LOL in DTLA: The 2016 Edition of the Riot LA Comedy Festival Takes Over

This weekend's fourth edition of the massive alternative comedy fest sprawls across downtown Los Angeles.

Riot LA
January 29–February 1
Several venues across Downtown Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA

Alternative comedy (its current incarnation, at least) started roughly twenty years ago as a marginally exposed genre mostly confined to hole-in-the-wall clubs and short-lived TV shows. Now, its popularity has reached previously unimagined heights thanks to social media, podcasts—and comedy festivals. Riot LA, like alternative comedy itself, has risen meteorically, beginning as a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and evolving into a takeover of punk-rock clubs and classy theaters alike. Even more fittingly, the sprawling block party happened downtown, which itself is going through a renaissance.

Here is a weekend report of what cracked us up—and what fell flat—at the festival’s fourth installment.

David Cross / photo by Zach Dobson

David Cross
Everyone’s favorite never-nude glances at a two-stories-tall banner reading “Riot LA: LA’s Alternative Comedy Festival” and raises a water bottle for Janeane Garofalo, “who started this whole thing” and will appear later at the venue. With that, Cross himself begins Riot LA at 7:45 p.m. on Friday at the sold-out Theatre at the Ace Hotel, the latest stop on his “Making America Great Again!” tour. After a six-year hiatus from heavy touring, the pitch-black humorist has gun violence and its hypocritical conservative enablers in his crosshairs during a well-paced eighty-minute set. Most of the material is brand new, running the gamut from a cringe-inducing joke about dead children servicing jihadists in heaven to a quick and harmless Matthew McConaughey impersonation (Cross’ first impersonation in years). But rabid fans recognize a few of the bits, like discovering that his mother can’t take a punch and getting a couple’s colonic with his wife.

Natasha Leggero
If women aren’t funny, then why does the Ace sell out a second time tonight for an all-female bill? And why do women make up about half of the roughly two hundred comedians featured at the three-day festival? Head-scratchers indeed. It’s 10:45 p.m., and the crowd—which turns out to be the most enthusiastic one of the entire festival—gives a deafening welcome to Leggero. She made a name for herself by donning arms-length gloves and pearl necklaces and playing an equally oblivious and heartless upper-class socialite. But tonight, as noted by host Fortune Feimster, she’s casually draped in a red poncho and skewering hipsters—no persona required. Leggero effortlessly dishes about parallelogram tattoos, Burning Man, and a woman named Flapjack, and the laughter rolls right in thanks to a giddy audience. They’re champing at the bit, so to speak, and Leggero can do no wrong—even when she admits to having three dogs but loving only one of them.

Janeane Garofalo / photo by Zach Dobson

Janeane Garofalo
As a comedian who not only helped establish the alternative genre but also become a pariah for speaking out early on the Iraq war—and who starts her set by passing out cupcakes to the crowd—Garofalo has massive political capital, so to speak. She uses all of it, pulling laughs from floor to balcony despite a stream-of-consciousness set that occasionally attempts to make a point about “citizenship” but doesn’t succeed in doing so. Stunningly, she avoids the presidential race altogether. Instead, she uses her time onstage to talk a blue streak about Darren Aronofsky and David Lynch’s lesbian sex scenes and Taco Bell breakfast defectors. The frenetic Garofalo—who admits that she’s not a strong joke-writer—is the jazz set of the evening, getting admiration no matter how exhausting the experience may be.

Maria Bamford
Maybe more than any other comedian all weekend, Bamford symbolizes the current alternative-comedy boom. A true original who often talks in a barely audible whisper but at any moment pivots into impressions in which she is barely recognizable, Bamford for years was relegated to the fringe. Now, at 11:45 p.m., she’s drawing a rousing ovation as the headliner of a 1,600-seat venue. The recently married comic does a ticklish interpretive dance in shiny red-tipped shoes and talks openly about taking a year off to deal with mental issues. She’s downright percolating, expertly experimenting with form and tone and hitting her marks with prepared material and non sequiturs alike. Bamford’s impersonation of her dad has the crowd doubled over, but she has them in the palm of her hand the whole way through.

Seven Minutes in Purgatory
Nothing says comedy like getting knocked in the shoulder by a naked guy running into a crowd with a chainsaw. That bizarre moment comes on Saturday around 5:30 p.m. as part of this equally bizarre show, in which comedians are shown on a screen performing in a soundproof room. The hook is that the comedians have no idea how the crowd is reacting to their material—but since they never actually appear before the crowd, it begs questions like why do they even have to be at the venue and why does recording live even matter? T. J. Miller, Ron Lynch, Lauren Lapkus, Thomas Middleditch, and Jo Firestone produce solid smatterings of applause that they can’t hear. The show’s monotonous structure is disassembled at the end by a skit in which a dancer is killed by the guy with the chainsaw, who then joins seemingly oblivious host Ian Abramson to say goodbye from the green room.

photo by Zach Dobson

Unfictional
As podcasts have proliferated, so too have NPR storytelling shows, of which LA affiliate KCRW has its very own. Like This American Life, Unfictional shows supposedly have a theme tying their segments together. At this 7 p.m. live recording at the sold-out Regent Theater, however, the lineup frequently strays from the already-loose topic “Don’t Judge Me.” Stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman dutifully talks about her soft spot for (surreptitiously feminist) Hallmark Christmas specials, while writer Jessica Lee Williamson also sticks to the topic by revealing how she made it all about her while volunteering for an elderly woman with cancer. But Whitmer Thomas, founder of comedy collective Power Violence, and screenwriter Carlos Kotkin focus on the noble instead of the humiliating with their respective stories about politely handling a seductive call girl and saving an adopted rabbit from being devoured by a friend’s pet snake. Actress Jenna Fischer ends the set strong by recounting a Hollywood sleazebag who tried to lure her into an “international pop singing group”—and his bedroom. It’s a relief that Fischer finds the humor in it.

