I went to a fantastic wedding in the Catskills a few weekends ago. It was autumny and beautiful and full of wonderful music, as befitting a union between two musicians. The bride and groom each played with their respective bands during the reception, which was great. (The best man joked that it was the first wedding reception that should have had a merch table.)
On our way up to the mountains, we got off the NY State Thruway at a certain exit. This exit immediately seemed familiar, in a very profound way, as if it played an important role in my life. Within seconds, it dawned on me: This was the same exit for the town of Woodstock. (My first clue was the big green road sign that said <– WOODSTOCK 12.)
Despite growing up not too far from this famous hamlet, I have been to Woodstock twice in my life. The first time was to see the Bad Brains play a tiny, tiny club as they embarked on a reunion tour; it turned out to be much better than when I saw them play Irving Plaza a few days later. The second time I went to Woodstock, I saw the best comedy show I ever saw.
Some background: In the early 00s, there was an amazing monthly live comedy show called Tinkle, held most frequently at Pianos in the Lower East Side. It was hosted (simultaneously) by David Cross, Todd Barry, and Jon Benjamin, who would constantly try to throw each other off during intros and between-act banter. The invited comedians were other awesome (then) up-and-comers like Eugene Mirman, Jon Glaser, Fred Armisen, and Dmitri Martin, to name just a few. Usually, there was at least one filmed event and live music, from the likes of Yo La Tengo and Ted Leo. (In the Ted Leo concert film Dirty Old Town, you can see my huge bald head waiting to get into the venue.)
Oh, and it only cost $5 to get in. It was like the Fugazi of yuks. They even organized a Tinkle booze cruise, which featured an amazing array of comedic and musical talents, capped by a live set from Les Savy Fav. Thinking back on it, I can’t believe (A) this existed, and (B) I got to see it.
Of course, nothing this awesome can last in New York for too long. David Cross’s role on Arrested Development began to take up the bulk of his time, and Tinkle petered off without him. But it would return on occasion to do special events, like a Comedians of Kerry fundraiser in 2004. (Didn’t do Kerry much good, but I did get to see Cross and Benjamin duet on The Doobie Brother’s “Black Water.”)
About a year later, Tinkle briefly resurfaced to do a benefit show for a preservationist group in Woodstock. I have no idea how or why Tinkle became associated with this group. But I figured, since Woodstock was drivable from my mom’s house, I could go up for the weekend and check it out.
The good thing about Woodstock is that, unlike Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, it hasn’t been turned into a tourist trap or a theme park. It’s still very quaint, very small town-y, full of little artsy craftsy stuff, without even a Ben and Jerry’s to taint its purity.
The bad thing is the reason it’s like this is because Woodstock is full of old hippies. It’s always been full of old hippies, even before hippies existed. And not fun-loving, “hey, whatever, man” Deadhead hippies, either. I mean extremely serious, uptight, honor roll hippies. People who fail to see what’s funny about anything.
In other words, there’s pretty much no place worse that David Cross et al. could have done their show.
The event took place in a local community theatre that, from the outside, almost looked like a barn. The inside was rather large and well furnished, though, with “orchestra seats” and a balcony about 10 feet above the rest of the theater, at the back but not too far from the action. I was seated in this balcony level, which gave me a good view of what transpired, and the crowd’s reaction thereto.
Taking a look at the assembled audience, I saw a few folks in my relative age bracket. By and large, however, it was made up of locals, and skewed strongly toward 50 and up (no offense, 50 and uppers; I’ll be joining you soon enough). The stage itself was really wide and really deep–far too large for standup comedy. Before the curtain even rose, it was clear this would not go well.
I recall some short films by Variety Shac, and sets by a few of their members, all of which went over like a lead balloon. The stony silence of the audience was so intimidating, every time I laughed, I felt the impulse to cut myself short or cover my own mouth. I remember Chelsea Peretti being pretty funny (she did a spot-on impression of Bjork giving a weather report), but the room was blanketed with this fog of disapproval. The crowd was not equipped to see young women perform comedy, or perform anything other than Joan Baez songs.
The weird thing is that, for the early portion of the show, nobody got up and left. Nobody was offended, they were just sternly disapproving.
