Darlings of the alt-comic universe hit Vancouver ComedyFest


What is alternative comedy? Good question. Ask comics within the scene and you might get the answer that it’s an amorphous designation without meaning: funny is funny, regardless of label. Some point out a stylistic trait: performers aren’t slaves to the laugh but arrive there in their own time and their own unique way. Others say it’s not the style that defines the term, but rather the venue: nontraditional stages away from cookie-cutter comedy clubs.

More mainstream comedians might suggest that it’s an alternative to funny.

The full answer incorporates all of the above. But the truth is, as with college bands in the ’90s, the alternative is the new mainstream. When you get past the household-name arena comics—your Russell Peterses, your Dane Cooks, your Larry the Cable Guys—the top comedians working these days are all from the wonderful world of the so-called alternative scene.

The Vancouver ComedyFest is further proof that the nerds have taken over. And I’m not talking about Betty White and Carol Burnett. The bulk of the acts in this year’s festival are darlings of the alt-world, and their approaches are as varied as the scene is itself. In the first week alone, you’ve got the manic unpredictability of Brody Stevens, the stoner charm of Doug Benson, the laid back cockiness of Todd Barry, and the quirky hooks of Garfunkel & Oates, among many others.

These performers prove how difficult it is to lay any kind of lame-ass, post-hoc definition on a movement. They each do their own thing, and that thing makes people laugh, be it in a comedy club, a music venue, or a theatre. Garfunkel & Oates are a good example of how meaningless labels are. There was a time when the comedy snobs and gods deemed musical comedy hack. But Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel) and Kate Micucci (Oates) are two perky singer-songwriters who have been embraced for songs like “This Party Took a Turn for the Douche”, “Pregnant Women Are Smug”, and “Fuck You”.

They started writing tunes in the spring of 2008, posted their videos on YouTube, gained a following, and began playing alternative shows in L.A. before taking their act on the road to traditional comedy clubs. The duo (which appears Friday [February 17] at the Rio Theatre) is releasing its third CD, called Slippery When Moist, on February 21.

“It’s mind-boggling for us,” says Lindhome from a tour stop in Portland, referring to their rise through the ranks. “We can’t believe it.”

Partly because they’re so damn likable and nonthreatening, and partly because their songs are so damn catchy and funny, the snobs were disarmed. The pair noticed no sniffs of derision aimed their way.

“I’m sure it’s still happening,” says Lindhome. “There are a lot of people who don’t like musical comedy. That’s fine. But we haven’t really been affected by it.”

Says Micucci: “If it was happening, I was oblivious to it.”

They also know which side their proverbial bread is proverbially buttered on: their songs work musically, but they never lose sight of their audience.

“Sometimes, if it sounds too amazing, it won’t be funny. It’s a hard thing to pin down,” says Micucci. “We always err on the side of funny,” adds Lindhome.

And then there’s Todd Barry, himself a pseudo-member of the well-known folk comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (Barry played the “third Conchord” in an episode of the eponymously titled HBO series), and always nothing short of phlegmatically hilarious. He leaves his bongos at home when performing his brand of comedy, though.

While the musical Garfunkel & Oates are playing comedy clubs, Barry and many nonmusical acts in the topsy-turvy alternative universe avoid the club circuit as much as they can, in favour of music venues.

“I’d rather go to a place and do one show for people who want to see me,” he said by phone from his home in New York. “You might not play to as many people because you’re not there for four nights, but you’re also not playing to bachelorette parties and people who’ve just been given free tickets. I’d rather play for a smaller crowd than have it [a club] just start sending an email to people who are on their mailing list, saying, ‘Come see Todd’ and then have them hate me.”

In the unlikely event that anyone hates him, it will be because they’re used to the rat-a-tat delivery of a stereotypical club comic. Barry stands motionless and comes armed with hysterical short-form stories punctuated with killer jokes, interspersed with some expert, slow-burn crowd work.

Define alternative any way you like. Or don’t define it at all.

Because as soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, another performer will hit the stage and blow your expectations away.

Vancouver ComedyFest runs until February 26.

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