What to do beyond Jazz Fest for the rest

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Far from the madding crowds, there are plenty of options for those who aren’t terribly festival when it comes to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, or maybe not even the ancillary musical shows around the city over a two-week period.

And truth be told, it can often feel like Jazz Fest sucks the oxygen out of the cultural air even if New Orleans somehow continues to motor along outside the of the Fair Grounds. Not unlike Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest has its own rhythms, its own allure, its own vibe. And it’s not for everyone. There are other options.

“Jazz Fest is a premier music and cultural celebration in the City of New Orleans. Every year residents and visitors from across the world gather for two weekends of music, food, and fun,” said NORD CEO, Vic Richard. “What many don’t realize is there are lots of other fun things to do across our city, and NORD plays host to several family-friendly events.”

Other options have their own festive vibe.

“It may come as a surprise to some, but Jazz Fest is not the only place to enjoy great music and mouth-watering New Orleans food on the first Friday in May,’’ said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. “For four decades, Audubon has presented what’s now known as Whitney Zoo-To- Do on the picturesque grounds of Audubon Zoo. We like to call our black-tie fundraiser a party with a purpose because it has helped Audubon build and expand countless animal habitats and other Zoo projects over the years. And since the festivities don’t get going until 8 p.m., the young at heart can take in Jazz Fest and still have time to head on down to the Audubon Zoo for a little after-hours partying.’’

Here’s a little roundup to give you some ideas.

Zurich Golf Classic
April 23-29
TPC Louisiana, Avondale

The Zurich Classic is like Jazz Fest for golf fans; each of the 18 holes sets a stage for some of the best the PGA has to offer, most notably Masters champion Sergio Garcia and two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson. The tournament, in an attempt to boost attendance, agreed to create a two-man team format in 2017 and the results (beyond an attendance spike) included Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith taking the title in a playoff. The tournament also features an Executive Women’s Day, Celebrity Shootout, a Pro-Am, and a performance by Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters following the tournament’s conclusion on Sunday evening. Single-Day Grounds Pass: $35; Weekly Badge: $85.

International Jazz Day
April 26
Treme Rec Center

NORD sponsors this opportunity to connect with music and community in the heart of Tremé. There will be a jazz concert in celebration of International Jazz Day in the birthplace of jazz, which will include a special performance from New Orleans Jazz singer Charmaine Neville.

NORD’s Movies in the Park
“The Princess and the Frog”; April 27, Lafitte Greenway
“Ghostbusters”; May 4, Behrman Playground
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Bob Murrell on comedy, theater, music and putting it all together (Artist Statement)

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WHAT: Release party for “Hey, It’s Bob,” Bob Murrell’s new comedy album, which combines musical theater and stand-up comedy to delve into his transformation from an awkward kid to an awkward man.
WHEN: Friday, April 20 (album release); Saturday, April 21, 8 p.m. (album-release party)
WHERE: Hi-Ho Lounge (2239 St. Claude Avenue)
TICKETS: Free admission to the party
MORE INFO: Visit Bob Murrell’s website

WHAT: “Little Shop of Horrors”; directed by Gary Rucker; starring Bob Murrell, Sara Ebert, Earl Scioneaux, Bryce Slocumb, Christina Early, Nachelle Scott, Drew Johnson, and Bryan Williams and Scott Sauber as Audrey II
WHEN: May 4-May 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theater of the Performing Arts (325 Minor St., Kenner)
TICKETS: $36-$40
MORE INFO: Visit Rivertown Theaters’ tickets page

New Orleans performer Bob Murrell is a busy fellow, but finds himself maximizing all of his formidable skills over the next month with the release of his comedy album, “Hey, It’s Bob,” recorded at Rivertown Theaters, as well as the Rivertown Theaters’ mounting of the classic musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” For his “Artist Statement,” Murrell explains the challenges of putting all of his talent together to make it work onstage — regardless of the stage.