Kyle Kinane
Maybe the most ubiquitous performer of the festival, Kinane delivers one of his many sets this weekend at The Smell around 8:30 p.m. Saturday night at a sold-out show (noticing the theme here?) hosted by Kate Berlant. Maybe its the venue’s hipper-than-thou status or an overall lull in the evening, but the reliably great Kinane doesn’t draw many laughs, even when talking about throwing up because he brushed his teeth too hard or trying to spark a debate about werewolves and astrology. It doesn’t help that some guy can be heard yelling in the alley outside during his whole set.

No, You Shut Up! Live
At 9 p.m., it’s time for a fresh start, and what better way to do so than with Paul F. Tompkins—and puppets! The host of the obscure Fusion TV show, when not frustrated by racket from a nearby concert he mistakes as part of Riot LA, loosely dishes on hot topics with a rightwing squirrel and a Hollywood-obsessed hot dog. Also engaging with the puppets—created by the Jim Henson Company—are Orange is the New Black actress Lauren Lapkus and, way more randomly, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who the squirrel says is going to hell. It’s a playful but ultimately nonsensical exercise, best described by Lapkus as the feeling of “bugs in my blood.” Tompkins closes with, “And this is why you have more than one rehearsal.”

Fake_Trump_and_Fake_Bernie-2016-Zach_Dobson

Trump and Bernie hash it out / photo by Zach Dobson

Trump vs. Bernie
The F-Stage sells out again for a tearfully uproarious faux debate staged between the most talked-out presidential candidates going into Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Originally scheduled for a half-hour, the politicians battle it out for twice as long, with Anthony Atamanuik upstaging alternative comedy’s most reliably spot-on impersonator, James Adomian. Donning a red hat and squinting his eyes, Trump muses on how he’ll ban incest laws and marry his daughter once he assumes office, while Sanders promises that on day one of his presidency, “The drum circle begins.” It’s hard to know which is more controversial, Trump’s plan to bronze immigrant babies or Sanders’ proposal for a single-pay psilocybin mushroom program. But they’re both winners, and they seal the deal with raucous cover of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Me and My Shadow.”

The Dollop
Sunday starts with a bang at 3:15 p.m. at the Downtown Indie, where Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds stage a live taping of their podcast about shameful, rarely discussed moments in US history. Anthony disses no-show guest Patton Oswalt, continuing the longtime friends’ ongoing non-feud, and welcomes the equally capable Rory Scovel, who scores points with the crowd by randomly moaning as if he were in a horror movie. Today’s subject is a disastrous, seven-month fair that involved demoralizing exhibits on “savage” Filipinos, a riot over a canceled bullfight and a rock-throwing fight. It provides the comedians with plenty of material, and they have a field day.

photo by Zach Dobson

Two Girls One Pup
A quick stop at the F-Stage at 5 p.m. finds the tent smelling of wet fur and occupied by comedy fans, their dogs, and comics trying to make jokes over all the barking. The dogs seem surprisingly unfazed by Jake Weisman’s pro-cat rant, which he launches into even though he knows “you’re not supposed to say the C-word.”

The Bullshit Artists
The Regent is sold out again at 6 p.m. for one of the more star-studded but poorly executed shows of the festival. The concept of the show is that comedians are prohibited from performing their established material and can only rely on improv. The problem is that the audience doesn’t seem aware of this and seems disappointed that the jokes are all but absent. Anthony Jeselnik’s confrontational set, in which the supremely overconfident stand-up roasts crowdgoers who ask dumb questions, sums up the tone of the show. Downbeat nice-guy Jerrod Carmichael flounders, while Firestone and surprise guest Reggie Watts—filling in for no-shows T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani—flourishes. Todd Glass, Scovel, Eddie Pepitone and host Andy Peters fall somewhere in between.

Ron Funches / photo by Zach Dobson

Kill Rock Stars Presents: Good Looks
At 7:45 p.m., The F-Stage is loosely attended, despite strong showings by Ron Funches, Whitmer Thomas, and Joe Wengert. The impossibly endearing Funches—a soft-spoken single dad who recently lost a hundred pounds and giggles at his own jokes—talks about his love of masturbating with coconut oil and using vapes to smoke pot. Co-host Andrew Michaan makes a good point about double standards in the dating world but needs some refinement. Thomas rebounds from a weak start with a dead-on Wanda Sykes impression and recollections about his dad/third-base coach leaving the fold. Weingert gets loads of laughs while playing the role of Ross Stores’ CEO and even works in a Steely Dan joke.

Patton Oswalt Can Always Go Downtown
The festival closer starts an hour late at 10 p.m. thanks to general daylong delays and a winning surprise opening set from Drennon Davis and Karen Kilgariff. But there are no complaints as he delivers eighty-five minutes of material that is among his strongest to date. Chock-full of references to nerd and pop culture, as always, Oswalt is equally enthusiastic and detailed in discussing his favorite realm, Star Wars, and his daughter’s, My Little Pony. Especially poignant is a chunk in which he explains the futility of well-intentioned people trying to keep up with the ever-evolving vocabulary of political correctness. Breaking up his set with long chunks of audience interaction, including an amusing digression about bad tattoos, Oswalt delivers with ease, proving that he is master of the universe—or, at least, this alternative-comedy universe. FL

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