Riot On!

Los Angeles

Left: Comedians Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant. Right: Designer Kelly Fadem and comedian Josh Fadem. (All photos: Miriam Katz)

“GUYS, you just saw a baby deer bouncing through the forest for the first time—how am I supposed to follow that?” It was 1 AM on a Friday night in a packed dive bar during the second annual RIOT Alternative Comedy Festival in Los Angeles, and a very stoned Guy Branum was sending up Whitmore Thomas’s endearingly sloppy performance at the “Midnight Run” show, for which comedians get extremely high (in Thomas’s case, for the first time ever) just before stepping onstage. (Audience imbibement was also encouraged; this was California, after all.)

The event was quintessentially RIOT, a four-day showcase/party founded by performer-producer Abbey Londer that features comedy in the form of sketch, stand-up, storytelling, and more. The whole thing transpires in venues including an independent movie theater, a Latino gay bar, and an all-ages punk club called the Smell, mostly situated on a single block in the heart of down-and-out, downtown Los Angeles. RIOT aims to let comics experiment rather than simply present their most polished, commercially viable sets. “Even though it’s in the city of the industry, the festival isn’t for the industry,” explained Londer. “The industry is my last priority.”

Except, as comic Kate Berlant noted, “The industry is always there in LA” (in full force in the days leading up to pilot season). And to be sure, said industry has very much embraced “alternative” comedy, a nebulous term associated with festival performers such as Kristen Schaal, Eric Andre, and Kurt Braunohler who make, as comedian Beth Stelling put it, “more artistic and less formulaic” work that is often performed in venues like comic bookstores or porn shops, rather than air-conditioned clubs with two-drink minimums.

Hanging out in the RIOT parking lot (picture skee ball, free beer, and food trucks selling local specialties such as sushi burritos), New York performer Mike Lawrence told me he believes opportunities in Los Angeles can actually enable creativity in the alt scene: “If I’m making my money doing clubs in New York, I have to make sure all of my jokes kill. But in LA, I can make money doing TV spots or writing. If you’re making up Kim Kardashian jokes all day and then you go out to perform, I guarantee you’ll do exactly the kind of comedy you wanna do.”

Left: Live comedy producer Caroline Creaghead and comedians Jon Benjamin and Leo Allen. Right: RIOT LA founder Abbey Londer.

On Saturday night, Josh Fadem epitomized this spirit of freedom on the indie stage, displaying Keatonesque feats of physical comedy and nailing a satirical bit about a Werner Herzog prank show; the performance earned him the Rodney Dangerfield Stand Up Stand Out Award, judged by, among others, the hilarious Fred Willard. Accepting the honor, Fadem referenced the paradox of holding a competition at a festival meant to bolster camaraderie among comics by quoting his favorite Rodney line from the 1990s movie Ladybugs: “The best, the best, what’s the point of being the best, if it brings out the worst in ya?”

The RIOT vibe was generally sleepy and loose, which I ascribe to the pitch-perfect weather conditions. (Do we even need comic relief when it’s 80 degrees outside?) Branum’s take on the east/west divide: “They say of New York: If you can make it there you can make it anywhere. They do not say that of Los Angeles. You can make it here. It’s lovely here.” Emily Heller kept the heat on NYC: “I lived in New York for about two years, and it was fine. It was OK. Jay-Z doesn’t rap about New York like that, although I wish he did. I’d listen to that on repeat.”

The final show of the fest on Sunday evening, “Jon Benjamin Has a Van: A Celebration of Failure,” comprised a pilot screening as well as a live reading, featuring SNL alum Chris Parnell as surprise guest, of a “lost” episode from the beloved, prematurely canceled Comedy Central program. Acknowledging the hefty ticket price of $30, show creators Benjamin, Leo Allen, and Nathan Fielder decided to even the score by returning $9 to every audience member that had paid in full.

Once the refunds had been issued, a lengthy process that took a page from the Andy Kaufman playbook, Benjamin congratulated himself on the inimitability of the joke: “That was one of the funniest things I’ve ever been a part of. You’re never gonna forget this. You’ll remember the show that gave you back money. That alone is a $21 bit in terms of the market value of conceptual comedy.” Continuing to toy with the relationship between art and commerce, Allen and Benjamin subsequently estimated that the remainder of the show would contain at least $2 worth of material, at which point fans were forced to part with a portion of their original reimbursement. “Thank you for making that bargain with us.” In terms of net merit, Benjamin explained, “It’s a fair price for the value of the comedy.”

Miriam Katz