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Storytelling offers instant intimacy and an alternate to standup
BY OPHIRA EISENBERG | Although the comedy scene in New York has never been better, I still get jealous when I hear an older comic reminisce about standup in the 80s. They get this faraway, blissful look in their eyes as they describe the packed houses, the electricity and anticipation in the air. It was a time when everything was new — no joke premise was overdone, and no impression considered hack. It’s like they’re remembering a time before disappointment.
Clearly I’ll never be able to go back to those days. But I was lucky enough to explore and perform on some quirky shows that would later become staples of the storytelling scene. When I moved here in 2001, it was popular for comedians to put up a one-hour, one-person show about your life — but people were also experimenting with shorter narrative pieces in backs and basements of downtown restaurants and bars, part of what we now consider the alternative scene. I even produced a mini-festival called “Leave Me Alone” with my friend, Erin Keating (now Director of Development for AMC), where a couple dozen performers and writers (including Jonathan Ames) teased the audience with 10-minute excerpts from their current or upcoming solo shows.
This was a couple of years before I witnessed my first Moth Slam. It was at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side, and I lined up for an hour just to get in (now considered the standard). The bar was jam-packed beyond fire code and noisy with that intoxicating feeling that something exciting was about to happen — and the greatest thing about that was we didn’t even know whom we’d be seeing. This was a Slam — a glorified open mic, where the host picked 10 names out of a hat and one by one, people would take the stage and tell a five-minute true story. Some were writers, some performers, some just…people. And we hung on their every word. Then judges scored the stories and one winner emerged: The Moth Slampion. All I wanted to do was go to the next one, eventually working up the nerve to throw my own name in the hat.
Now The Moth didn’t invent the art of storytelling, but I do believe they defined the 5-10 minute crisp and well-structured narrative that has propelled the scene forward here in New York. Their shows provided a breeding ground to a community of storytellers who produce some of the finest shows you can find around today.
And let’s talk about today. Storytelling in New York is certainly experiencing a heyday, perhaps even comparable to standup in the 80s — just without the fistfuls of cash and the mountains of cocaine. But maybe that’s coming. Fingers crossed. People even refer to themselves as “storytellers” because it actually means something now.
Why are we suddenly so addicted to this autobiographical form that requires both an attention span and vulnerability? Is it because we’re alienated from each other behind our computers? Is it because social media has made us even more narcissistic? Is it because truth is an antiquated commodity? My personal theory is that it’s just good entertainment. It’s meaty, it’s satisfying and it’s deceptively simple. But most importantly, it’s people talking about what matters to them. But don’t take my word for it — check out a show. They are affordable, very welcoming and attract such an eclectic demographic, you’ll never feel like you stand out. No one is making more than pocket change at these shows, something I hope changes (as everyone should be paid for their art), but I also wonder if that’s what keeps the scene so pure — the people on stage are doing it because they truly love it.
Fortunately, you can count on finding a great storytelling show with a top-notch lineup virtually every night of the week. Here’s what’s coming up:
THE JENNY RUBIN SHOW
If you like that feeling of hanging out in the living room of a charming woman who has interesting friends and a cash bar — and who doesn’t? — stop by the bar 2A for “The Jenny Rubin Show.” A born-and-bred New Yorker, Jenny is one of those people who you only have to meet once to look forward to seeing her again. From years in biz, she knows all of the best storytellers, writers and comedians who populate the lineup of this down-to-earth comedic storytelling show. Each performance is followed by a brief interview conducted by Jenny herself, where she draws out another funny anecdote, dives deeper into a moment she connected with or inquires about your mental state — consider it the DVD extras to a compelling story.
Biweekly, Thursdays at 8pm (next show, Sept. 19). At the bar 2A (25 Ave. A, corner of Second St.& Ave. A). No cover, one-drink minimum.
THE LIAR SHOW
If you’ve ever wondered how much of these incredible personal stories are actually true, then let me introduce you to Andy Christie’s monthly “Liar Show.” Andy casts four top tellers, who regale the audience with short, personal tales that will make you laugh AND think — because only three of them are true. The fourth teller is making the whole thing up. All four performers return to the stage to defend their stories while the crowd subjects them to a no-holds-barred interrogation that is so fun and spirited, it’s worth the price of admission alone. The audience then casts their ballots and Andy plays a slick video he’s created that reveals The Liar. It’s a great jump-start to your Saturday night, and the perfect way to impress a date. Plus if you’re one the geniuses who guess correctly, you walk away with a highly coveted “I Can Tell A Lie” T-shirt, so you’ll have something to wear home Sunday morning.
