I spent the night in the Comedy Cellar: A review

Had I known that the Fat Black Pussycat cared so fervently about 19-year-olds not drinking alcohol, I would’ve put up a fight about entering. I should’ve seen it coming. The Pussycat, sister location to Manhattan’s famed Comedy Cellar, clearly knows its reputation as comedy’s crème-de-la-crème and can’t falter due to some underage drunkard scandal. While I could’ve tried sweet-talking the joint’s boulder-shaped bouncer (whose name tag, reading “King,” carried more cool than my entire frame), I met him while standing small in between my parents, so he would’ve laughed as loud as the crowd inside. Some might find it weird that my parents and I were seeing stand-up comedy together; we’re all legally adults, but the experience might be akin to a sex scene striking the screen during Family Movie Night. But we all love to laugh, and the chance to see a show at a historic venue like the Comedy Cellar seemed too good to pass up. So, in we went, Mom and Dad and me, with twin Sharpie Xs scrawled on my hands forbidding me from ordering anything stronger than a Diet Coke. 

After ordering my soda and debating if I had the cajones to get cheese fries (I didn’t), the show began with our Master of Ceremonies, who I’ll call Diana. Diana, in military boots so cartoonishly proportioned they had to be designer, warmed up the audience from New York City’s windy autumn chill with a tale of her recent trip to Las Vegas. Specifically, she narrowed in on the dude who invited her and her friends to his cabana then slipped MDMA in her water. While the drugging revelation led to some laughs, the ensuing silence brimmed with a tension that, while necessary for a great punchline, seemed a little poorly matched with Diana’s role as MC. Of course, Diana was a pro. She brought us up to the edge of discomfort before her next line—“Once I drank that water…I had the GREATEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE!”—brought everyone to cheers and applause. She then introduced our five comedians, named pseudonymously here as Smoothie, The Haunted, Mars, Caffeine and Flanagan. I’d like to unpack the common threads that provided a strange narrative throughline to these otherwise discrete standup sets so we can all learn what fascinates the upstarts of NYC comedy.

Theme one: eating ass. The comedians, specifically the men, of that night’s Cellar show used eating someone’s ass as synecdoche for a limitless array of banal sexual anxieties. Now, I may be a fool, but even I understand that eating ass just seems so strange and downright newfangled to the average audience that it’s bound to get a laugh. I couldn’t help but feel that something deeper lay beneath the shock value. Even Smoothie, a man defined by his onstage nonchalance, started breaking a sweat as he opined that “young people” ate ass. It seemed these comedians, who couldn’t have been older than 35, assumed that urban sophisticate 20-somethings exclusively and constantly ate ass. Maybe the oldest Gen-Z comrades secretly stash banquets of buttocks in their 10-square-foot apartments where there isn’t even room for sex lying down. Anyway, why all this fear of the rear? I heard the phrase “eating ass” more times that one night, sitting beside my parents, mind you, than I’ve heard in my entire life prior. It’s consuming these poor wayward souls; at night, I imagine, they quiver in rumpled bed sheets (especially The Haunted, whose phantom-esque figure and clear struggles with self-loathing gave major “nighttime quivering” vibes) and worry that the next date they go on might be the The One. Not the one to marry, not a life partner, but a bond many would call even more sacred: the bond of your rump being their Sunday dinner. The comedians of the new New York care deeply about the goings-on of hypothetical butt-munchers.

Theme two: children. As far as I could tell, the only actual parent in the lineup was Mars, who was also the only woman and oldest person there. When her set wasn’t trafficking in the crotchety get-off-my-lawn-ya-blue-haired-freaks transphobia of recent Dave Chappelle, she explained how her adult son isn’t a good person. I wonder why. Still, her incisive critique of her son’s life as “messy” and his personality as “mediocre” at least held the weight of actually raising the dude. In comparison, Flanagan, whose voice sounded like the lead singer of Modest Mouse during their “yelpy” songs, went on an anti-natalist rant about how he shouldn’t have kids because he thinks he might murder them for disagreeing with him. Kudos for emotional honesty; the lines delivered in the voice of a Muppet’s panic attack were pretty damn funny, but it was a sharp turnaround from 30-year-old sexual frustration to threatening—not of just any fictional child, but of your own fictional child. It has always felt backwards to me when comedians talk about little kids as if they’re evil mongrels. Frankly, most kids between the ages of four and 10 are funnier than any adult comedian I’ve ever known, including myself. The comedy world should be looking towards anklebiters as the cutting edge of surrealist comedy, like when a 10-year-old at a summer camp asked me if I’ve ever “made butt soup” and then started making financial five-year-plans for me. Us grown and withered specimens will literally never be that funny.

Theme three: rampant nervous energy. This last one is less of a topic than a tone, but particularly The Haunted and Caffeine appeared absolutely humming with so much manic energy that my mom assumed Caffeine had sniffed some good cocaine. He clutched the microphone like the runt of a tee-ball game as his eyes darted around the Pussycat, and he frantically explained that he was caught somewhere between the ages of liking Dua Lipa and having a 401k. The Haunted vibrated and paced less than Caffeine, but his entire set involved him saying that he was unpleasant to look at and that it was a miracle he’d ever had sex, which he assured us he wasn’t great at. Honestly, while The Haunted seemed like a nice enough young man, the artless way he unveiled his self-hating neuroses genuinely bummed me out a little. I can only imagine how I’d have responded if I’d been under enough influence to unlock more empathy. Part of what made Smoothie’s cool indifference and Mars’ old-lady apathy stand out was the electric anxiety arcing through the room while the other three delivered their sets. Their tension energized and exhausted me.

So what did I learn from the Comedy Cellar? I learned that I should worry more about conceptual ass-eating and that children, both real and imaginary, totally suck, and now I think I get kinder when I drink. But ultimately, I learned nothing except how the comedy of the new old New York seems a whole hell of a lot like all the other comedy out there. But fuck it, I’m laughing.

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