These days the worlds of stand-up comedy and cabaret in New York City may occasionally intersect, but mostly, it seems, they just sort of brush up against one another. The Duplex, however, is one cabaret venue where stand-up shows crop up fairly often.
In recent months, the "N.W.A. Show (Negroes With Asthma)" has appeared on the Duplex's calendar. This series features a different lineup of comics performing at each show. Despite the show's name (which references the influential late-1980s hip-hop group whose initials stood for "Niggaz With Attitude"), "N.W.A. Show" does not feature black performers exclusively, so the asthmatics referenced in the name are apparently series producers Charles McBee and Khalid Rahmaan. At the January 17 show, emceed by Rashad Bashir, both McBee and Rahmaan performed sets.
A striking commonality among the performers featured this evening was the large role that self-deprecation played in their comedic agendas. That shouldn't be surprising, I guess. Denigrating self (in the tradition of Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield) and denigrating others (in the mode of Don Rickles and Joan Rivers) are two fundamental approaches to stand-up. And when you have a show called "Negroes With Asthma," you're probably going to attract more self-effacers than insult comics. Certainly, the series' principals used self-belittlement as a primary comic tool. In the opening set, Bashir lamented (and showed off) his shortcomings in the "booty" department. A bit later Rahmaan described himself as having the appearance of a "kindly hip-hop librarian."
The headliner at this performance was Saurin Choksi, a likable newcomer to New York from Chicago. His set touched on the theme of cultural assimilation—including a riff on his Hindu family's Christmas parties, at which his "cocky" father dressed as Santa Claus and frightened young children.
Some of the other performers on the bill were especially good. The droll Kara Klenk had a smart, funny bit about the absurdity of scheduling sexual relations on a Google calendar, and another about accidentally tuning in to Christian music programs on the car radio. LeClerc Andre—a soft-spoken performer from Maryland—made incisive observations on the condescension inherent in chivalry. And his description of intoxicated black male SantaCon revelers stumbling by accident into a protest against police brutality in the wake of the Eric Garner incident had an edginess that was lacking in the routines of some of the others on the bill.
My favorite comic on the program was Jesse Jones, who began with the statement "'I love New York'—that's what we tell ourselves," and proceeded to relate an unsettling personal anecdote about a morning subway commute interrupted when a fellow passenger was laid low by a stroke. Jones later told another story—about his three-year-old son's delight in being sung "Happy Birthday" to by a raving drug addict in his neighborhood. As with Andre, there was a component of Jones's routine that succeeded, at least to a small degree, in engaging the audience's squirm reflex.
While comedians can succeed with the Dangerfield or Rickles approaches, those like Jones who manage to get under their listeners' skin—making them laugh and reflect uneasily on the content of their psyches—belong, perhaps, to an arguably more important tradition. Call it "the Lenny Bruce way."