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The Undergroundlings: Bitch and Tell Heralds a Comeback for Highbrow Comic Variety Shows 

Wednesday, Mar 12 2014

A variety show could hardly be truer to the genre than Bitch and Tell, a Footloose production now in its fourth iteration at the Garage. The event features a stand-up comic (Paco Romane), circus performers (Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola, of Genie and Audrey's Dream Show!), a singer-songwriter (Tracy Shapiro), a dancer (Pearl Marill), and two magicians (David Facer, who hosts, and Christian Cagigal).

And all are comedians — in their own ways.

Yet these acts are not your typical comedy club routines, so that's where producer Mary Alice Fry came in. "When I ran Venue 9 from '96 to '04, we ran a regular comedy series," she says. "So we were getting all these people from out of town. I realized that there's all this underground comedy, but it wasn't accessible unless you went to a place that had a two-drink minimum, with pressure from the waitress to drink more."

The performers she sought out for Venue 9, and has continued to seek out for Bitch and Tell, thrive not just in a less alcohol-centric environment but also in one that doesn't pressure comics to deliver as many crass punch lines as quickly as possible. "Comics who call from joke libraries — a lot of those people, that's not their material," she says. "They're really just jokesters. They'll say just about anything. A lot of them are pretty gross. I don't know if the common denominator is just going down, if they're just getting grosser and grosser. But now I think there's kind of a backlash against that."

The comedians, broadly defined, in Bitch and Tell specialize in thoughtful, observational humor, and they also play with the form of comedy in exciting ways. Cagigal, who describes his act as "magic tricks, mind reading, audience participation, and weird things with antiques," mines comedy from the discrepancy between what audiences expect from a magic show and the wonder and befuddlement many of them can't help but feel as he deploys curios and sleights of hand to tell whimsical tales that seem almost real. "I think the comedy I'm creating comes from the situation," he says. "I like to throw off the audience a little bit and let the humor come from the weirdness of the magic effects. I don't want people to just be flabbergasted and amazed. A lot of magicians are like, 'I wanna blow your mind.' I want to weird you out, to spook you out just a little and ... let the comedy come out of the fact that I'm really committing to the idea that this antique can do something magical."

Shapiro, a singer and guitarist who performs comic songs, many rooted in the absurdities of the body — one is called "Funny Eating Disorder Song," another chronicles, she says, "the frustration of discovering poop on one's thong" — hadn't even realized that her act was comedy until it was too late.

"As far as me doing comedy, it was never an agenda. It never even crossed my mind," she says. She was simply interested in writing and performing her own songs. "The more I did that, the more I noticed, 'Oh, people are laughing sometimes.' It probably took over five years of me playing songs that made people laugh to attach 'comedy' to it.

"I'm not a comedy nerd," she continues. "I didn't realize that there was this broad spectrum of people doing all sorts of things" in the comic world beyond "a certain type of comedy I didn't attach to at all" — the combative "last-comic-standing" genre. Integrating disparate acts such as these into a variety show is pragmatic for the artists. For nontraditional shows, it's easier to find a venue and an audience when you combine forces with other artists, making the variety show format ripe to "really take off again in S.F.," says Fry.

But it also poses an interesting artistic challenge for performers more accustomed to mounting their own full-length shows, which obviously affords the artist much more control over the audience experience. "In a variety show atmosphere, I don't have that control at all," says Cagigal. "Each performer that comes out on a variety stage, they have to take over the stage in their own way. A good host helps you grease the wheels of the audience, but after that it's a new beginning every time. So you have to enter into a different energy. I have to earn the audience more before I can take them into my weird little world. In theater, I set up the world I want to create and take you along with me. In a variety show atmosphere, I'm entering into your world."

About The Author

Lily Janiak

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