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Seriously funny

A trio of comics mine the dark side for laughs.

By Jane Borden


Mike Bribiglia

Photograph: Seth Olenick

Comedian Patrice Oneal isn’t laughing as he tells the story of his near-death experience due to diabetes; he sits alone on a dark stage. Diagnosed at age 22, he ignored medical advice and pushed his condition aside. He pauses before remembering the sage words from a girlfriend during sex—the words that finally drove him to go to the hospital and change his life: “Baby, your pee tastes like birthday cake.”

This fall, three veteran stand-ups leave their yuk-filled comedy-club sets behind for the serious, self-exploratory Off Broadway solo show—with thematic arcs and everything. Tom Shillue showcases Supernormal at Joe’s Pub September 7. Oneal’s Positivity debuts as part of the New York Comedy Festival in November. And Mike Birbiglia launches Sleepwalk with Me at the Bleecker Street Theatre November 11. Make no mistake, though: These pieces are all funny.


Tom Shillue

Photograph: Seth Olenick

Birbiglia, 30, peppers an intricately crafted monologue—about heartbreak, his father and one very disturbing sleep disorder—with the trademark witticisms that have already made him a commercial hit. Although the comic has released three albums, had three Comedy Central specials and national tours, he says, “I’ve never been involved in something as financially risky as doing a show Off Broadway. It’s a tough sell when you’re successful at something already to say, ‘No, I’m gonna do this other thing now.’ ” Happily, his crossover is coproduced by Nathan Lane, who contacted the comic after stumbling into a workshop of Sleepwalk at Carolines earlier this year.

Attaching a Broadway star to the show can’t stem the emotional risks, though. The airing of dirty laundry inherent in a serious work of autobiography can be terrifying to the kind of performer—e.g. a comedian—who thrives on affirmation. Oneal has never been afraid of alienating audiences. “You have to border on asshole, ’cause it splits the audience,” the 38-year-old says. “It creates an emotional charge between them.” His forceful performances have been a staple on the club circuit for 16 years and earned him three cable specials. Positivity, which he describes as “a preface to my jokes,” pulls back the screen of his act, which has been called racist, homophobic and misogynist. “I’ll do a joke and then clarify where the joke came from,” he says. Throughout the free-form piece, Oneal touches on his weight issues and on the pressures he felt from his black peers—he never learned to type in high school because it was considered “gay” or, the biggest insult, “white.”


Patrice Oneal

Photograph: Dandion.com

Shillue, on the other hand, strives to explain exactly how Caucasian he is. Supernormal, “a memoir on its feet,” as Shillue describes it, is the 42-year-old’s look at his conservative, Catholic, Massachusetts upbringing through the lens of classic storytelling. The tales—about sledding, the prom, Thanksgiving with the family—are charming, heartwarming and delivered with vivid details. Many carry a darker undercurrent; a piece about bringing a toy to scout camp becomes a metaphor for the inescapable cycle of masculine hostility.

The yarns, although laugh-out-loud funny, are a far cry from Shillue’s club act. But arty comedy isn’t new to Shillue. For eight years, he’s been leading a double life: telling tame, shiny jokes in mainstream clubs, on tours, specials and albums, and then sneaking to downtown rooms to share stories from his life. Supernormal is the first time he’s strung them into a cohesive whole, but the process began at Moonwork, a popular downtown showcase. “The same people would come back every month,” he recalls. “So I had to have new material. I just started talking about my family—and they liked it more than the stand-up! It’s so much more satisfying than getting a laugh off one finely crafted joke. But I think a lot of other comics feel the opposite.” Here’s hoping he’s wrong—at least until we get sick of all this emotional nakedness and beg comics to hide behind a string of zingers once again.

Shillue showcases Supernormal at Joe’s Pub Sept 7. Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me starts previews at the Bleecker Street Theatre Oct 17. Oneal’s Positivity is at the Zipper Theater in November.

NEXT: Mock star Fancy a typical comedy festival? Go someplace else.»

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Mock star

Fancy a typical comedy festival? Go someplace else.