On the first Saturday of the month, at 6pm. At the Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves., just off Fourth St.). $15 admission includes one drink. Reservations: 212-989-9319. Visit theliarshow.com.
I SWEAR, TRUE STORY
Most of these storytelling shows take place in venues that attract more of a literary crowd than a standup one — but looking to fill that gap is Dustin Chafin’s new weekly storytelling show on Sunday nights at the Greenwich Village Comedy Club. The goal here is to give top comedians the chance to come out from behind their pithy one-liners, and channel comedy storytelling greats like Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor. This is a brand new show with only a month under its belt, and Chafin’s experiment is bringing out some terrific stories that run the gamut from a comic talking about his days of being a NYC Detective, to what it was like to be a Mormon Missionary in South America, to a ridiculous one night stand relived. From a standup’s point of view, it’s both a challenge and a breath of fresh air. From the audience’s point of view, it’s an unexpected pleasure at a comedy club — and there is no risk of hearing the same material twice.
Weekly, Sundays at 8pm. At the Greenwich Village Comedy Club (99 MacDougal St., off Bleeker St.). Call 212-777-5233. Visit dustinchafin.com.
THE ADAM WADE FROM NH SHOW
If you haven’t heard the name Adam Wade, you haven’t been listening. Adam is arguably one of the most beloved storytellers on the scene. Not only an expert at weaving tales around his own successes and failures as the archetypical nerd, he’s prolific and produces a number of storytelling shows each month, all of them worth checking out. His demeanor is sweet and almost apologetic, but make no mistake, this guy knows exactly what he’s doing on stage and has the chops of a seasoned veteran. On the second Monday of each month you can see him in fine form in “The Adam Wade from NH Show.” The show opens with one of a rotating pool of favorite storytellers, and then Adam takes the stage with sagas from his adolescent years, further illustrated with videos and rare home movie footage. Each show is different, so you can come back every month, as many people do.
On the second Monday of the month, at 7pm. At UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place, btw. First Ave. & Ave. A). Admission is $5. For more info, visit adamwade.com.
And while you’re comfortable at UNDER St. Marks, why not stay for the 10pm musical storytelling show, BTK Band? What does BTK stand for? Bring The Kids, of course. Actually that’s exactly what you should NOT do — and I mean that in the best way. Hosted by frequent Moth host and storyteller extraordinaire Peter Aguero, The BTK Band is self-described as “the hardest-drinking improvised storytelling rock band around.” Storytellers are flanked by a five-piece band and two burlesque dances. As they tell their tale, music and lyrics are improvised around them, morphing their story into a song. The result is pure entertainment magic. As the PBR flows it gets a little raunchy, a little sexy, yet still remains somewhat highbrow.
MORTIFIED (and more)
And this is just the beginning of what’s out there. I hope to highlight more in the coming months. If you felt like this list was a little Manhattan-centric, fear not, and get yourself to Littlefield (622 Degraw St., btw. Third & Fourth Aves., in the Gowanus). That’s where, on Thurs., Sept. 26 at 8pm, you can see the return of “Mortified” — the storytelling show based on embarrassing school work, diaries, homework and artifacts from your young adult life. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. To order, visit getmortified.com. Also at Littlefield, on Tues., Oct 8, Ben Lillie and Erin Barker’s “Story Collider” show proves that everyone has a story how science made a difference, affected them or changed them on a personal and emotional level. Tickets to this 21+ show are $10. Visit storycollider.org for details. Take a tour of the beautiful Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg (#1 Brewers Row, 79 N. 11th St.) and stick around to guffaw with comedian Tom Shillue at his “Funny Story” show. Visit tomshillue.com for details.
Ophira Eisenberg is a standup, storyteller and host of NPR and WNYC’s trivia comedy show, “Ask Me Another.” Live tapings take place at The Bell House (amatickets.org). She is also the author of “Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy” (Seal Press) — and you can see her tell from it as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sun., Sept. 22, 8pm at Union Hall (brooklynbookfestival.org for details). For more info, visit ophiraeisenberg.com.