I’m getting my things together after a rehearsal for an upcoming production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The director is giving me some notes and tells me, “Don’t worry about accents or impressions; just be yourself. We need Seymour to be this shy, awkward guy.” I always knew I was shy and awkward, but I never thought that those personality traits would be sought after for a leading man in a musical. Instead, I always figured it was something to make fun of, which is why stand-up comedy has been the perfect place for me to laugh at my insecurities.

Musical theater is hard. It requires you to act, sing on pitch and, on occasion, dance some assigned choreography. I always felt a little out of place sharing the stage with amazingly talented artists who are way better at all of those things than me. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given opportunities to be silly on stage in costumes with amazing people, just singing my face off and dancing my butt off.

Stand-up comedy is hard. It requires you to continuously write, adapt to a crowd of strangers, and being put under constant criticism for your material being considered “funny” by people’s individual tastes. I always felt a little out of place doing shows with confident comedians who can talk about anything, sometimes without even writing down what they’re saying. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given opportunities to be silly on stage at casinos, coffee houses, bars, backyards, and basements around the country, just making fun of how dumb and awkward I am sometimes.

Stand-up and musical theater have been this competing duality in my life since 2009. On the one hand, New Orleans has a thriving local comedy scene, with opportunities to perform stand-up every day of the week. On the other hand, New Orleans has a great local theater scene, with opportunities to perform interesting theater in cool spaces like art galleries, historic homes or beautiful proscenium theaters. The problem? Doing a play or musical means sacrificing nearly two months of gigs during the week to rehearse your shows. This is the part where someone would post the GIF of the little girl from the taco shell commercial saying, “Why not both?”

I had a few comedy song ideas spoofing specific genres — bounce, hip-hop, country, rock, even kid-pop. The problem was trying to incorporate it with my stand-up material, because there wasn’t any cohesive thread or narrative. Then it clicked after seeing a musical with my wife — write it like a musical, ya jackass. Musicals aren’t just about the music or choreography. It’s about having the songs advance the character development — the character has so much to say that they can’t even say it; they sing it. What was missing wasn’t the thread; it was the character development (and a lack of ability to actually compose music). I started piecing together all these jokes that I’ve written and performed over the years and realizing I was telling the story of me (how conceited!), specifically about how awkward and dumb I am, combined with these songs that elevate the absurdity of white appropriation or telling your friends to “drive safe” after drinking at bars.

I didn’t know what journey I was going to go on nearly a decade ago when I started dating my wife, who suggested I try doing stand-up or audition with her for “Damn Yankees.” Perhaps embracing the man that she fell in love with is how you make great comedy and theater — just be yourself.

They need you to be this shy, awkward guy.

5 (hilarious!) questions for Paul Oswell as “Local Uproar” launches into 2017

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INFO:
“LOCAL UPROAR”
WHAT:
Weekly stand-up comedy show from Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman, with New Orleans and touring comics
WHEN: Saturdays (8 p.m.)
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
ADMISSION: Free
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

Over the past decade or so, the comedy scene in New Orleans has enjoyed an amazing growth spurt that might be tracking in line with scenes in other U.S. cities, and the breadth and depth of it can be pretty amazing. On a lark I finally took the chance to sample another one of these: “Local Uproar,” which Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman co-produce for the AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue.

The 2017 debut show on Saturday (Jan. 7) featured a mix of local and touring comics, and a mix in performances as well. Approaches ranged from the absurd (New York City’s Gina Ginsberg) and sardonic (New Orleans’ Alex Luchun) to the subtly subversive (New Orleans’ DC Paul and the hilariously observational (headliner James Hamilton of New York City). (It should be noted DC Pauls’ mother was in the house, and didn’t act too embarrassed by the material.) Oswell hosts the show, deftly dropping in jokes in between sets and keeping the show moving, and Hoffman popped up for a set marked by a likable stoner vibe.

If the show weren’t free (and with free treats from sponsor New Orleans Ice Cream Company, as well as free red beans), you’d think it was still a bargain at most prices. But the goal of the show is to get people into the bar, and while the evening started out modestly enough, by the end, the place was packed — partly because of the popularity of this show and probably from the one following.