By Jane Borden


Eugene Mirman is a slave to peer pressure. “Somebody was talking about some comedy festival after a show one night,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘I’m going to do my own.’ ” He was kidding, of course. But his friend responded, “No—seriously—you should do that.” Warming to the idea, Mirman considered creating a collective to join him. The friend pushed, “No, no: It’s funnier if it’s just you.” The result is the tongue-in-cheek, eye-winking Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, produced by Mirman and Julie Smith, slated for September 25–28 at Union Hall and other venues in Park Slope. The program mocks stereotypical fest staples while, at the same time, featuring first-rate talent. It’s an ironic joke that takes itself seriously—and you thought that wasn’t possible.

The staple
The top-billed, live-TV-show anchor

Mirman’s version
Jason and Randy Sklar, with Zach Galifianakis, talk about and screen clips from their short-lived but critically acclaimed 1997 MTV series on Apartment 2F reunion.


The staple
The roundtable panel


Mirman’s version
Instead of the usual collection of scribes from a late-night talk show revealing what goes on in the writing room, Mirman’s “Interns of Comedy” discussion features comics recalling their early experiences as interns for Conan, Letterman, The Daily Show, etc. And revealing how the stars like their coffee.

The staple
Ethnic-group-specific stand-up showcases

Mirman’s version
“One of Each” features the opposite: one comedian—and only one—from each race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.


The staple
Bloated, navel-gazing ceremonies

Mirman’s version
Mirman and crew concoct meaningless accolades and dole them out before the festival begins in the Opening Night Awards.


The staple
Status-endowing all-access industry pass

Mirman’s version
The usual VIP treatment gives talent agents and development execs access to roped-off seats and the cachet of displaying an expensive badge around their necks. Mirman’s Super Double-Diamond Package also hands out a laptop computer, a $500 gift certificate to Blue Ribbon, other sundry luxuries—and the chance to meet Eugene Mirman. All for only $10,000.

The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival runs Sept 25–28. Watch eugenemirman.com for info.

NEXT: Anything goes Ars Nova’s first festival defies definition.»

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Anything goes

Ars Nova’s first festival defies definition.

By Allison Williams


The A.N.T. Fest will be something you don’t see coming—literally. The event, hosted by the avant-garde Ars Nova theater, specifically showcases never-before-seen acts, culled from more than 200 comedy, theater and musical submissions. “The point of the festival is to be undefined,” says head of artistic development Emily Shooltz of the 30-night lineup. About a third is in some way comic, including nontraditional sketch performances and improv-rock-band shows. “There’s a sense of daring or irreverence,” Shooltz adds, explaining that each newcomer will command the stage for a single night. The format lends the festival a sense of urgency, a “blink and you’ll miss it, rapid-fire series of events,” she says.

Because Ars Nova specializes in undiscovered acts, some submissions consisted of little more than YouTube videos and MySpace pages. “It’s really hard for people to get that first foot in the door, especially for those who only have shows with their friends or perform in a bar,” Shooltz explains. “People need tools beyond what they have as artists if they’re going to make it on their own.” The festival is a prepackaged starter kit in the form of a 99-seat performance space, and comes with marketing and technical support for budding performers. And then there’s Ars Nova’s audience, who will scour the festival program descriptions, hungry for the next big singer-comedian or character-based stand-up. “Because these artists are really young, there’s a certain energy to it,” says Shooltz. “It doesn’t feel stale.”

A.N.T. Fest runs Oct 16–Nov 24 at Ars Nova, 511 W 54th St between Tenth and Eleventh Aves (212-868-4444, arsnovanyc.com).

NEXT: The odds »

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ODDS


Andrew Dice Clay

90%


That Katt Williams will make a joke about there being a pimp in Carnegie Hall (Nov 6).

0%


That Andrew Dice Clay’s act (Oct 3 and 4 at Capital One Bank Theatre, Long Island) is still controversial enough to cause a boycott.

50%


That Jamie Kennedy’s documentary Heckler (DVD out Sept 9) will make you feel bad for him. Same odds that you’ll heckle it.

80%


That Mitch Hedberg’s posthumous album, Do You Believe in Gosh? (Sept 9), will make you both sad and happy in equal measure.

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