV (test) screenings, where you push the button when you’re engaged and don’t when you’re not engaged? I actually think that’s not a joke — like to me, if I could see some sort of graphic on the bottom of the screen with some kind of approval, it doesn’t have to be laughter.”

And yet Sweeney acknowledges there are things about the Zooms that can’t be replicated in person, all audible laughter aside. “What amazed me the most was how intimate it really felt, and in some ways with an intimacy that can’t be matched on stage — like being in somebody’s house… being in Judy Gold’s kitchen. And also because you’re in your home and you’re comfortable, I think people were less on guard about what they were saying, which is always interesting. And what shocked me the most after doing the Zoom ones was how much I really felt like I’d had an encounter with a group of people. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to seem fake,’ but I was filled up in that way when you see a group of people and you find out things and you laugh and you catch up. In that way, it seemed as good; in some ways, it seemed better. And I would never have bet that I would have felt that way, ever.”

Edelman, for his part, was and is gung-ho about doing Zoom comedy. Unlike some of the other UnCab personalities who don’t do standup on a full-time basis, he did other online comedy shows during the pandemic, even corporate shows, and was grateful for all of them. “I’m not crazy about not performing,” Edelman says. “I will say that lots of the online shows felt like a vegan hamburger, which is that they were wonderful, but not better than the real thing, usually. I know that comedians gripe generally about online shows, but specifically they were grateful for every single one of them. But UnCabaret was great. The community of it is really nice. It was really, really cool to be able to constantly be sort of updating on your life, and I liked being able to write every week, to have something to look forward to during the slog of the pandemic. Generally speaking, I needed the engagement of online shows, and I needed the sandbox of people trying different stuff: lots of audience, no audience, audience muted, audience unmuted — that was all cool and important and a raft in a tough time.”

Sweeney points out that Edelman in particular made good use of the format: “Alex Edelman is so funny. and there’s no way you could be looking through his drawers, in his growing-up family bedroom, if you didn’t have it online. There’s just no way that would’ve ever happened.” Lapides calls Edelman “a little bit of a roving reporter. He more than anyone else in the show has really come to us from a lot of different places, and it was great to see him in his boyhood home, or to see him in his apartment and to watch that apartment transform as Hannah (EInbender) moves in, or even doing the show (when he was vacationing) in Zion.”

Lapides says the dynamic does feel completely different at the in-person shows. “The beautiful thing about an audience laughing is you are surfing the laughs. You’re creating a wave and then you’re surfing the wave. And where there’s laughter, you often stay there and do a little more because of the laughter. You know, comedy looks like a monologue, but it is a conversation. I mean, whether it’s with a quiet audience or a laughing audience, it is a conversation, and without an entity that can respond with laughter or silence, it does become a little bit of a monologue rather than a dialogue.”

But there’s not much loneliness happening in an UnCab Zoom show. In the early days of the show as an outlet for live alternative comedy, Lapides used to “work the mic” more from the back of the room, sometimes asking questions or urging performers to follow a certain spontaneous thread, partly because alternative comedy was a new concept and she wanted to keep comics in the moment, not going back to a standard set. She does that less often now in the live situation. But in the Zooms, that aspect of the early UnCabs has resumed. And with no live audience laughter, her distinctive laugh, which always feel honest and well-earned, is a welcome stand-in for the MIA crowd peals.

“In some ways, the Zoom shows themselves are kind of a hybrid between standup and a talk show,” Lapides says. “I had a radio show for one second, and an MTV talk show, and the podcasts. That feeling is what I’ve tried to bring to UnCab. In some ways UnCab has a conversational feeling, even when it’s not conversational. But in the Zooms, the conversational aspect is very explicit rather than more implicit.”

