TELL YOUR FRIENDS! at Lolita
It’s hard to describe why I started Tell Your Friends! without giving you my entire life story. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give you the abbreviated version. I started doing standup when I was 19. When I was 23, I took over my friend Brody’s show, The Brody Stevens Festival of Laughter, a weekly show at a coffee shop in the Flatiron District called Eureka Joe. I liked running a show. I got to see friends, I got to meet and book comedians I’d never met, and it was a great place to workshop new material and get better. I ran a show at what was then a youth hostel, the Gershwin Hotel. My friend Patrick Borelli ran a great show there Thursdays. Crowds built.
I was bullied out of this show by the bookers of the space; one week, they hired a jazz trio to play outside the door to the room where the show was held. Another week, they told me that the room where the show was held had been booked. I could produce my show in the front cafeteria, or I could produce my show on the roof, which would have been very cool, but I’d have to pay them a hundred bucks, to pay the building’s handyman to set up chairs on the roof. I got to the hotel that friday, and of course the showroom wasn’t booked at all, and when I asked the handyman directly, he told me he never got paid extra to set up the roof for other events. There was a lot going on like that.
I got booked to perform on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, realized I didn’t have to put up with this bullshit, and moved on. I did a lot of other things in my career, and along the way, I missed having a space where I could fail over and over again. My act was stagnating, and part of the reason was that i went into every show afraid to fail. I stuck, for the most part, with the tried-and-true, even with shows that didn’t pay and that didn’t have an audience, because I knew that bombing meant I wouldn’t be asked back.
So to make a very very very long story short, I walked into the Lolita Bar on Broome Street in the Lower East Side in 2005, which had previously hosted a show by my friend Amber Tozer, and proposed a new standup show to be held in their basement. The owners figured nothing from nothing is nothing, and allowed me to start my little show. My idea was to have a standup show that was an open mic for people who are too big to do open mics. The first show featured a headlining set from Andy Borowitz, who had just moved back to NYC and had decided to give standup another shot. People came from all over to fill that little basement, including a couple from outside Atlanta Georgia, who had driven all day because they’d heard Andy was doing a free show.
That first year was rocky, but aside from a few dead and empty shows, Tell Your Friends! took off in a big way.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS! BLOWS UP!
The neighborhood where Lolita stood (it was sold in 2012) is now a part of the sprawling hellhole that is the Lower East Side Party Zone, with hipster-big-deal restaurant Dirt Candy around one corner, a high-end coffee place and a South African restaurant around the other place. But when I started my show, Lolita was an outpost in the middle of Chinatown. Towards the end, it became a hellish place on weekends, with NYU trust fund kids and finance popped-collar types, the types who travel in packs of five in matching clothes searching for a pack of women to terrorize/hit on. Back when I started my show, though, Lolita was still a cool place to hang, a place for locals in the know to hang out and seek refuge from that scene, which was raging north of Delancey.
I could stand in the doorway most Monday nights, when my show was, and if I saw a white person approaching, I knew they were coming to my show. We had a lot of college students, until the NYPD started cracking down on underage drinking in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of locals, New Yorkers, comedy fans. Most nights, no matter the size of the audience, the vibe of the audience was mellow, friendly, like a tight-knit group.
In addition to Andy Borowitz, we had established comedy stars come through there, like Todd Barry, Nick DiPaolo, Marc Maron. We had friends of mine who were in the process of becoming famous, like Demetri Martin, Christian Finnegan, Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of pictures and information on this website if you want to learn all about it. In fact, go here.
But I always had my eye on the larger prize; I had a vision for TYF!, and that was not to just make it one of the best shows in New York City, but to make it a part of my larger legacy. As crazy as that sounds when I read it back to myself, I had a feeling that TYF! could occupy a permanent place in comedy history. And if you’re going to say that that seems a little grandiose, I have to politely disagree; it’s incredibly grandiose, and crazy, and as it happens, correct.
EATING IT, INVITE THEM UP, and COMEDY DEATH RAY
The granddaddy of “alternative” comedy shows in New York City was Eating It, a show held in the back of a rock club called the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. A lot of big names performed there, mixed in with up-and-comers and for years it was the hottest show going, and proof that you didn’t have to work comedy clubs to get seen by “industry” or build a career.
That spawned shows by myself, and Borelli, and Eugene Mirman, whose Wednesday night showcase, Invite Them Up, in the back of a former revival house movie theater/cafe would become the next iconic “indie” comedy show. Everybody went to Eugene’s for years, and he was the first person to book acts like Reggie Watts, Flight of the Conchords, Modest Mouse, Aziz Ansari, who would go on to be huge fixtures in the comedy world.
On the West Coast, a similar show, by two former Mr. Show writers, BJ Porter and Scott Aukerman, called Comedy Death Ray (now Comedy Bang! Bang!) had launched first in LA’s M Bar and then at the Upright Citizen’s Theater when it opened in Los Feliz.
In two successive years, Comedy Central Records put out compilation albums (and i’m really eliding a lot here in service of what is, ultimately, my own story), featuring some of the best acts out of both shows. And I took notice. Because, as I said, I also had one of the country’s best shows, and I wanted recognition for it. A year later, I pitched a similar Tell Your Friends! album to Comedy Central Records, and received a polite refusal; sales for the previous two were not all that they had hoped. This was, after all, the age of peer-to-peer audio sharing. Album sales had taken a huge dip, and the sort of young, hip comedy fans who would be expected to buy these sorts of compilations were stealing them wholesale.
But I’m grateful for the rejection.
VICTOR VARNADO AND THE AWKWARD COMEDY SHOW
My friend Victor Varnado had been doing standup and teaching himself the basics of filmmaking for years. In 2009, he produced, directed, and headlined a comedy special, called The Awkward Comedy Show, with fellow “nerdy” black comedians Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, Baron Vaughn, and Marina Franklin. The five most confident, least awkward comedians I’ve ever met. But no matter; I went to the taping and, as you’d expect with that lineup, it was a great show. Victor sold it to Comedy Central, and I produced the release show, featuring the cast, as well as surprise guest W. Kamau Bell, and after-party with DJ Prince Paul. As is the case with almost every show I’ve produced, now you could sell out a large theater with that lineup, but at the time I was busting my ass to fill the Comix Comedy Club.
By the way, please don’t feel I’m understating Victor’s accomplishment here. To take an idea from scratch (in this case, take the Kings of Comedy template and transpose it onto the comedians he performed with; in fact, his original title was The Kings of Awkward Comedy until the gentleman who actually owns the legal rights to the Kings of Comedy name put an end to that). to rent out a crew on a shoestring budget, to figure out how to give the set dressing a professional look, and to direct a live show while also performing. That’s a huge accomplishment. And for Victor to do all of that and then sell it as an actual TV special with his name all over it?
Again, I took notice.But I was focused, in those days, on my own standup career. I had submitted for a half-hour special, and was particularly confident in myself that I’d get it. 2010 was my year, and I’d take the money from that special and move to Europe for a couple of years and completely rebuild my act and, most likely, drink myself to death in Kreuzberg. Instead, I found out that I’d been passed over for a new crop of comedians who had all started seven years after I had. That was a big reality check. On top of that, I did a show that night with most of those guys, and completely bombed, and sat there after they all killed one after the other. Another reality check.
I biked home that night, drunk and in an emotional freefall. And I quit comedy. And then a week later, I realized no one noticed that I’d quit comedy, and I decided that the I was going to put myself into a position where I had the power to quit and have it actually affect people.
I was insane. I was grandiose. I was, it turned out, once again absolutely right.