Regardless, the 2017 debut offered the opportunity to get Paul Oswell to review the show’s brief history and success, set against the backdrop of a continually growing New Orleans comedy scene.

How’d you get started in comedy, and, by extension, how did “Local Uproar” get started? (Especially against the backdrop of this growing comedy scene.)
I’d been doing long-form one-man shows for the New Orleans Fringe for three years, and someone suggested stand up and I tried to transfer my material and I was pretty awful. I didn’t go up much in the beginning (2014), but the only way to improve is to go up a lot, so I thought a start would be to run an open mic — I always remember some solid advice from Bella Blue: “If you’re not getting booked, produce the show yourself.” Anyway, I looked at what nights didn’t have a show (Saturdays) and what venues had regular slots and would be natural for comedy (The Allways). We started in May 2015. I co-hosted with my friend Tory Gordon and when she moved away after a couple of months, Benjamin Hoffman came on board.

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Benjamin Hoffman

It was OK — we had patchy attendance and for open mics, you have to stand by the fact that anyone can go up, so quality was inconsistent. At some point, I thought, this is people’s Saturday night, they (and I) don’t want to sit through very bad comedy, so let’s make it a booked show so we know what we’re putting out. One bad comic can drain the energy for the good comic following them, or people will just leave, so let’s avoid that. We did that about a year or so ago, and we haven’t looked back.

Crowds grew, bigger comedians asked if they could do sets, and now we have bigger names swinging by — they love the venue, and we have a packed, engaged room most Saturday nights, I’d say.

So it’s been an evolving thing, much like the scene itself. Talk about that. In your mind, how and why has New Orleans’ comedy scene become to vibrant and spread out over the past several years? Is this another post-Katrina phenomenon?
People like Leon Blanda and the Henehan brothers (Cassidy and Mickey) have been running comedy shows longer than I’ve lived here — I can’t speak to the early days as I wasn’t there, but the Henehans were there post-Katrina and Leon a couple of years later as I understand it. They laid the foundations and were there to give mic time to people like Mark Normand and Sean Patton. When I started out, the second wave was already in effect, with people like Andrew Polk and Joe Cardosi bringing people from outside New Orleans — touring comics from New York City and Los Angeles — into the scene.

Suddenly Hannibal Buress and Louis CK are dropping into New Orleans mics — and we’re still (to this day) talking about bar shows. There’s no comedy club here in the traditional sense. So I was lucky that other people had done the hard work, and me and Benjamin just kind of slotted in, did our thing and hoped we added to the variety.

A year after “Local Uproar” on Saturdays, we started “Night Church” at Sidney’s Saloon on Thursday nights — another booked show, smaller venue, lower key.

Mark Normand and Sean Patton — local comics who have gone onto great things, just for reference.

How do you book your talent? Just fielding applications on Facebook, or what? And, what do you look for in the talent, and how has your eye/ear for talent improved since starting this?
Our shows are a mix. Firstly, we have trusted locals who go up all the time and are solid comics, week in week out. We have a rotating headlining system, so at some point they can all go up and do longer sets (15-plus minutes). Secondly, we have visiting comics (either touring or on vacation) who come and ask us to go up as they’ve heard good things about us — we’re always open to visiting comics as it gives our shows variety and the regular audience members like that a lot. If they’re bigger names in town for other reasons (Tiffany Haddish springs to mind), we’ll let them headline and promo it. If they’re bigger name touring comics, we’ll think about making it a ticketed show — we’d rather have it be free and give all the tips to comics, but at some level pro comics need a guarantee and if that’s the way we can bring people to New Orleans, that’s how we’ll do it. Benjamin is a much bigger comedy nerd than me (especially for younger US comics) so I take his recommendations mainly. A few weeks ago he bought in Hari Kondabolu who I wasn’t aware of previously and that guy sold out two shows on a Sunday. So Benjamin has a better instinct than me!

