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by Gordon Polatnick 5.15.98
I was in the East Village last night and saw a comedian (sic) at The Fort behind the Sidewalk Café on Avenue A. He calls himself Rick Shapiro but you can call him a doctor. His show consists of a blood and guts hour and a half of manic characterizations bouncing off each other as pinballs. My initial response to this onslaught was akin to watching a runaway Dodge Dart smashing its way through Times Square after the theaters let out. Innocent victims seemed to be hurled about in violent death throes with the driver gaining more speed and accuracy as he zeroed in on his targets-- feeding his frenzy. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Rick, waiting for him to finally crash and burn. And wondering what fueled this rampage.
Although he never slowed down, he did roll down the window and invite us to jump in and join him on this race through his personal hell. This hell is very deceptive though, because on the surface it looks like everyday life which values book stores, coffee joints, yoga, fruit smoothies and centers for detox in New York. The problem seems to be that it doesn’t value Rick’s ability to really eat pussy well. And it doesn’t value his penis and everywhere it wants to go.
After I got this theme I was able to ignore the invitation to jump in and chose instead to detach myself from his vision enough to watch and enjoy his genius at work. I started to see that it was pure work. Rick was running a performance marathon of his own design, and his goal was to cross the finish line after an hour and a half of searing stream of consciousness with the throbbing audience in tact and applauding. And every Wednesday night starting at 10:30 Rick uncages his crippled cast of characters to help propel him toward that end.
To get a clearer picture of his mindset you’d have to sit down in Barnes and Noble and read Steppenwolf and Catcher in the Rye at the same time on twenty cups of espresso from Starbucks, while stunning objects of desire parade around you singing You Can Look But You Better Not Touch. If you did that within the subtext of having arrived in New York from South Jersey to pursue an acting career and ended up enduring years of sucking cock for heroin and many more years of AA meetings to finally becoming clean and sober then finding yourself Rip Van Winkeled into Gapland, USA, you’d get the picture.
Or at least you’d start to get the picture. During the hour and a half show he had only one one-liner. Rattling some anti-depressant pills in his jacket pocket he realized, “I’m on more drugs now than when I was on drugs.”
Rick, as a comedian, eschews punch lines and bits preferring to work with the moment. Even when he’d begin a bit from his recent live CD, (Unconditional Love on Fortified Records) his brain would sidetrack him with a more pertinent observation and that would be that. Next thing you know he’d be careening down a whole new path sometimes fighting his way back to the bit, sometimes leaving it in his dust.
Ultimately, it’s his audience that is his prey and his muse. He has the ability to see through everyone’s mask including his own, letting his characters give voice to the audience members experiencing his artless art. Beginning to absorb him, I was able to marvel at Rick’s bare synapses popping as he fixed on every nuance in the room and attempted to address each one. His frames of reference seemed unlimited. I got the feeling that whatever your background and livelihood, Rick would have a way of reeling you in to what initially seemed to be his cloistered and narrowly defined world of pussy and pussy.
As the show blammed onward passed the hour mark, I found that I was no longer detached. I was involved, I was indicted, I was inspired and I was becoming exhausted—for Rick as well as myself. There was a strong sense of relief and release in the room when Lach, Rick’s producer/soundman and manager of the Fort, broke up the show to pass around the tip jar, announcing, “It’s free to get in, but it costs to get out.” As the jar got stuffed and the CD’s got sold, Rick continued onstage for his closing fifteen minutes. He once again tried to cater to a linear-minded world, by performing one of his best bits, The Irish Bartender, from beginning to end. He pulled it off magnificently, showing a great talent for comic writing.
Exhausted but amped up, Rick Shapiro grudgingly left the stage to galloping applause. I left with the feeling that I had finally witnessed a performance and entertainer worthy of being touted as the man to fill Richard Pryor’s shoes. Fearless and funny. Experiencing his genius is just what I needed to give me faith in the post-Seinfeld world. There is a lot more to laugh at than Seinfeld ever imagined.
~ Gordon Polatnick 5.15.1998
Donovan's Fool's Film Guide
the reviewer gets lucky. I walked past a coffee shop on the Upper West Side
and spotted old friend Rick Shapiro, sitting in the window like Chaplin,
working on a routine with a couple of comic actors. I asked where I could find
him performing, knowing that I'd be in on a surprise that would delight. He
told me where and when, and so I went, as you will after reading this.
