In a North Carolinian drawl, his eyes sparkling, Bobby Tisdale yelled “Yaaaayyyyy!” into the microphone. Mr. Tisdale must say “Yaaaayyyyy!” 15 times a night; it’s the “yay” of an overly zealous camp counselor.
Each week, Mr. Tisdale emcees “Invite Them Up,” an hour and a half of comedy at Rififi, an East Village watering hole where he and co-producer Eugene Mirman gather some of the brightest young minds in stand-up. Later in the evening, he would climb on empty chairs in the front row and demand, “What’s everyone going as for Halloween? A cat? With a tail and perfect tits?”
Less a staged show than an intimate evening with a party atmosphere where audience members are invited to have a drink with the comedians after the show, “Invite Them Up” has become known as a trove of undiscovered talent.
Like Mr. Tisdale, Mr. Mirman is part of the draw. Tall and sanguine and well-read, he has built a twentysomething fan base, evidenced by his tours with bands like the Shins and Yo La Tengo. One recent evening onstage, he told of seeing faded rock star and Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley at a bar, celebrating his daughter’s birthday: “She was wearing a tiara, and she was really drunk. And he was drunk too, and they were being very obnoxious. As they were leaving and getting into a limo, for some reason I yelled out, ‘Ace, don’t fuck your daughter!’”
Mr. Mirman can’t tell stories without giggling. Born in Russia, he moved with his parents to Lexington, Mass., in 1979: “I found out that during the Cold War, a lot of elementary-school kids were very suspicious of Russians.” He went to Amherst College, then moved to Prospect Heights. “I temped at a law firm for a while,” he said. “It was pretty terrible. Lots of secretaries were mean to me because I was only a half-secretary.” He started “Invite Them Up” in 2002 and asked Mr. Tisdale to join.
“When I was in seventh grade, I was at a Pizza Hut with my friends,” said Mr. Tisdale, “and I ripped up a bunch of napkins and I threw it up in the air and screamed out ‘Graffiti, graffiti!’—and I really meant to say, ‘Confetti, confetti!’ My friend Will laughed so hard he almost peed in his pants, and with a very redneck accent said, ‘Bobby, you’re a goddamn trip. You should be a comedian.’ And I knew from that day on that I was going to be a comedian, or just retarded.”
With the help of Friendster, word of mouth and some big-name guests like David Cross and Janeane Garofalo, the evenings took off; before long, Comedy Central put out a CD.
“Invite Them Up” is an outgrowth of the defunct Luna Lounge showcase “Eating It” that dominated the downtown comedy scene in the 90’s. Luna Lounge, some said, had become less experimental, and too much a showcase for “industry.”
“The thing about Luna was that they didn’t have a microphone. Luna was totally different,” said Mr. Tisdale. “It was lounge-y, very free-form. And then it started turning more into stand-up, but before that, it was very experimental and you were supposed to try something new. We definitely wanted our show to be like old Luna, but we want it to be better. Absolutely fucking better.”
On a recent night onstage, he introduced his roommate, an impish, smirking fellow named Craig Baldo, who has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. He said his grandmother, who knows that he is sometimes on TV, recently called him, thinking that he was on Celebrity Poker. “No, Grandma, that’s not me,” he cracked. “That’s Dave Navarro. He’s fucking Carmen Electra, Grandma.”
The highlight of the night was Demetri Martin, who often closes the show. He left Yale Law School in 1999 to do comedy; since then, he has written for Conan O’Brien, had his own special on Comedy Central, and is currently a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. With his self-described “gay Beatle” haircut, he delivered a string of one-liners while strumming a guitar:
“The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades—especially if your teammates are bad at guessing.”
“I feel like the theme in most theme parks is: ‘Stand in line, fatty.’”
“I want to make a video game where you have to take care of everyone who has been shot in all the other video games. What are you playing? Super Busy Hospital.”
“Next week I’m going to throw a surprise party for someone I don’t know. Because then it will really work.”
“An easy way to start a conversation is to say, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ An easy way to end a conversation is to say, ‘What’s you favorite color … person?’”
Mr. Martin said he sees “Invite Them Up” as a healthy alternative to mainstream comedy clubs: “It’s a model that you can hopefully extend, where you say, ‘This is not a comedy club. We’re not going to make you buy drinks. We’re not charging you a lot of money to come see us. You pay a small amount of money to get a really good show.’
“Unless you’re at a very high level,” he continued, “comedy clubs just pay you a flat fee, and they’re greedy and they take all the money. It’s so greedy, it’s disgusting.”
The following week, there was a sign on the door that read “Sorry, full to capacity.” Andy Blitz, solemn and nervous-looking, was onstage; he’s been nominated for six Emmys as a writer for Conan O’Brien. His set was seamless. “I’m on the CD,” he said. “Check out my joke about Rosa Parks that now seems incredibly inappropriate.”
On another night, a comic named Leo Allen was onstage. He looked like a tall, unshaven Harry Potter and spoke in a slow, deliberate baritone: “I stopped a guy in his car and asked him for directions, and he was like, ‘Sure, I know where that is—get in.’ Those aren’t directions. Those are directions to get buried in a field somewhere.”
He said he loves the audience at “Invite Them Up” and the freedom that the format encourages: “You’re not going to be fired from ‘Invite Them Up.’”
Todd Barry, a curmudgeonly comedy veteran of 18 years and somewhat of a mentor to this crowd, added, “There’s something very safe about doing a 10-minute set in front of a friendly audience.”
Meanwhile, Aziz Ansari, a short, wiry comic, was the night’s 22-year-old ingénue. He played the role of a somewhat cagey, but ultimately dorky, underdog. He hosts his own show, “Crash Test,” on Mondays at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and he’s playing a small role in a comedy directed by Todd Phillips, who directed the mega-hit Old School.
Lest one get lulled into thinking that “Invite Them Up” reflects the current state of stand-up in New York, on a random Monday night I stopped by Caroline’s On Broadway. Inside, a middle-aged comic was making jokes about Mapquest and her pot-smoking daughter. The other comedians did voices and imitations, told jokes about prime-time TV and shopping at Wal-Mart.
Miserable-looking waitresses scoured the floor, making sure the patrons had fulfilled their drink minimums. The floor manager paced behind my table like a pit boss.
Later that week, I stopped in at Rififi. After the show, comedians floated about the room, talking mostly to each other or their female fans.
A.D. Miles, who just inked a deal with Comedy Central, stood by the bar, telling a story about nearly getting hit by lightning. Mr. Tisdale was by the turntables with his girlfriend, Jenny Slate, an actress and comedian who appears on VH1’s Best Week Ever.
The atmosphere was festive.
“I think what we have is a similar idea of what comedy is, though executed very differently,” said Mr. Mirman. “I believe that comedy has to be very sincere: people carrying through with an idea of purpose of what their comedy is. And Leo Allen, Bobby, me, Demetri—we’re all sticking to this vision that we each have.”
“I think Bobby and Eugene have created a haven for comedians who want to try something that is non-traditional,” said Mr. Martin. “I don’t know of any ‘tough guys’ who do ‘Invite Them Up’—guys who wear leather jackets and act like they’re real troopers, real hard-asses, really enduring the grind of comedy. It’s like, ‘Dude, you’re a fucking comedian. We’re all dorks. I don’t care how tough your haircut is, you’re one step from a clown.’”
“2005 has been the best year for yoga since 1061 B.C.”—Swami Ragatman