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DC Paul

Last year we also bought in Joe DeRosa and, Shane Mauss and Billy Wayne Davis for ticketed shows. Sometimes they’re just in town on vacation and they approach us, or if they’re touring and passing through, say, Lafayette, their agents will approach us about adding a date. This year, we have Emo Phillips coming in (in June) And I couldn’t be more excited. We don’t earn much money doing this — we try and cover our marketing costs and pay the comics what little we can (a free show depends on bar splits and tips — we may get $100 on a good night total). This is very important: our great sponsors, New Orleans Ice Cream Company — make it easier for us. They not only sponsor us but they also provide ice cream, which we give away at every show — a big draw for us and we’d have less people without them.

When you’re not hosting and performing, where do you like to go for your yucks?
My favorite shows are many: weekly shows include “Comedy Beast” at The Howlin’ Wolf, “Comedy F*ck Yeah” at Dragon’s Den, “Bear With Me” at Twelve Mile Limit, “Comedy Catastrophe” at the Lost Love Lounge.

Some great monthly shows: “The Rip Off Show” at the Hi-Ho Lounge, “I’m Listening” at the VooDoo Lounge, “Stoked” The at Howlin’ Wolf.

There are so many now, I created a website for listings and occasional news: www.nocomedy.com.

I’m still trying to figure out how comedy became a “thing” in New Orleans. Was it just a matter of a few folks you mentioned previously lighting the fuse? It reminds me of the burlesque renaissance, which obviously is different and had been doing OK for several years (let’s say 1996-2005) but got really big after Katrina.

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James Hamilton

I mean, I’d imagine that stand up comedy has grown in every city, but the scene in New Orleans and the respect it gets from very good professional comics, is down to those people I mentioned — not only lighting the fuse, but making sure it stays lit. Stand-up comedy production is a grind — you have to be there week in week out whether it’s a crowd of two people (and we’ve done shows like that) or a full room. Stand-up comedy is showing up, it’s providing a regular spot and doing it in as professional a way as you can to make sure that the audience and the performers have a good time.

The Henehans and Blanda and Polk all worked the coal face, committed themselves to creating a scene with weekly booked shows and open mics, performing and producing even to five people on a rainy Wednesday, and I hope we’re part of the growing scene. They had people like Louis CK and Doug Stanhope and Bill Burr drop in — in the last few weeks we’ve had Sasheer Zamata (from “SNL”) and Hannibal Buress just swing by and do time at our shows, and I think it speaks well of the local scene, and to the people that put in the real work creating it. I feel like Benjamin and I are part of its maintenance, and hopefully part of its further growth. A real change would be for someone to open a downtown comedy club and it would be a risk but it’s a wide-open niche right now.

What’s the rush for you as a comic? What do you dig about it?
It’s an immediacy thing. Instant validation — laughter (or no laughter) is an immediate assessment of your material AND how you’re presenting it. It’s a challenge to match the material chosen and the way you present it to match the room you’re up at. I like that a lot. That said, I know my limitations as a comic and I’m not even top 20 in New Orleans. I’m OK with that, and though I do like the very clear ways in which I’m so much better than I was in 2014, I also think I’m better as a producer and host and that’s more my comfort zone. But I love being around very funny and talented people two or three nights a week and the mutual support our small scene affords itself. There are very few ego-driven spats, people are broadly happy when anyone advances their careers.

Katie East on teaming up with Caitlin Brodnick to laugh at cancer in “Victory for T&A!”

katie-caitlinINFO:
VICTORY FOR T&A: From the Women of Sick Girl of Screw You Cancer
WHAT: In this show of two comedians, New Orleans’ Katie East (Sick Girl) and New York’s Caitlin Brodnick (Screw You Cancer) put a humorous spin on their respective battles with illness
WHEN: Sat. (Nov. 19), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Nov. 20), 2 p.m.
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
TICKETS: $20
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

As a decidedly defiant dynamic duo, New Orleans’ Katie East and New York City’s Caitlin Brodnick have decided not to take their respective battles with cancer sitting down. In fact, they have no problem name-checking the sources of their illness in their comedy show “Victory for T&A.” Faced with a history in her family of breast cancer, Brodnick boldly decided to opt for a preventative double mastectomy in her 20s — and even had Glamour document the experience on a web series, “Screw You Cancer.”