© 2002 Delusions of Adequacy
far raunchier, more manic original in the style of Lenny Bruce; to call
what he does comedy is to trivialize his blazing originality and depth
of self-expression and verbal/physical artistry; to call it "performance
art" would do it a further disservice; it's inconceivable that anything
is scripted or rehearsed, it just happens in real time, feeding off the
audience and his own inner demons, his raging id, which, maybe more than
I've ever seen, are completely externalized; he puts the rage in outrageous;
hyper-vulgar, barbed like concertina, painfully honest, achingly personal,
yet not narcissistic, not prone to self-confessional twaddle; a relentlessly
caustic, or as he would say "caustic," (apparently a common description),
sex-obsessed, possessed soul blazing truth through wicked, contemptuous,
hilarious skewering--no, mutilation, of all that is tepid, fake, piddling
and irrelevant; a thick air of unwholesomeness, seedy,
- Adam Quest
Click Here to order the CD
Tender Loathing Care
by Jason Anderson from Toronto
Midway through his CD, Unconditional Love, New York stand-up Rick Shapiro concocts a review of his own act. "He takes his anger out on the audience," he says mock-pompously. "His mellifluous bellowing was very Kant-esque, and there was a touch of Hegel. He's not a comedian and he's not a performance artist. He is... a loser. He is avant-loser."
In a culture where the concept of "edge" is used to market everything from sports utility vehicles to breath mints, Shapiro rates as a danger to himself and others. Unconditional Love is a portrait of the artist as street philosopher and supreme asshole, spewing out torrents of anger and misery. And you're gonna sit there and like it.
N.Y. Press named him the city's best comic last year, and his cuss-laden rant-a-thons have garnered him the usual "new Lenny Bruce" kudos. Regardless of whether anyone could ever live up to that billing (or would ever want to), Shapiro is a comic with a rare level of intensity -- he can be as pointed in his social satire as Bill Hicks, though he's more manic than laconic, or as lewd and outraged as Sam Kinison, though he doesn't mistake his audience for morons. And not even one of those angry dead guys would do a routine called "I Sucked Dick for Heroin."
For years, Shapiro was in and out of acting classes and comedy clubs in New York and L.A. He had a doomed act with his twin brother and was even groomed as the next Robin Williams at the Comic Strip. But he was a reluctant stand-up.
"I was crazy," he says in a phone interview from some "cheap-shit hotel room" in New York. "I had ideas in my head all the time. And a friend of mine kept telling me I was funny, because I would imitate everyone at AA meetings. I'd imitate how everyone shared. Some people would get mad and stuff, but then there'd be a hundred people standing outside [watching]. That's when I realized, 'Oh fuck, I'm a comedian.' "
Eventually Shapiro dropped the characters and found his voice. His current style evolved in a music club, the Fort at the Sidewalk Cafe in New York's East Village, where he met anti-folk singer and Unconditional Love's producer, Lach (who plays Grafitti's and Holy Joe's this weekend).
The nasty "performance artist" tag derives from Shapiro's honesty about his past as a thief, hooker and junkie -- but his act's not some lame-ass confessional trip. "People are always saying, 'Rick, you don't have to go for the laugh because you're interesting without it.' But I like working harder to get laughs. I don't like doing it easy."
He also says that Unconditional Love no longer represents what he's doing onstage, which is now almost entirely improvised. "Now the anger's really getting pure," he says. "Before it was this wild rage, now it's pure anger, and it's weird that there's humor coming out of that. It's not like a spin -- not like 'I'm just angry!' It's who I am."
Still, he worries that the Canucks of Yuk Yuk's may not be ready for him. "I think they'll get mad," he says, "because last week I really started to do some stuff. I was calling people names... and they enjoyed it. I thought, 'Man, I'm really being abusive.' "
What Shapiro would consider excessively abusive is hard to fathom considering the ferocity he displays on disc, but he insists he's not entirely merciless. Says Shapiro of a recent incident: "One guy walked up because I'd abused him so much and he wanted to look cool when he had to leave. He put his hand out to me to shake. I said, 'You're actually all right, that's what's weird....' I shook his hand, then when he was two steps from the door, I said, '...shithead.'
"The audience knows I'm kidding because they're smart. People know I'm just getting shit out. I don't wanna narrow it down to 'just getting shit out' -- but I'm playing with the fact that we can call each other names. I hope they see that at Yuk Yuk's, and if they don't, they fuckiing don't. I'll probably get beat up there. But because of what I do onstage, guys figure I'm wild, that I'll throw a wild left or bite their Adam's apple off.
- Jason Anderson
Comic Rages Through the Pain
By Leatrice Spevak
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
If, as Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess, then comic Rick Shapiro is bound for glory.
