Saturday, September 04, 2010

A few words about Ochi's Lounge, wacky ideas and the people who make other people happen

For the past four years, my wife (Kambri Crews) has been employed as the PR & Marketing Director at Comix Comedy Club in NYC. Her main responsibilities have included: getting press for the club's headliners, running the social networking outreach, and the overall branding of the club. But as is her way, Kambri tends to get her hands dirty and help with whatever jobs she feels need doing--everything from hosting Oscar parties to helping buss tables on a busy night. At her core Kambri is a producer, so the words "That's not my job" rarely come out of her mouth.

About three years ago, Kambri noticed that the downstairs lounge at Comix was going almost completely unused. A slightly awkward little space located next to the restrooms, it didn't serve any practical function. But Kambri tends to see opportunities that people like me miss completely. Whenever she tells me one of her kooky ideas, my reaction usually goes from "What are you, crazy? That'll never work" to "Yeah, I guess I could see how that might work" to "Of course that works--how could anyone think otherwise?" So when Kambri told me she wanted to turn the weird little bathroom nook in the Comix basement into a full-time performance space...well, I thought the idea was problematic at best. The space couldn't seat more than 30 or so people comfortably and there was nothing resembling a "stage". And there wasn't exactly a tidal wave of support coming from ownership (which is entirely defensible, by the way). But Kambri soldiered on, physically hanging a curtain against the back wall and painting a tiny 6" platform that would serve as the "stage". She called it "Ochi's Lounge" after the club's affable men's room attendant, the space's only consistent audience member in those early days. And she welcomed show producers of all shape and stripe, often giving opportunities to inexperienced young comics who had never before attempted to "run a room". The programming ran the gamut, from straight standup to storytelling to Twitter-based shows. We're talking 10-15 different shows a week.

Now self-produced comedy shows have always and WILL always happen around New York. But never in my 13 years as a comedian have I seen this much goofy experimentation going on within the walls of a bonafide Comedy Club. As a PR & Marketing director, Kambri had always tried to brand Comix as the most comedian-friendly of the major NYC clubs and Ochi's was the purest manifestation of that. The idea was that, if you make a comedians feel valued and encouraged when they're "nobody", they will remember that if and when they become a "big f'ing deal".

And it wasn't just bright-eyed young neophytes. Ochi's was a workshop in the truest sense of the word and drew major headliners and TV personalities wanting to try out new stuff. A guy like Jim Gaffigan can walk into any room in the country and be given stage time at the drop of a hat. The fact that he came down to Ochi's (often multiple times within the same week) says something.

Now I should be clear: Ochi's was not a beacon of sun and light. I only performed there about a dozen times (mostly because I didn't want my status as Kambri's husband to make producers feel pressured to give me stage time), but I've stood in the back of the room and watched probably 100 shows. Some were utter trainwrecks--inexperienced comedians, nonexistent audiences, bartenders who weren't able to make money, etc. And when the room was packed to the gills it was almost worse, as audience members from the main showroom (people who had paid a great deal of money) were forced to push through a sardine can full of smelly comedy nerds just so they could take a leak. That's why I don't begrudge the Comix ownership its ambivalence toward the whole enterprise.

But one thing is indisputable: Ochi's Lounge now exists in the formative memories of a whole generation of New York City comedians. You will turn on Letterman and see comedians tell jokes that were spoken for the very first time on that stupid little mini-stage in the basement. In fact, I'm sure that's already happened. One of Ochi's many producers will one day have his or her own major television show--that's not a prediction, it's an inevitability. And for years to come, comedians will gather at bars or in TV writer's rooms or on movie sets and laugh hysterically about "that one time at Ochi's".

I know this because that's what my friends and I do about the places that were seminal in OUR development. I have been doing comedy for over thirteen years now and in that time I've experienced a good bit of success--not as much as I might have hoped but at the same time more than I could have ever dreamed. But just as precious to me, I have memories. Great memories of the guy who used to fall asleep in the front row EVERY WEEK at the "Blue at Indigo" show on the Upper West Side and the fiftysomething rock groupie who would flash her tits while you were onstage at "Felber's Frolics" at Ye Olde Tripple Inn. And the kind of shit I saw go down at venues like Surf Reality and Collective: Unconscious? I can't even get into it.

I guess the reason I bring this up is to note that this stuff doesn't happen on its own. These shows, these career launching pads, these sacred sites of future drunken anecdotes are made possible by people who work their asses off for little or no financial gain. People who create something awesome just to see something awesome exist. My wife Kambri Crews is one of those people.

In case it's not completely obvious at this point, Ochi's Lounge has come to an end. Comix has a new set of investors and they're going to be changing up lots of stuff, as is the completely justifiable right of anyone taking control of a venue. Kambri is using this changing-of-the-guard as an opportunity to move on to other things, and has officially resigned from Comix. I am excited for her and also hopeful that the changes happening at Comix will keep the club going strong.

But this little note is about Ochi's Lounge, or more specifically, the people who make things like Ochi's Lounge exist. Seeing the outpouring of support Kambri has received over the past couple of days has made me think about the people who filled a similar role in my life. I owe these people a huge debt and it's entirely possible that I've never publicly thanked them. After all, this was all before the days of Facebook (Heaven forfend!).

So I want to take this opportunity to thank the following people:

Robert Pritchard
Jeff Singer
Naomi Steinberg
Faceboy (aka Frank Hall)
Rev. Jen Miller
Susie Felber
Chris DeLuca
Liam McEneaney (Susie, Chris and Liam are as much peers as benefactors, but you get the idea)

Thank you for helping me become a better version of what I might have been. And thanks for the memories.

Long live comedy.

Christian Finnegan