East has been beset by a range of illnesses and more hardship, including bad surgical experiences and the discovery of cancer in her buttocks — hence the “T&A” of the title. And so she has turned her experiences into what she’s calling a “Coney Island-style freak show.” Here East discusses the show and their shared experiences before Saturday’s opening (Nov. 19).

(NOTE: East and Broadnick will discuss their show as part of a health-care themed episode of “PopSmart NOLA” on Saturday, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., at WHIV (102.3 FM). You also can stream the show live

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at http://www.whivfm.org.

Trace as best you can your health issues — when they started, what they were, and how they progressed over the years?
I’ve had so many! When I was 7, I had a severe kidney infection and ended up in the hospital for a week. I was so dehydrated they couldn’t get an IV started. It took like thirtysomething tries over 24 hours. I had four major concussions before I was 10, which led to scar tissue in my frontal lobe. (Maybe why I’m a comic? No filter). I broke my pelvis in middle school while doing a split. In high school, I had a urethral diverticulum that they said was so large it was only “commonly seen in men over the age of 80.” When I was 20, I got malignant melanoma on my butt, a place never seen by the sun. And two years ago they found a non-malignant tumor on my liver.

It sounds like “getting sick” was only one part of the problem, that you not only suffered from unusual illnesses but also that medical care either failed to help or sometimes exacerbated the situation. How frustrating was this?
A lot of people think doctors are gods. I have had some terrible doctors and I have had some amazing doctors. They are all people, though; they make mistakes. I’ve almost died from some of those mistakes, but I don’t shun the entire profession. My Mom and I have learned that you have to actively do your research. In the end, you’re in charge of your own health, and the doctor’s word is just an opinion. Get many. Finding a good doctor is like dating — shop around and don’t get jaded because there are a lot of terrible ones out there. Yes, it’s expensive; yes, it’s infuriating; and yes, it feels like it should be easier. But, it’s your life, and you have to work for your health.

Where are you now with your health issues? What’s your health status, and where do you see your health moving forward?
It’s all about balance. I hate to sound like Gwyneth Paltrow, but it’s what I strive toward and also struggle with. For the rest of my life, I will have to go to several specialists a year just to make sure I’m healthy. I have come to terms with the fact that doctors are not focused on my wellness. Their job is to make me better when I am sick, by any means necessary. I have to be the one to care about the side effects and keeping myself healthy and my future. Nutrition and mental health and physical activity are all things I focus on and will honestly never listen to a doctor’s opinion on the matter (except maybe mental health, if necessary). I listen to my body and I know what I’m supposed to be doing and when I’m off course.

What inspired you to not only turn this ongoing physical hell into a comedy/cabaret act, and especially with a “freak-show” approach?
In LSU Theatre, we had to do an “auto drama,” which was basically an autobiographical theatrical piece on something important in our lives. I did mine on having cancer just six months after I was diagnosed and a month after I finished treatment. It was a mess. It was so fresh and I was still so traumatized. I’ve worked 11 years to make that mess into a comedy. That’s how I deal with things. I use humor. For years I didn’t talk about having cancer because I hated making people feel uncomfortable or having people feel sorry for me. Now, I talk about it all the time. A lot of my friends kind of abandoned me through the process because it’s just a bummer when a 20-year-old has cancer. A lot of people couldn’t deal with it. I don’t want medical issues to have a stigma or sadness attached to it. I think now I can talk about it in a way that is matter of fact and hopefully will help other people to not run from friends who are dealing with illness.