Then, David Cross came to the stage and gave a typically Cross-ian performance. That is to say, a mixture of absurdism and righteous anger. But even his rage at the Bush administration did not track with this crowd, and an attempt to point out the disturbing racial implications of the recent Curious George movie just baffled them.
It was excruciating to watch someone that talented and funny fail so spectacularly–and not get booed, either. David Cross could probably work with hatred spewed his way, but seeing him slayed by a thousand unspoken tsk-tsks made my skin crawl.
At the end of his set–which couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes but felt like a week–he apologized. Jon Benjamin, he said, had to cancel and could not make it. But David and him had prepared a short film that he hoped we would enjoy.
A movie screen descended from the ceiling. The film showed David and Jon sitting in an office, their backs to each other, each typing away at a computer. Jon turned around sheepishly and began to speak. (I am totally paraphrasing from memory here).
JON: Hey Dave, you know that thing we have to go to this weekend? I don’t think I can go.
DAVID: What?! That’s this weekend! You can’t cancel now!
JON: Yeah, but I got so much stuff going on this weekend…
DAVID: We’ve known about this for months! This is for charity! You can’t just cancel on a charity even like that!
JON: It’s just…Look, I don’t wanna go to Woodstock, okay?
DAVID: You think I wanna go to Woodstock? I hate Woodstock! All those fucking craft stores! All those fucking stupid frogs everywhere! I hate them! But we said we’d do this bullshit thing and we have to do it!
Jon and David argued for another few minutes on film about how much they hated Woodstock, and about who never “backed up” whom on anything. I was completely slayed. Any inhibitions I had about laughing were completely gone. I was howling, one of not too many in the audience doing so. In fact, apart from my brother and my soon-to-be wife, I don’t know if anyone else was laughing. I didn’t care.
So after five solid minutes of shitting all over the town of Woodstock, the movie ended, and suddenly Jon Benjamin jumped from the backstage area, as if nothing at all had happened. “ALRIGHT WOODSTOCK, ARE YOU READY TO LAUGH?!” he bellowed, and tried to pump up the crowd, which was now on the verge of open hostility.
Then, the movie screen lit up, with the image of a peeved David Cross. “Jon, where are you?” he said (again, paraphrasing here. “I thought you weren’t coming, so I went to the train station!” Jon said he felt bad about not being able to make it and decided to come anyway. “You couldn’t tell me this sooner?” David screamed. They proceeded to argue about who had worse communication skills, until the screen went blank. Jon looked crestfallen and ran off the stage.
A moment later, David returned. “Has anyone seen my little friend Jon? He’s bearded, about yea-high?” The screen flickered to life again, this time with Jon looking angry. “David, what are you doing? I came here to the train station to find you!” They proceeded to have the same exact argument again, only in reverse, at the conclusion of which David ran off in a huff.
Once he did, Jon came back to the stage to find David, who himself reappeared in video form. “Jon, you just spent the last few minutes yelling at me for not being at the train station, and now you’re not here!” The ensuing argument got really heated, as if their friendship was coming to an end. (Hearing Jon Benjamin scream is awesome; his comedic anger is on par with John Cleese’s or Bob Odenkirk’s.)
Once David disappeared from the video, Jon wandered the stage in a complete stupor, wondering exactly what he had done wrong, and if there was any way he could get his friend back.
That’s when David came back to the stage. Jon and him locked eyes, and the strains of Bonnie Raitt’s “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” began–which both of them sang and danced to in its entirety. Not a small portion, or even half, but the entire god damn song.
They jumped off the stage and ran up and down the aisles, desperately trying to rope the wet blankets into the insanity. I think I did myself some serious internal damage laughing at this, but it was worth it.
I’ve seen funnier shows, but I don’t think I’ve seen such a glorious combination of extending a middle finger to your own audience, mind fuckery, and just plain silliness. A few years later, I saw Cross and Benjamin do something very similar at a Comedians of Comedy show, but this was in Manhattan, in front of an audience willing to follow them along. It was something else altogether to do it in front of a crowd that had no interest in laughing at anything.
That was the greatest comedy show I ever saw.