“I love Gene Wilder,” Alyssa Stonoha tells me as she digs into her grilled cheese.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and I'm meeting Stonoha, Sandy Honig and Mitra Jouhari of Three Busy Debras for brunch at Waverly Restaurant to discuss their upcoming surprisingly glitz gig. “I didn’t realize just how much Willy Wonka touched me,” she continues, munching on a french fry.
“Oh no! Willy Wonka touched you?!” exclaims Honig as the three burst out into gasps and giggles.
It's quickly evident that the three comedians work (and play) seamlessly together, teeing jokes off, making sure they land and then taking them delightfully too far. This Thursday, they'll be taking those jokes all the way to a very unexpected place: Carnegie Hall.
The Debras—pulling a straight up Florence Foster Jenkins—are slated to perform at the storied venue on September 22, following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Sinatra and Pavarotti for crying out loud. After the American debut of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky upon the Hall’s opening in 1891, Andrew Carnegie was praised for Manhattan’s new musical and architectural gemstone; “a success at Carnegie Hall would be the litmus test of greatness,” reads a history blurb on the institution’s website.
That's quite an accomplishment for a group whose material includes jokes about stiff housewives enjoying bloody brunch and “fuckable” men paying for business cards in questionable ways—this is the kind of material the Debras have become known for poking fun at in just over a year. Go ahead, call them "dark," call them "offensive," but really: what's more resilient than three twenty-something chicks selling out Carnegie Hall to entertain the public for no profit?
So how in hell did three twenty-something comedians joking about semen and terrorism manage to snag a night at this iconic venue? They’re still doing double takes on that themselves.
“Early this year, we finished a 45-minute play we had done for a couple months, and we were kind of itching to do it again,” Stonoha says. “It’s getting harder and harder to put up a show at a place that has adequate tech and a good amount of seats. It’s either expensive, or you have to go through a bunch of people to let you do it.”
“I finally said ‘It’d be fuckin’ easier to get a show at Carnegie Hall,’” Stonoha says with a laugh. After some Googling, it turns out it was.
Getting a hold of a Carnegie Hall contact was the first hurdle. “We had been calling them and not leaving voicemails because that’s what you do when you’re born in ‘92 to ‘95,” Honig jokes. “Like, I would never leave a voicemail. I wouldn’t dare! How rude of me to direspect someone enough to make them listen to it! But I had to.”
Once they had a go-to guy (“Shout out to Joshua Reynolds!” the three chime into my iPhone as it records our interview), it was a matter of coming up with the rent. Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall’s 268-seater usually reserved for child piano prodigies and university chamber performances, would call for $7,500 to cover the room rental as well as insurance. A Kickstarter soon revealed just how dedicated the Debras’ “dare they say” fans (Stonoha, Honig and Jouhari never waver from using this disclaimer before dropping the “F” word) really were.
“I’m usually not a big fan of Kickstarters for indulgent, personal projects,” Honig explains. “People will ask for upwards of $20,000 to make a web series that you could make for $100,” adds Jouhari.
After making an ask-video as well as a page, the rest was left up to those “dare they say it” fans. Twenty-nine days and 305 donations later, they came up with $8,727. And the support did not stop there. The show will also feature Peter Smith and comedy scene pianist Henry Koperski. After some last-minute anxiety that the performance would be too racy for a stage more accustomed to classical music, their worries were quickly put to rest.
“We showed up kind of dressed up, trying to make ourselves look more professional, and I really don’t even think we had to do that,” Honig says. “It definitely gave a good vibe, but there were no questions asked about what we were specifically doing.”
So what are the Three Busy Debras specifically doing at Carnegie Hall on September 22? Their Carnegie Hall page bills the evening as a “musical journey.” That musical will roughly follow the journey of the three Debras after they've been murdered, as they try to figure out who the culprit is and how they can get into heaven. A number of the group's other characters will also be making appearances over the course of the evening. However, one character will sadly be absent from the proceedings.
“We actually tried to get Chewbacca Mom,” Honig reveals. “But after we emailed her manager, we realized she’s very religious.”
Comedy aside, the group does seem to be taking their upcoming engagement very seriously. Those who managed to snag a ticket to Thursday's performance (the show sold out the same day ticketing information went live on the Three Busy Debras’ website, but there is currently a wait list) are urged to wear “formal wear” so that the evening is a “gorgeous and elegant event worthy of Carnegie Hall.”
“We’re gonna bring a trunk full of suit jackets for all of our friends that show up in their ripped t-shirts,” says Honig.
I can’t exactly tell if she’s joking.