The freak show idea came about because I think the hardest part for me dealing with my specific illnesses is that they were always bizarre. Doctors had “never seen anything like it” almost every time something happened to me. I have always felt like a freak, even though I look normal to most people. The message of this show is, we are all freaks, even if you can’t always tell at first glance.

How did you meet and collaborate with Caitlin and what was the main strategy to make something so serious so funny?
I met Caitlin in a one-person show class that Becky Drysdale taught in New York City. I already knew I wanted my show to be a freak show, but Caitlin was still trying to find her material. I remember thinking she was the most offbeat comic I ever met. She was so positive and sweet. I would have described her as a sprite of a woman at the time. A couple of years later she was diagnosed with the BRCA gene and she had a docu-series that followed her process of having a preventative double mastectomy. I have a stand-up joke that I hate when people call me brave for having cancer; I didn’t choose to have it. Caitlin chose to confront cancer before it could take her life. I think that’s insanely brave. I don’t think I could have made that choice.

Caitlin has toured around the world speaking about her experience with BRCA, and since she’s a comedian she made it naturally funny. She is a great storyteller. Her smile is infectious and she never puts anyone down to make the joke. When she was here for Hell Yes Fest last year and we were hanging out I convinced her to put together her stories about the experience and make it a show. This is the first time she will be performing it as a full one-person show. We are hoping we’ll be able to bring this to other theaters around the country.

Hail Cecile Monteyne, the queen of comedy in New Orleans

Cecile Monteyne in "You Don't Know the Half of It." (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

Cecile Monteyne in “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

When I was asked at NOLA.com for ideas for possible 15 entertainers to watch for 2015, one name sprang to mind. It was pretty much a no-brainer: Cecile Monteyne. Actress, comedian, producer — she was becoming a major presence on the New Orleans entertainment scene, especially with her work with The NOLA Project and in the comedy world with machine A and especially her seasonal “You Don’t Know the Half of It” improv sketch show. I reviewed the show’s October 2015 show here.

(But first, an aside: There was another NOLA Project figure who, in hindsight, should’ve been considered. A.J. Allegra, The NOLA Project’s artistic director, is seemingly everywhere in New Orleans, acting and directing with the troupe, teaching theater to kids, and even appearing with the LPO. He is very much someone to watch.)

Monteyne and the “You Don’t Know the Half of It” crew marks four years on Sunday (Jan. 17) with a special show at Le Petit, and I profiled that in the New Orleans Advocate. And what I tried to drive home in the piece is how Monteyne — clearly a special talent and presence — often is at her best when trying to make everyone else look good:

When someone’s having a good night, it’s partly because you’re helping them have a good night,” the Tulane grad said. “It helps to work with other funny people or other straight people who can play that cold fish who doesn’t have to respond. I think comedy is at its best when everybody is working together to make one another look funny.

Her 2015 was as good as promised, highlighted by being named the Big Easy Entertainment Awards’ entertainer of the year. (She’d received acting nominations for performances in a drama and a comedy.) And later she delivered what will for sure be another nominated performance in The NOLA Project’s “Marie Antoinette.”

What’s really cool about Monteyne these days is the production she recently wrapped with her brother Jules Monteyne on “One Night Stand Off,” a romantic comedy in directed and co-written by Jules and Cecile, and starring opposite Ian Hoch. I hope to have a lot more about that in the coming days. But until then, go to Le Petit on Sunday and see what all the fuss is about.

Virginia’s Harem: Go West, young women, to SF Sketchfest (and be funny)

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UPDATE: Check out my feature of Cecile Monteyne in the New Orleans Advocate, which includes comments from Emily Slazer.

One of the many delights about finally being able to check out Cecile Monteyne’s seasonal “You Don’t Know the Half of It” improv show (now at Cafe Istanbul) is to see the now-steady stream of young comic talent — often as a continuation of sorts with The New Movement. (Monteyne is an alumnae.)

I’ll be previewing “You Don’t Know the Half of It” in a few days in the New Orleans Advocate in advance of the four-year anniversary show Jan. 17, at Le Petit, and in the process of researching story stumbled upon the work a few of her regulars are doing in the start-up sketch troupe Virginia’s Harem — most notably Emily Slazer and Valerie Boucvalt, who performed in the fall show, my first.