Although quarantine was a time of learning not to wait for the laugh, says Edelman, “I would wait for a laugh from Beth a bunch of the time. And Beth is pretty good about laughing — and she’s a really good listener and a really great improviser-interviewer. She pulls comedy out of people really well. Sometimes I go on UnCabaret with no idea how long it’s going to be, and by the time I finish saying stuff, it’s been 20 minutes of entirely new things, and that’s because of Beth. Things that I would never say on stage in front of strangers, I say in that room, because it’s a safe space because I know those people so well.

“I do think I’ve come out of (the pandemic) a little bit more mature, a little more intense, because what I did all through the pandemic was stuff that you didn’t necessarily need to wait for a laugh. … But I feel like I’ve written a lot of jokes that are for Beth and Mitch’s sense of humor, because they’re the only ones on UnCabaret that aren’t muted. So maybe they’ve made me a worst comedian, because I’m writing for two Jews who are exactly like me.”

Bridgers says there have been hazards to doing comedy at home. “One of the first UnCabaret Zooms was right when COVID was like this nebulous smoke monster — was it going to be the worst thing that ever happened in the world? Or was it going to be gone in 10 days? And I did overserve myself at the dining room table. And Lauren Weedman told me I reminded her of Foster Brooks, and Alec Mapa told me that I reminded him of Foster Brooks — and they hadn’t spoken to each other. The next day I was like, ‘OK, Beth, you know it’s time to tap the breaks when two separate people say that you remind them of Foster Brooks.’ Lauren told me, ‘I don’t want to encourage you drinking, but I think you are funnier drunk.’ And then of course, Beth is like, ‘Well, the goal is to get to where you can be relaxed when you’re not drinking.’ I was like, ‘Of course, that’s what the pros do. But…’”

The ease of access to the Zooms can be intimidating, knowing that anyone could be watching. “That is a thing about the Zoom that makes me feel a little bit cringy, because I know that my son Jackson’s girlfriend’s parents have watched it. It’s quite possible that some of my high school friends tune in. Every once in a while, I’ll look through the guest list and I’ll see a name that I kind of recognize and I’m like, ‘Oh, man.’ I just have to put it out of my mind, because some of my jokes are not for everyone, and it feels really intimate.

:I have that one thing that’s actually on YouTube where I’m talking about being frustrated that there’s not more sex in the ‘Twilight’ books. And you know, I’m a professional person. I don’t want any of my colleagues down at the real estate office to know that I’m talking about Edward Collins’ hard-on, even though I think it’s hysterical and I’ll stand by it. But occasionally a client will Google me and they’ll say, ‘Hey,  I understand that you do standup…. I think we’re going to come down to El Cid.’ And I say, ‘I usually don’t invite people until their escrow closes.’”

Bridgers is the one performer who’s on every show, live or on Zoom (though Mapa almost always opens). Lapides chose her for that role because there’s something comforting as well as acerbic in her manner. (It also makes for a good musical segue when musical director usually plays a beautiful piano-instrumental version of her daughter Phoebe’s “Kyoto” as her lead-in music.) But Bridgers, who only started doing comedy a few years ago and thinks of herself as among the least experienced of the regular performers, says she still aspires to reach the pain thresholds some of her comedy heroes uphold on UnCab.

“When I watch somebody like Laura Kightlinger or Julia Sweeney on stage, and they can talk about things that are kind of, well, not necessarily sad, but they talk about things that obviously come from pain, and they make it funny, that’s the skillset that I would love to have.”

There may not be laughter coming from the online crowd, but they are visible to the hosts as well as viewers. Lapides thinks it’s too distracting to look in on the audience, although she sometimes will on a playback the following day. Bridgers can’t resist doing it in real time.

“I’ve seen people accidentally have their camera on while they were getting their pajamas on and being completely nude while they were getting ready for bed. And I’ll just text Emily and be like, ‘Hey, you might want to kill the camera for this person.’ And it’s so sweet because they never know. If there’s 200 people on a call, you’re not thinking that anyone’s looking at you, but of course I am going through each of the little cells like the Brady Bunch. The people who are eating in bed off their (torsos), just completely prone, I’m like, ‘Honey, I get it, but that’s what the avatar is for.’”

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