``You can look at me and know I survived a lot of s---,'' says Shapiro, a comic in his mid-30s, from his Manhattan apartment.
After hustling old men to support his cocaine and heroin habits and living in skid row hotels, he's been clean for the past 10 years and is an advocate of psychotherapy: ``I'm on more drugs now than when I was on drugs. I heed to the side effects because the side effects of heroin were prostitution and a 20-year downslide.''
It has been said that the best comedy by far comes from pain. Pain and anger. Shapiro exposes his personal hell on stage loudly and in lurid detail. He is vulgar. He is menacing. But above all else, he is honest. Shapiro is the real thing.
Penthouse magazine has positioned Shapiro as ``poised for the big leagues.'' Cups describes him as ``equal parts Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Lou Reed,'' while New York's Paper magazine dubs him the ``James Joyce of Stand-Up.''
Yet referring to Shapiro as a stand-up is misleading for those accustomed to the ``I just broke up with my girlfriend . . .'' routines on TV and in the clubs.
He is a dramatist who, through the interplay of characterizations, parades out Gap salespeople, goth girls and AA "spritzer-holics," snaps frantic rat-a-tat asides and manages to merge it all into a dizzying stream-of-consciousness dialogue that takes his audience on a collision course with social convention.
Horrified by yuppie excess, Gen-X poseurs (``flannel-shirted Raggedy Ann prostitutes drinking Samuel Adams'') and the hypocrisy of society, this outlaw takes no prisoners.
He takes aim at everything that smacks of the status quo, from special education teachers (``Take one of these extra-long crayons and draw for the next 20 years'') to Stomp (``You know how they created Stomp? They hired all the guys in Cats and they went `S---! Brad, Tad, Chad, come here! Let the busboys wait the tables. Everything makes a noise I think we have a show! Those f---ing heteros in Connecticut are so stupid they'll buy into anything.' '').
Ripping into the social fabric may seem easy pickin's for this fringe dweller, but Shapiro doesn't shrink from pointing the barrel at himself as he details his struggles with 12-step programs, substance abuse and a once-aberrant lifestyle. He delivers an onslaught of ideas at breakneck pace that will leave your synapses spinning.
For a kid from New Jersey who went to school drunk every day and was told he ``didn't have a brain,'' Shapiro accidentally fell into acting class while studying business law and sciences at New York University. ``Something clicked. I learned to give a s---,'' he says.
Taking the inevitable comedy exodus to L.A., Shapiro ran the gamut of clubs, where ``You get two minutes on a Monday night.'' After an ego-busting evening in the late '80s of following Eddie Murphy on stage, Shapiro threw in the towel for a few years and headed back to New York, where he got straight. ``I was so serious about acting, my life, that I was a mess,'' he says. ``I would read Beaudelaire in a cafe drinking red wine like an idiot because I was shy, not because I was some profound guy. Who wants to sit drinking red wine when you can meet a girl and get laid?''
`To me, that's the thing that's missing - to be funny about serious stuff'
The '90s were a whirligig of professional ups and downs between coasts. More acting classes, "18-year-old agents'' mis-labelling him as "Bev9" (Beverly Hills 90210) material, Off-Broadway roles (Tony And Tina' s Wedding), film shorts, movies and friends telling him, "You're not Dustin Hoffman.''
It all inevitably led Shapiro toward taking another stab at stand-up, where he was free to call the shots.
As for his life as a comic, ``There's nothing I like about it. I hate it. It breaks my heart.'' Of the comedy industry, he snarls, ``It's a joke. It's a scam. It's a lie. It's ugly. It's disgusting. Guys onstage, they're just trying to be cute, get movie roles. That's 99 per cent of the industry.''
At New York's Comic Strip, after Shapiro took his bows, the next comic would ask the audience what was fast becoming ca ompulsory question: ``Are you okay?''
``I was talking about s--- that I thought mattered, like incest. The word taboo makes my stomach sick. If Lenny Bruce had lived this sort of stuff he would have come out. He had jazz in him. He just played his notes. I wish he'd made it through his drug addiction and could have done more. He would have been funny plus.
``To me, that's the thing that's missing - to be funny about serious stuff. Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, they offend me. Milton Berle was a car salesman. He sold a joke on stage.''
To suggest that someone is the next Lenny Bruce is admittedly an eye-roller of the first order, until you've experienced the brazen and electrifying in-your-face rants of Shapiro.
``I wasn't born to pay homage to Lenny Bruce. I think I'm better than him,'' he says.
Maybe so. Because Shapiro has one thing going for him that Bruce didn't - he's a survivor.
at Yuk Yuks Superclub to March 7, 1999.