Splitsider

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The Inside Story of Whiplash, One of New York's Best and Most Influential Standup Shows

"Whiplash is like a magical kingdom where laughs run free and jelly beans are the main form of currency," says comedian Aparna Nancherla, of UCB's late night standup show. For half a decade, Whiplash has consistently proven itself as an exciting and eclectic show that stands out even in the city's buzzing comedy scene, a favorite of megastar names like Louis C.K. and Chris Rock as well as a reliable well-spring for the next big stars — the likes of Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani were once regulars. It's the reason that Splitsider turned to Whiplash for our first concert film, where host Leo Allen welcomed Jared Logan, Sheng Weng, Eugene Mirman, Carmen Lynch, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Michael Che, and Sean Patton. So how did it come to be that one of the best standup shows in New York City takes place beneath a grocery store for free at 11 p.m. every Monday night?

While UCB’s primary purpose was furthering the reach of sketch and improv, standup has always been an integral part of the theater. “The goal of UCB has always been to have the best of all things comedy,” says UCB co-founder Matt Walsh. “I think especially in New York, we need to have good standup shows, because it is a standup town.”

“It's part of the fundamental fabric of the UCB Theatre to have cheap and free shows,” says former artistic director Anthony King. “So a free weekly standup show has to be a bedrock of the theatre.” Several shows have occupied the 11 p.m. spot, but it was Aziz Ansari’s Crash Test that became a breakout hit; beginning in 2005, Ansari soon brought Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel on board, and the show served as a springboard for their group, Human Giant.

“When those guys got too busy to do Crash Test (and moved to LA), we needed a new show,” says King. “I figured…what naturally follows a Crash? Whiplash.”

King asked Allen to host the new incarnation of the show, and Allen immediately turned to Jeremy Levenbach, then booking comedy shows at Lower East Side music venue Piano’s. “He was someone who went out a lot and saw a bunch of shows, and kept track of new, interesting comics — he was a real comedy head,” says Allen. “I really have to give him the bulk of the credit because he does 95 – 97 percent of the work.”

At the time, Allen had written for Saturday Night Live and Important Things with Demetri Martin, and just taped his first solo Comedy Central Presents. “I definitely did not want to host a weekly show at all,” he says now. “It felt like a step backward, and I’d never thought I was any good at being a host. But I thought about it for a couple of days, and realized I was just being a baby, and I got over my bad attitude and decided it’s always better to do something instead of nothing. I thought that at the very least, I’d get to watch a lot of great comics, and that the pressure of a weekly show could be good for me. And I’m really glad I did it.”

Whiplash began its run in September of 2008, and Levenbach worked to ensure that the show drew a reliable audience. “At 11 o'clock on a Monday night, that theater, empty, is depressing,” he says. His work paid off; the show almost always plays to a packed, excited crowd “I'm not worried about people showing up,” he says now.

Levenbach, who has an almost encyclopedic memory of the show’s five-year history, says the show hasn’t changed drastically over the years. “I'd like to think that the audience trusts us more and more,” he says. “We don't announce our lineups anymore, very much on purpose. I book it extraordinarily last minute. And I think, honestly, it’s more exciting.”

And the show's regular performers are just as enthusiastic. Big names guests like Ansari, C.K., Rock, and Jim Gaffigan have all dropped in, and the show’s length and prestige means it serves a “proto-credit” for young comics, according to comedian Hari Kondabolu. The eclecticism of the lineups is part of the charm — one particularly memorable show in 2010 featured character comic Ron Lynch, British theatrical comic Daniel Kitson, and musical improviser Reggie Watts, as well as C.K. and Gaffigan.

During the show, most of the night’s comics will end up watching the show from the theater’s back corner, giving them a chance to see people they might not normally know. “I remember when Kristen Schaal saw John Roy and immediately booked him in [her variety show] Hot Tub,” says Levenbach. “I like it when that kind of stuff happens. I like it when Louis C.K. tells Jim Tews how great his joke was. It's nice to see people watch other people's set because they enjoy it.”

“I really just want it to be a place where comics can come and use the time however they want,” says Allen. “I especially don’t want newer comics who come on to feel like they’re auditioning. Use the time to do what you think is interesting, without being beholden to a two-drink minimum fueled audience.”

A trademark of the show is Allen’s conversational beginning to each show, often focusing on topical material or this-day-in-history trivia instead of a rehearsed set. “That came from the first month we had the show going," says Allen. “Not many people would come, but some were repeat customers, and one woman started to give me a hard time about repeating jokes. It was rude, but she had a point, and it made me think about my whole approach to standup.

"Ever since then, I figure that since I’m usually the one constant from week to week, I try to at least engage the audience in a real way up top and try something new. Have a conversation with the audience that hopefully isn’t just shitty, hacky crowdwork, and that hopefully sets the tone of the show as a place where comics may be trying new things.”

“Every comedian wants to have that show that has a pure creative vibe with positive support and no judgment,” says UCB co-founder Matt Besser. “Whiplash is that show.”

The show’s legacy over the last five years has particularly endeared it to comics. In talking to the show's regulars, they universally praise the audience's enthusiasm and support, feeding the performer's own energy and making it such a fun place to perform. “The lineup was a great mix of young comics acting like it was the fucking opportunity of a lifetime, and vets who just had fun and experimented,” says Anthony Jeselnik.

"It just feels like such a warm, welcoming place," says Nancherla. "The crowd is always sizzling hot and willing to go with you (as a comic) to whatever weird corners of your mind you wish to. Anything can happen, in the best possible way.”

“There's an exciting energy,” says Levenbach. “It's the kind of place that Chris Rock will stop by because there's a great room at 11 o'clock that's not the [Comedy] Cellar, that feels like a different energy.”

Hundreds of amazing comedians have passed through Whiplash, and many have been snapped by photographer Mindy Tucker, a staple of the show since its inception. She had begun photographing comedians at the East Village favorite Rififi, which closed abruptly in 2008. “We were all were still kinda shocked by the Rififi thing,” says Tucker. “I think that heavily influenced me and Jeremy into thinking a lot about documentation.”

Like the comics on stage, Tucker used Whiplash as a safe space to perfect her craft. “I was still learning comedy photography,” she says. “I liked doing weekly shows because it was like scheduling a work out. Comics usually write better onstage and learn more by going up; it’s the same with photography.” Her photos, taken on and off-stage, are used regularly as promo shots by comedians.

“I think when people see the concert film, it feels like Whiplash,” says Levenbach. “A lot of the angles, these are angles from Mindy's photos that we love, because she knows that theater so intimately from doing the show for years. My favorite shots of Mindy's are the profile shots, where you see the audience reacting to a joke. I love when it's just a wall of people.”

As someone who’s seen hundred of Whiplashes since 2008, I asked Tucker what she would tell someone who had never seen the show. “I’d tell them that whatever show they see that night is what they’ll be seeing as the comedy standard in two years,” she says. “Whiplash is a comedy bellwether.”

A Night at Whiplash is available now for $5.

All photos by the delightful Mindy Tucker

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist. You can tweet at her if you like.