L.A. Comedy Trip: Mapping the Heavens with Dave Holmes and Rob Delaney

The Upright Citizens’ Brigade Theatre is maybe the smallest and most intimate venue I’ve been in since certain undergraduate theatre friends’ low-rent productions in South Oakland. That top-rate comics perform here seven nights a week is reason alone to move to Los Angeles. Mapping the Heavens was started a year and a half ago by Holmes and Delaney as a “kinder, gentler” night of comedy, and given that the co-hosts aired impromptu the award-winning YouTube comedy short by women in the audience, I’d say this tradition’s still going strong.

A quick word about Dave Holmes, who I first saw as Dangle’s ex-wife’s new closeted husband on Reno 911. If he doesn’t do standup he ought to, all the time. Or like stage monologues in the style of John Waters on that recent tour of his. Holmes killed with a story about making out with a guy whose tooth fell out, and another one about faking himself into (and then, terrified, out of) an inter-office basketball league. This latter story happened shortly after he came out, and what was great in his retelling of the story was how every time he quoted his younger self, he flipped into this breathy, queeny voice that sounded like the world’s worst (best?) Kathleen Turner drag queen.

But the great thing about this younger self is that he wore a backward Kangol hat and pretended to like basketball so’s to appear as classic-hetero as possible. Maybe it’s something I find funny just because I also come out late in life and tried very hard to be One of the Guys Who’s Gay But Not Gay-Gay, but the inversion here—Holmes Right Now queening up his act to impersonate the faux-butch Holmes Back Then—was a brilliant move. It felt totally instinctive but was a dreadfully precise stance of self-critique.

Levi MacDougall started the bill, and maybe his third bit went like this:

One thing I thought would be fun, I just want to share with you just a brief excerpt from my novel.

“She would stare out the window and drink mandarin vodka. I would lie there on my stomach. She never touched me.”

And that’s just a brief excerpt from my novel.

It’s from my novel, The Bad Masseuse.

This was the second time this week I heard, word for word (including the mandarin vodka), this bit. Another comedian, when retold it, was able to verify the bit as MacDougall’s and any glancing look at his (MacDougall’s) Web page would show it has his character all over it. Did I hear it at an open-mic? Another showcase in town? I’ve got so many hours of standup on tape I haven’t yet been able to find it. Joke thievery, though, it’s alive and well.

MacDougall is a comic I’m going to want to take another look at. His schtick was complete awkwardness, done to such a degree that it came across not as schtick but as genuine awkwardness, as though tiny us was the largest crowd he ever had to play to. But MacDougall’s no beginner, and so in the thoroughness with which he committed to his persona it’s like he made us (or, well, probably just me) complicit in any possible underestimations of him.

Next up was JC Coccoli, a Pittsburgh native and CMU grad, who used a lot of vocal work to sell her jokes. Not in a kind of performance-art/character way, but more like a twist of inflection as a kind of signal that what’s been said is funny. She also wasn’t afraid to laugh at her own jokes. Or was it that her laughing at her own jokes didn’t draw from their effect? I haven’t talked to enough comics yet to know whether self-laughs are to be avoided because of the damage they do to jokes landed. They can, to be sure, do damage, but I don’t think they necessarily do. Coccoli’s act is driven so much by the strength of her personality that we could laugh along with her own self-amusement.

Delaney did a set of new material so rough he worked off prompts on his phone. On the whole, it was sloppy and rarely funny, but Delaney’s frank admission of its sloppiness and unfunniness (“We’ll find out where the funny is, right now it’s just true” being one of the more elegant constructions I’ve heard on how good bits come together) was as entertaining as a polished, funny set would have been. I mean: we all delighted in how rough the material was. Is it Delaney’s already attained level of success that made this possible? Or was it all rhythm and confidence, all of us being held under sway during the verbalized soundtrack of a good time being had?

Finally, Drew Droege. If you aren’t yet a fan of his YouTube videos as Chloe Sevigny, run to them and enjoy the rest of your day. His character last night was named Grimsley, and he was a spiritual adviser and life coach who led us through a group meditation, urging our tongues to travel down our bodies, and lovingly admonishing the crowd for laughing and talking and not taking the therapy seriously. (“Whispers are lies,” he said.) Also, Grimsley does crowd work (“‘Allison’? Is that a name? That is crazy! ‘Allison’? It’s very long.”) better than any comic I’ve seen.

In order to make this book project as manageable as possible I thought I better keep the focus on pure comic-on-stage, joke-telling standup (i.e., not sketch comedy, not improv comedy), but so many great comics are doing this kind of one-man-sketch character work. But isn’t this also joke-telling, just told from a different (performative) point of view?

Right now I don’t know that I want to write a book that doesn’t have Drew Droege in it somewhere. If even the dedication. (Sorry, Mom.)

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