Rock and ROFL: The Princes of Comedy

Alt-comedians celebrate the joy of the up-and-coming (or down-and-out) comedian

For two months now, comic authority Klaus Kinski and music blog Brooklyn Vegan have combined their areas of expertise for a promising new series called "Rock and ROFL." The second installment took place last week in the back room at Pianos, where the night culminated in a John Vanderslice–led sing-along in the round; St. Vincent's Annie Clark, for whom I harbor a considerable cache of envy, made a guest appearance directly to Vanderslice's left. They gave a warm, intimate performance. The people were pleased.

This person was pleased also by the comedy, though, which can be overshadowed by such a memorable musical set. Seeing the likes of Todd Barry, Eugene Mirman, and Michael Showalter (for which there are frequent opportunities in New York) results in guaranteed laughs, of course, but there's something appealing about watching the lesser-knowns, and that's what Rock and ROFL is doing so well: offering not-quite-midlevel comics a chance to beef up their bases. Some of them won't go any further in popularity than this, of course, but there's also the chance that you're watching the next Kristen Schaal. (OK, so during February's event, you were watching the original Kristen Schaal. But you were also watching Bobby Tisdale and Joe Mande.) Generally speaking, the completely unfunny have been weeded out.

Sean O'Connor hosted the show Monday with his blushing brand of aw-shucks-I'm-drunk humor. He kind of owns his awkwardness in an endearing way, so that when his jokes don't draw a reaction you almost want to laugh anyway, just so that he isn't embarrassed up there onstage. He talks a lot about girls and drinking. He's 22. It makes sense.

The demurely coifed Reggie Watts, earning more weed money
Noah Kalina
The demurely coifed Reggie Watts, earning more weed money

The first person he introduced was Kumail Nanjiani, who hails from Iowa by way of Pakistan. Nanjiani's big joke is about "cheese," a drug he says is made from Tylenol PM and heroin. "It's still mostly heroin," he repeats throughout the act. "You already have the heroin. Just do that. It's pretty potent." Nanjiani also appears to have a gift for actually being funny on the fly, which isn't always demonstrated among practiced stand-ups.

Next up was Larry Murphy, who co-hosts a show every Friday night at Rififi with Greg Johnson. (I vaguely remember bullying Greg into taking my phone number late one Sunday night at Union Hall. So embarrassing.) Murphy was playing the role of Sal Lupo, the cabbie from Canarsie. Sitting with his back to the crowd (as the driver), he caught an unlucky break with the first audience member he attempted to engage—she was having none of it, offering incredibly vague answers to his questions and essentially destroying his act. "Hand the mic to that girl next to you," he finally said, breaking character. "You're killing me." But his intentional silences made the second participant slightly uncomfortable as well, until she finally said, "Uh, I think this is my stop." Murphy laughed with the audience and left the stage.

Will Franken's absurdist sketch comedy followed, a spastic rendering of tall, gangly Franken playing various characters to which it took the audience a minute to warm—but after he did, he was awarded some of the biggest laughs of the night. His style is fairly British, despite the fact that though he found his original success in San Francisco, he actually grew up in Missouri. Will's also the guy who stirred up all that controversy last January at the Upright Citizens Brigade when he passed around a duffel bag for donations, which pissed off management to the point that they supposedly banned him from performing there again. Franken relocated to New York not too long ago, so expect to hear more from him. (Just maybe not in connection with UCB.)

But the night's big draw was Reggie Watts, the final performer. Watts, who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, is a relatively frequent guest at "Tearing the Veil of Maya," the always-packed Sunday-night house of Showalter and Mirman. He's also recently seen a sharp increase in Web traffic to his eponymous site, courtesy of a redesign by Vimeo founder and Web celebrity Jakob Lodwick, who is Watts's roommate. Taking the stage with his singular combination of sampling, jazz, hip-hop, and improv, Watts never lets up with his smooth-voiced shtick—even the message on his voicemail features a velvety "It's been so long, and I miss you already."

He moved to New York in 2004 and immediately started playing comedy shows, after leaving Seattle and a band that "didn't seem to be going anywhere," he says. But he actually got his comedy start in high school, in competitive dramatics. "I did a few stand-up gigs in Montana while I was still in school, and I won a contest at some hotel," Watts explains. "The prize was like $500 or something. I think I bought really shitty weed with it."

He attributes his recent buzz to the eventual run-off of the multiple shows and videos he's put out there. "I've just been doing a lot, and it's beginning to accumulate," he says. "I think it's starting to seem legitimate, like 'He's doing this for real.' And we're gearing up to do more. There's going to be a private concert series at the loft in Williamsburg, for maybe 20 people. I'll do 40-minute sets, and we'll record it, and eventually release it as a DVD or something. Just keep making stupid shit until I can play good-sized theaters and hopefully sell them out."

I ask if he would consider that to be the ultimate success.

"No, ultimate success would be if I have a great idea for a T-shirt and I can get it done," he says. "Or an idea for a great prank we could pull, with a group of people, and document it. Or a series where I get a group of comics together and we do a tour—in people's basements. Or to replicate a high-end corporate commercial, where I have the connections with the production people and also the means to pay them. Really, just to actualize any dumb idea I have."

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