Seems the group landed a hard-to-land “showcase” spot at the prestigious SF Sketchfest in San Francisco this weekend — this, after forming just about a year ago. Along with several of the top sketch troupes in the nation, SF Sketchfest will serve host to several famous comedians, including Billy Crystal and Patton Oswalt as well as a reunion of “Waiting for Guffman” cast members and a tribute to “Funny or Die.”

Not bad.

“It’s really exciting,” said Slazer, a 26-year-old Slidell native who’s only been performing locally for about two years after graduating first from Centenary College in Shreveport and then The New Movement. “It is pretty prestigious for such a young group to get a showcase spot. There will be a mix of smaller groups like us and much bigger, nationally recognized comedians ,which will be a special experience for us to see what their comedy is like and what we can learn from it.

“We’re really lucky to be going,” she continued. “This is the first time I’m touring to do comedy so I’m very excited. It feels like a little bit of a legitimacy thing. It sets it apart from being a casual hobby. I never feel I have to make money doing comedy to be fulfilled. But this is more than just your friends thinking you’re comedy.”

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Jonathan Greene and Valerie Boucvalt

Slazer and Boucvalt are reason enough to watch this troupe; I couldn’t keep from laughing at just about everything Slazer did at Cafe Istanbul, whether pretending to be in double arm casts and dropping bizarro Sam’s Club references to her partner (the actor with the script) or simply rolling her eyes. There’s almost a hint of Lena Dunham’s best moments; Slazer has the kind of intuitive comic timing that I imagine one gets either through good genes or lots of training. But she’s flat-out funny.

And yet she was basically scared shitless to take an improv class as a requirement while at Centenary, despite being in theater since she was 10 years old.

“I was terrified and went in kicking and screaming, and fell in love with it after take the class,” she said. “What really appeal to me early on … was the failure of it. Learning how to fail and to be OK with that. If you fail as an actor there are ramifications. But if you do at improv early on, there’s an indication that you’re trying. You’re making big choices. You’re gonna fail at first. You have to learn it.

“I felt this is really cool that I can take big chances and make big choices and fail and it’s OK. I’m a much more brave person in my whole life than when I started improvement. It’s a good life skill.”

Check out this more timely video (released Tuesday, Jan. 5, above), the sketch “Stripping Badges,” a collaboration between Virginia’s Harem (Slazer, Boucvalt, Alicia Hawkes, Margee Green, Erica Goostrey and Liz Beeson) and fellow New Orleans sketch group Stupid Time Machine. It’s about a drunken bachelorette party that gets horrifically sober thanks to some traumatized cops turned strippers (CJ Hunt, James Hamilton). I’ll say no more.

And here’s a link to a scene from this past October’s “You Don’t Know the Half of It,” featuring Slazer opposite Corinne Williams.

John Waters has become a New Orleans holiday tradition, you sickos

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 3.41.31 PMOne of the first shows I got to enjoy after returning to New Orleans was the one and only, the delightfully raunchy John Waters — the director, the humorist, the author, and the general trouble-maker. It was at the Civic Theatre, and as if to remind me how fun it was to enjoy him in New Orleans (after a delightful interview, my second counting one while at Gambit Weekly), I got seated next to someone I’d met on New Year’s Day, 2006, a few months before leaving for Atlanta. (Here’s my preview for that 2013 show.)

Waters returns to New Orleans and the Civic tonight (Thursday, Dec. 17) for his annual Christmas show, subtitled “Holier & Dirtier.” (Check out the Facebook event page for details.) His years living here in the pre-“Pink Flamingos” days are so etched in our memory that, after recounting that period for Gambit in 2010, he’s grown tired of recounting them in subsequent interviews. Which is not to say Waters is hesitant to show his love of New Orleans and its sometimes-seedy ways (the whole world knows his favorite bar is the Corner Pocket), and always gives his props (as he did in 2013) to New Orleans audiences:

They’ve always been appreciative. They ‘get it,.’ I don’t ever have to worry if people are going to get it in New Orleans. Even though you are a city that does not participate in the rest of America, which I give you kind of credit for. You’ve seceded. Culturally, you always kind of had your own kind of world there, and you decided what was good there. You were not influenced by the rest of America, which I always find kind of amazing.

