Confrontation comic Billy Eichner, the screamingest queen to ever brandish a microphone in a bewildered stranger’s face, curated a comedy showcase called Billy Eichner and Friends at Cobb’s on Saturday night as part of SF Sketchfest 2013. Eichner has been a rising star on the New York comedy scene for several years, building his uniquely abrasive brand through popular YouTube clips that gradually led to getting his own show, the Funny or Die production Billy on the Street, currently airing its second season on Fuse. The vast majority of the show’s content features Eichner and a cameraman running up to strangers on the streets of New York and screaming at them; sometimes it’s pop culture opinion/trivia, and occasionally it’s something absurdly basic that somehow proves challenging given the intense nature of the situation (he once famously stymied Rachel Dratch by asking her to name 20 white people; a clip he showed on Saturday showed a young woman failing to meet Eichner’s command to “name any woman”). He has become a talk show staple, and is turning into a regular on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, on which his gay-leaning cultural obsessions seem to find the most receptive audience. So given all this, what kind of performance did Eichner have in mind for Sketchfest?
Although I attempted some mental preparation for what I assumed was the strong likelihood Eichner would spend at least a portion of the evening running through the audience yelling questions, this proved to be vain; the full house at Cobb’s was treated to a decidedly calmer Eichner, or at least less in-your-face. He was more the emcee of the evening than its star attraction, co-hosting with his frequent collaborator Julie Klausner, author of the immensely funny I Don’t Care About Your Band and best damn Real Housewives recapper currently on the scene. She is also the host of a weekly podcast called How Was Your Week, which had taped an episode directly before Billy Eichner and Friends commenced, with Eichner as one of her guests. This might explain why Eichner and Klausner seemed a bit low on energy throughout their on-stage segments.
After an introductory Billy on the Street clip reel, Eichner took the stage and introduced Klausner. The two segued directly into a Hot Topics segment, in which they apparently had organized a few pop culture banter prompts and hoped their natural chemistry would take over. Sadly, it never really did; watching them slough their way through was like the comedy version of listening to a car whose engine won’t turn over. It didn’t help that Cobb’s is such a cavernous space, way too big and open for something as minor-key as two friends bitching to each other about Anne Hathaway, which is essentially what this segment boiled down to. They seemed fairly aware that it wasn’t quite taking off, even as they became more and more culturally specific to the alienation of the audience; by the time Klausner referenced Marc Shaiman, they knew it was time to move on. Also, allow me to clarify: I want nothing more than to be best friends with these people and could listen to them talk about this shit all day, but it just didn’t play to the space.
The first comedian they introduced was the marvelously funny Gabe Liedman, who delivered the strongest standup set of the night. Liedman has an immediately endearing energy that instantly makes audiences fall in love with him, and he backs it up with expertly realized and delivered comedy (he is also the best Glee recapper in history). Liedman got plenty of material from his recent move to Los Angeles from New York, further stoking the crowd’s affection for him with stories about how unprepared he was for the strength of California pot (he also showed us his weed card). He riffed on how “fantasy” is too relative a term for shows like Game of Thrones (“alt-medieval-horny-magic-porn” was his suggested alternative), and nearly sent me to the floor with a closing bit about how spooky it is when Netflix figures out that you’re gay. I can confirm that this is a thing that happens. And guess what? If you want to see Gabe Liedman, you still have a chance! He’ll be returning to Cobb’s this Friday night, Feb. 8, to host his Bestie x Bestie show with Janeane Garofalo, Maria Bamford, Chelsea Peretti, Greg Behrendt, and Rory Scovel. Go see him!
Liedman’s killer set was followed by two somewhat inconsistent and tonally darker acts. First was Pete Holmes, billed as the testosterone of the evening. Holmes seemed to get off to a bumpy start with the crowd right from the get-go, and then commenced to narrate our middling response to him while yelling “Get on board, you dummies!” in between jokes. It was awkward, but mostly in a good way. His biggest laugh came when he referred to himself as “Lesbian Val Kilmer,” because that is absolutely what he looks like. And if we thought Holmes would be the most awkward set of the night, we were clearly unprepared for Jon Daly’s character Sappity Tappity, billed on a Funny or Die video as “your favorite Drunk English Rollerblading Pine Tree.” And while I did not spot rollerblades, the rest is accurate: Daly was dressed as a pine tree (complete with green face paint) and spoke in a (very drunk) English accent. His segment was an “interview” with Eichner and Klausner, who seemed to have little response other than silent head-down laughter as Daly rattled off a series of extremely random abstract statements and observations. It was impressively bizarre, although it was not entirely clear how much of his drunken belligerence was the bit and how much he was just shitfaced.
Eichner and Klausner followed this with a considerably more straightforward interview featuring the evening’s big celebrity draw: Parks and Recreation‘s beloved Retta. Her segment was somewhat tarnished by Daly’s apparent refusal to leave the stage; after several admonishments by a clearly not-having-it Retta, he sat quietly on a fitness ball for the duration of her set. Retta discussed her early standup career and recounted her first ever joke, which involved going to a KFC and being informed they were out of chicken. Her prodigious and celebrated TV show live-tweeting was also mentioned; if you don’t already follow her, you definitely should. Eichner and Klausner then asked her to Retta-ize two very white lady-speeches: Helen Mirren’s big Tony Blair tell-off scene from The Queen, and Julia Roberts’ legendarily cloying Oscar acceptance speech. They gave her transcripts of each, and needless to say, her performances far superceded the originals.
Finally, the night ended on a rather memorable and unexpected note with Bridget Everett. A very tall and voluptuous blonde sporting a semi-sheer loose strapless red dress over a black bra and panties which were repeatedly flashed at us, Everett startled the life back into the fading crowd (it was well after midnight by this point) with an utterly deranged cabaret act that mixed bruised confessionals with bluntly graphic sexuality, underscored by Everett’s deep Ann Wilson-like wailing of several outrageous musical numbers. She was a horny, booming force of nature, descending into the crowd and shoving her barely-covered tits into the faces of several unassuming gentlemen while bellowing into her microphone. She was truly inspired, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In sum, kudos to Eichner (who also performed an absolutely perfect Taylor Swift parody song in between two of the sets) for organizing such a diverse and intriguing lineup of comedy. I certainly can’t say the evening was what I’d expected.