Remembering Alan Shain, One of NYC’s Preeminent Open Mic Characters
The world’s largest standup comedy scene is in New York, and beyond the comedy clubs that dot the city are countless independent bar shows and open mics. The scene is so big you can go years without meeting some of the hundreds of amateur comics that hustle to mic after mic. There are so many, jumping on and off makeshift stages, some you gravitate to and befriend, some you don’t. But, anyone who has frequented open mics in New York over the last three or four years, noticed Alan Shain, 60, who died June 2nd.
On the surface, Alan had a bizarre energy about him. When he wasn’t on stage, he was very quiet, and kept to himself. He was constantly staring at his phone, including on stage throughout his entire set as a way of recording himself. On top of his odd disposition, he was an older man in a young person’s world. Alan’s gray ponytail, reading glasses, and growly drawl couldn’t have stuck out more. He rarely interacted with other comedians, but you couldn’t forget him.
To his credit, part of the reason he stuck out so much was his comedy. If there’s any debate about whether comedy is subjective, Alan Shain could put that to rest. At times, I hated it. His sets were almost incoherent, seemingly devoid of any comedic structure, the subject matter often downright disgusting — even by open mic standards. Alan would stand on stage, mumble some kind of set-up into the microphone as he watched himself on his phone inches from his face, and end the joke with some weird perverse line — frequently it was about someone enjoying or disapproving of his hot cum. Then, of course, his own howling laughter followed after each joke. Watching him laugh at every one his jokes over and over, I couldn’t help but get annoyed at the guy, and I don’t think I was alone.
But, it’s hard to explain Alan Shain’s standup to someone and not laugh, which makes you think twice about his comedy. None of it was relatable to much of anything, and more often than not, you had no idea what he was gunning for — that “What…the…fuck?” feeling couldn’t help but make you laugh, maybe more often than you realized. It was just so inexplicable.
For me, Alan’s comedy was the best statement on the absurdity of performing comedy at all. You had dozens of comics before and after Alan, trying to get better at their craft, trying to find that next idea that’s truly original and profound. Then, Alan would walk up and say, at least ostensibly, the least profound thing you could ever hear, like how his girlfriend has hemorrhoids, and how she’s a “HOOOAAAAH.” I still have no idea what that means. Amidst all of us taking ourselves seriously in the grind, Alan effectively threw your bullshit back in your face, whether he meant to or not.
Given all this, most fellow open micers tended to more or less ignore Alan, myself included. For most of us, open mics were usually a necessary evil to getting better. Alan’s presence could feel like a waste of my (un)precious time. This guy is just going onstage to amuse himself. I’m trying to work. I’ll file that under me being an asshole.
It turns out, Alan took his comedy very seriously, and I assumed otherwise.
Seth Pompi and Paul Higbie, two New York comedians, encountered Alan at open mics a couple years ago, and approached him about making a documentary about him and his comedy. Pompi and Higbie soon became good friends with the very reclusive Alan. The two ended up spending a lot of time filming and hanging out with him, “Seeing him on holidays, going over to his house, being allowed into his life that a lot of people were not a part of,” said Pompi.
Pompi and Higbie were first drawn to Alan through his comedy. “It’s visceral, you don’t think about why it’s funny. When his jokes hit, they’re funny. They’re spontaneous, they’re not predictable,” said Pompi. Higbie: “It’s not always as funny as a comedy show, but what he does is so much more interesting than a standup show. It makes you wonder, ‘Who is this guy? Where is he coming from? Where does it come from?’”
They learned from Alan that he grew up very poor in rural Kentucky into a tough family life that Higbie described as heartbreaking. In the 80s, Alan headed for New York to pursue an acting career, something he considered a great escape from his life in Kentucky. He worked odd jobs, took acting classes, went to auditions for years and nothing panned out. Eventually, he found comedy a few years ago, and essentially devoted the rest of his life to it.
Alan loved movies, and Higbie said Alan referenced movies constantly, which you can observe in his material. He had his own theory on what was funny, which involved getting the attention of the audience by being as outrageous as possible, and getting right to the funny part immediately, no set-up needed. “He was always coming up with new stuff. And yeah, maybe it was about hot cum, but it was his eightieth joke with hot cum,” said Higbie.
Higbie and Pompi plan to finish their documentary about Alan, which includes aspects of his personal life perhaps no one else was privy to before they started the project. In recent years, Alan was working as a cab driver, and living in near squalor in his Manhattan apartment — still going to open mics, and pursuing comedy.
Two weeks after Alan died of a heart attack, Higbie had not heard from him, and eventually found out the news from someone in Alan’s building. The coroner in New York had notified Alan’s family in Kentucky, but had it not been for Higbie and Pompi, it’s very likely no one in the comedy scene would’ve ever known what happened to Alan. Maybe he moved, maybe he quit; not many of us would’ve given it a second thought. Other than Alan’s employer and neighbors, it makes you wonder who else would’ve noticed Alan’s death given his reclusive nature.
Alan’s body was taken to Roosevelt Hospital. He was somewhat estranged from his family that was far removed from his life in New York City. It remained there when Higbie learned of his death. Creek & The Cave owner Rebecca Trent and Comedian Peggy O’Leary, who works closely with Trent at the Creek, have agreed to make arrangements for Alan’s cremation in New York.
It’s easy to misunderstand a guy like Alan, and people who took the time to know him say he was a very nice, gentle guy who made a real commitment to acting and comedy. Even for those of us who didn’t bother to know Alan well, no one can deny his unique presence and contribution to the open mic scene.
Higbie, Pompi, along with comedians Rachel Coleman and Anders Lee will be hosting Midnight of 1,000 Dick Jokes: An Alan Shain Memorial Show, Thursday at Cake Shop. It’s bound to be very gross, very funny, and a welcome tribute to a man who in his final years, made a significant mark on the comedy community in New York.
Photo by Massimo Di Giovanna.