After all these years, he still delights in shocking people’s sensibilities, as he did when discussing Christmas on the eve of the 2013 show:

I love Christmas. I celebrate it. But I want the war on Christmas, if it’s [celebrated] on government property. I am against that. However, I decorate my house. I want to go Christmas caroling with crack addicts. I always wanted to go with crack addicts so you could go ring the door bell and really scare people. I’m for Christmas, but it should not have anything to do with the state. I do celebrate it. I even mock all the traditions of it. I decorate an electric chair in my house.

I got a chance to interview him once again in March for his traditional “This Filthy World” show at the Joy (which I missed). The highlight from that interview came when I asked him what he thought about a certain cultural shift when “more and more people don’t get mad at what you’re doing?”

It’s because I’m not mean. I think people, when they come to see me, want me to take them into some world where they might get a little uncomfortable in but they’re not uncomfortable with me as their guide. I have a lot of parents bring as a last-ditch effort bring their angry children to see me together. That’s touching. I don’t know if it works. I don’t know if they go home and discuss what “Ultimate Nudity” was and bond. Before when I was young and people saw my movies, they’d call the police. Things have changed but for the better, certainly.

And finally, enjoy one last New Orleans connection, however bizarrely:

 

‘You Don’t Know the Half of It’ fills in the comedy holes at Cafe Istanbul

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“You Don’t Know the Half of it,” created and produced by Cecile Monteyne, continued its seasonal run at a packed Cafe Istanbul on Sunday (Oct. 18) night, and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. As baffling as it is hilarious, “Half of It” revels in the confusion and chaos of improv comedy made even more confusing by the structure.

As Monteyne, fresh off her critically praised turn in The NOLA Project‘s “Marie Antoinette” explained to the audience, performers are divided into duets with writers providing one of them a makeshift script and the other one forced to play off the written lines with moments of their own. (The stories themselves are divided into two parts, with a different duet assigned to the second “act.”) Too often, gratefully, those improvised moments steer a little too far from the apparent story, and it can take a few leaps for the clued-out performer to get back to the story.

So at any given moment one performer is trying to keep up while the other (hopefully) is trying to help them stay on target. It’s almost impossible not to break character in these moments, and when the do the crowd eats it up.

The writers for this particular evening were Laney Bedford, Breanna Biets, Tucker Keatley and Randy Walker. The actors: Jonathan Greene, Lyndsay Kimball, Eli Timm and Corinne Williams. The improvisers: Valerie Boucvalt, Christopher Kaminstein, Emily Slazer and Mike Yoder. The You Don’t Know house band featured Sam Craft, Alexis Marceneaux, Marc Paradis and Amanda Wuerstlin serving up song parodies tied to each sketch.

If “You Don’t Know the Half of It” does nothing else, it proves just how complicated and difficult improv comedy can be. For those raised on the craziness of TV’s “Whose Line Is it Anyway?”, it’s easy to take it for granted. But watching these performers work both with and against the script provides a new-found appreciation for the craft. That’s why Emily Slazer in particular was such a joy to watch, happily tossing out (and coming back to) such loony culture references as shopping at Sam’s Club to keep up with her partner (Corinne Williams). Christopher Kaminstein was another highlight, working a kind of stoner charm in one sketch and contorting an almost rubbery face in another for laughs. (At times it felt like his partner was one trying to keep up.)

“You Don’t Know the Half of It” will celebrate its fourth anniversary Jan. 17, 2016, at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. Learn more about the show by following them on Twitter (@thehalfofit) and at Facebook.com/thehalfofit.