By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Every week, devotees and a few newcomers gather at Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam, where performance meets cry for help. On a recent Wednesday, the opening slot goes to regular fixture Big Mike, a wild-eyed nurse with red hair and a beard like a lion's. He wears two canteens, two watches, and two Polaroid cameras for shooting women who consent to flash him. Sometimes begging audience members for a bra shot is his entire act.
But this week Big Mike spends his six minutes in the spotlight screaming mental-patient dialogue from a notebook. His finale is pulling his pants down, shrieking and jumping, penis flapping against pasty gut and thighs. An awed hush covers the room, even though it's a familiar sight to most. Naked flailing features in many of the more than 30 acts, as does entreating the audience for sex and complaining about chemical imbalance.
Downtown artist, troll-museum curator, and ordained-by-mail Reverend Jen Miller pulls all the squalor into a show. She cheerleads every Eeyore of an act week after week, her thrift store gowns, plastic elf ears, and sharp patter providing low-rent razzle-dazzle. She started the Anti-Slam six years ago in response to the Nuyorican Poets Café's system of scoring performers. Reverend Jen assigns three judges to yell "Ten!" after every Anti-Slam act, and the audience takes up the cry as the BYOB evening wears on.
The ding of the egg timer ends Big Mike's act; a sweaty guy in the front row holds up a lighter in tribute. A young blond woman calls out, "After all the pictures Mike's displayed of my pussy . . . we should, like, put his dick on a billboard." Reverend Jen returns to the stage and answers in her Maryland drawl, "That'll increase tourism."
No onstage crapulousness shakes the MC's bonhomie. When one naked drunk drags his spread-out butt down the mic stand, the hostess retakes the stage with paper towels and Windex, swabbing the stand like June Cleaver through the next introduction. A monologuist blurts, "I just came from not being admitted to a psych ward. But I feel better now, being here." Reverend Jen calls back, "This is the cheapest psych ward in town, Rick." Another gloomy stand-up describes getting prescribed Paxil, "which I come to find out is like the Schaefer beer of antidepressants. Can anyone here tell me a better one?" The answers fly forward: "Wellbutrin," "Allexor," and then, from the MC, "Schaefer!"
The egg timer tolls most cruelly tonight for Anti-Slam regular Mo. Thin, ravaged, of indeterminate age, Mo yanks off her shirt to reveal a twisted torso. She gets down on all fours and howls wordlessly at the floor. She then pulls herself up the mic stand like some hobbled Iggy Pop and talks about her fatal case of Lyme diseasewhat the doctors say, who's been helping her clean her house. "This isn't supposed to happen to someone who's 32," she pleads. Then the ding, and Mo smiles and nods thank you like Liza in Vegas. She limps back to her folding chair to whoops of applause.
Talent seems beside the point here, though a few comics are actually funny with intent. It's the gallows slapstick like Mo's finish that stays with you. Any discomfort with despair as entertainment is vanquished, mostly, by the Anti-Slammers' eagerness to share it. It's not voyeurism if they want you to watch, right?