Beth Lapides (with music director-producer Mitch Kaplan) is the founder and ringmaster at UnCabaret, a Los Angeles comedy institution that's marking its 25th anniversary this year.
A lot of the stand-up comedy that gets done in Los Angeles is really just comics auditioning for parts in TV or movies.
Not at UnCabaret: For 25 years, it's been a place to hear unvarnished, rough-edged ideas being tried out — mostly for the first and possibly only time.
Michael Patrick King, co-creator of the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, has worked out some issues there. So has comic, actor and Twitter titan Patton Oswalt, who took the stage to tell a tale about a date that changed his life. The confession "I took her to see a movie in a graveyard" was just part of the setup.
Judd Apatow, Julia Sweeney, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne Barr and many others have taken turns behind the mic at UnCabaret, a singular place that's the brainchild of a woman named Beth Lapides, who started out as a boundary-pushing performance artist.
"And I had sort of a spiritual awakening, where I thought, 'I could do exactly what I do, but make it funny,' " Lapides says. "And being funny is a higher calling. It's a higher purpose."
She left the avant-garde stage for comedy clubs. And while she loved getting laughs there, traditional comedy clubs had a downside. To Lapides, they seemed painfully retro, even at the time.
"I was shocked that people were doing jokes about how men and women are different," she says. "I was shocked that people were doing shticky stuff that just seemed so old-fashioned to me — there's no other way of saying it."
So she created her own comedy club, one that operated without the old rules. It brought in funny people from the huge Hollywood talent pool — some of whom had day jobs writing for movies and TV — and freed them to talk about things in their own lives.
Lapides tells her performers to reveal things they'd share with a close friend. And she has another instruction, as well:
"When you get onstage, do the material that, if you don't do it, your head is going to explode," she says.
Comedian and actress Margaret Cho is among the big-name performers who've taken a turn onstage at UnCabaret, where those who come to the stage are encouraged to try out material that might never make it on the comedy circuit or on TV.
Comedian and actress Margaret Cho is among the big-name performers who've taken a turn onstage at UnCabaret, where those who come to the stage are encouraged to try out material that might never make it on the comedy circuit or on TV. UnCabaret
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Margaret Cho told stories about her grandfather, the minister of a Korean Christian congregation who had a habit of praying ostentatiously — and, to Cho, embarrassingly — at restaurants.
Writer-director Larry Charles turned in an UnCabaret horror tale from his professional life. A veteran of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he also directed one hit movie — Borat — and another one that, well, didn't do as well.
"I made this movie with Bob Dylan called Masked and Anonymous. It's gotten some very interesting reactions. Variety called it 'the height of masturbatory hubris.' The headline was 'Bombs Away.' I got a lot of that kind of stuff."
Painful experiences plus time — well, that's what comedy is.
To be clear, UnCabaret is not tailored to everyone's taste. Stories can drag on way too long; jokes can be few or obscure. And at times you can be baffled as to whether you're supposed to laugh at all. An example, this one from writer and sometime public radio contributor Tig Notaro:
"I know it might seem a little weird to just, right out of the gate, start out with a punch line. But my mother died. Tragically. Thank you so much for coming out. You guys were a great audience."
Cue the uncomfortable giggles. But after a quarter century, audiences still come to gamble that they'll be rewarded at UnCabaret. And now, if you can't make it to L.A., you can watch UnCabaret online; Amazon has picked it up for distribution as part of its move to compete with Hulu, Netflix and other streaming-video providers.