Last Friday afternoon, in a cozy hideaway in Carroll Gardens, I attended a writing session for a comedy song. I’d been invited by Emily McKenna Winter, Janet Manley, and John Payne, the trio behind BackFat Variety, a free monthly comedy show at 61 Local in Cobble Hill that will celebrate its second birthday at the next show, on October 21. The rehearsal was for a song about Brooklyn gentrification to the tune of “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. A second idea was a song called “Blanket Moth,” to the tune of “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. (No one’s really clear on what a blanket moth is, but Taylor Swift dances like she found one.)
The apartment number I’d been given was 2, but the three-story house in Carroll Gardens had only one bell. I stood on the stoop in the near-rainy gray, double-checking my email that I’d arrived at the right building. With no other instructions, I rang the bell and waited. After thirty seconds or so, and a bit of stair-creaking from within, a startlingly handsome man opened the door. Approaching six feet if not quite there, he had blond hair, combed into a casual Williamsburg, and an even shadow of dark blond stubble.
This was John Payne, the musical third member of BackFat, whose apartment was hosting rehearsal. The trio previously wrote and produced the song “Dudes on OK Cupid,” with lyrics culled from real OK Cupid profiles. Climbing the stairs, the wooden interior/exterior sort of converted brownstones, I met Winter, who had brought pickles. Winter, who asked to be played by Judy Greer in the movie version of this piece, is cheerful, with a cheeky wit wrapped in a wide smile and a bright, high voice.
Manley was on her way, running late after covering Comic Con for the website where both women work. She’d dressed as Jem, of Jem and the Holograms, and had tragically run into “the real Jem,” while wearing half-removed glittery pink makeup that made her look like what she called “upset David Bowie.” (“That’s the worst thing that happens at Con. A shitty cosplay meets the same cosplay but it’s super professional.”) When she arrived, not a hint of Bowie left on her face, she wore a red knit cap over her blond hair, and a Canberra accent over her dry sense of humor.
Manley and Winter, “different-hair-colored best friends in a rom-com,” according to the latter, first met in a comedy class, and were both new to comedy. When they started thinking about putting together a show, Winter said, “We were kind of like, ‘Let’s do a show that’s better than us.’ Let’s get our actual favorite people.”
It’s a humble position to take as a performer, and seems along the line of improving your tennis game: Play with someone better than you are. In running BackFat Variety, though, Manley and Winter are less performers than they are comedy promoters. Both are very, very funny in their own right, and perform standup regularly. Manley is also a contributor to McSweeney’s, and recently published a piece on the Shouts & Murmurs blog of The New Yorker.
The show features a lot of standup, but the “variety” of BackFat Variety is very much a part of its range. Recent shows have featured everything from Rob Paravonian on comedic guitar to Jo Firestone, host and creatrix of Punderdome 3000, explaining the rules of an invented game show—“So fucking funny,” according to Payne.
Manley and Winter co-emcee BackFat Variety, offering standup of their own as intro and filler, which takes a comparable variety of forms. “At first, we didn’t realize everyone does kind of the same stuff all the time,” Manley said. Because they figured their audience would overlap from one show to the next, they vowed never to repeat material. “I have my minutes that are good that I’ll do at other shows,” Winter said, “but for BackFat it’s new every time.”
Even if they wanted to reuse material, they might have a hard time. “Looking back, when I’m trying to scrounge for something in my old stuff, it’s always so topical, like, ‘How about the current exhibition at MoMA?’ Like, unusable in the future,” Manley said. “I really need some minutes about breakfast, you know?”
Future-useless or no, BackFat’s original frontmatter is always smart. At the opening of a show this summer, the two retitled classic movies in politically correct ways—Clueless becoming Savvy Young Women Who Downplay Their Intelligence for Social and Economic Advantages—and are always brainstorming new, strange ways to start the show. In one show, audience members submitted the “most illegal” thing they’d ever done; the winner told a story about tripping on acid and asking a cop whether he was real.
BackFat is relatively young, but in the vibrant Brooklyn comedy scene, it doesn’t take long to get a reputation when you’re good, and when your guests are consistently great. Recent guests have included big names like Michelle Wolf, Colin Nissan (author of “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.”), Michelle Buteau, and Hari Kondabolu, as well as smaller names headed for true bigness, of which there are too many to name. Booking names of all sizes is a challenge made easier by technology, and history. “We creepily email people, we can get in touch with them through Facebook,” Manley said, “And a lot of the good people refer their good buddies.”
“The people who aren’t standups are a little harder to find,” Winter said, “but they’re usually up for it because if they’re a writer or something they don’t perform all the time.”
“It’s funny, because some of the funniest people are not the standups,” Manley said. “They don’t get to show off, and they’re really hard to find. But then they’re always like, ‘Oh, I live in Boerum Hill!’”
“Yeah! Because it’s so foofy around here there are a lot of people in their late 30s, early 40s, their career is really going and they’re like ‘I live a couple blocks away!’”
Foof notwithstanding, BackFat Variety has been at 61 Local since the beginning, in the second-floor event space in the back of the bar. This summer, they hosted a ticketed show at Littlefield to benefit Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue, but have otherwise stayed put. “Most comedy is in basements and really grungy rooms, so I feel like 61 Local is a different vibe,” Winter said. “Performers seem to like it a lot because they’re like ‘Oh, I don’t feel disgusting. I’m not afraid to leave my bag against the wall because cockroaches will go in.’”
“Which is a real thing,” Manley said. “[cough] Village Underground. A mouse walked across the stage one time when we were there.”
BackFat performers are paid with a drink ticket, which is “actually more than some shows,” I was told, and the lack of vermin is a fringe benefit. The show isn’t long, but there’s a drink intermission, and the bar seems happy to host. Tuesday nights aren’t typically big ones for most bars—“It’s CSA night,” Manley said, and can’t remember ever seeing much crossover between comedy patrons and CSA people, with the exception of two of their friends, who must be in it for one or the other.
The reputation BackFat has built feeds into itself, not only with top-shelf performers, but with the audience, despite their weeknight time slot. “Most shows have no people. And the bad thing about that is that if comics show up to do a bar show and there’s, like, five people, they’re not gonna do their ‘A’ material. They’re gonna use it as an open mic. So it’s nice that we have the big audience, because then people will come in and be like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta do it.’”
Work began in earnest on the gentrification version of “The Suburbs,” which meant lists of things worth working in (elderflower, Buttermilk Channel, Spike Lee DVDs) and the rhyme potential of “Bed-Stuy” and “gentrify.” Guacamole was a point of contention, and Winter shared her strong thoughts on hipster pickles: “Too mushy.” “Blanket Moth” was bookmarked for a later date.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.