Bentzen Ball Is Entirely a Laughing Matter

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

Okay, stop us if you've heard this one: Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt and Lizz Winstead walk into a bar on U Street.

Good one, right?

Except that it's true. Dozens of comedians from Los Angeles and New York are headed to Washington next week, lured here by the Bentzen Ball, an upstart comedy festival that will place them in venues better known for drinking, dance parties and bands.

Many of the performers you know because they're movie stars (such as Oswalt or Paul Rust) or television regulars (Laura Silverman or Natasha Leggero), or because they once made a viral video insinuating some pretty naughty goings-on with Matt Damon (ahem, Sarah Silverman). On the festival's busy days, they will flit from the Black Cat to Bohemian Caverns to the 9:30 club to HR-57, sometimes doing two shows a night. (You get the sense it will be hard to walk up 14th Street NW without bumping into a comedian.)

The ball is the biggest event ever attempted by the Web site Brightest Young Things. Comic Tig Notaro approached the editors about doing a festival, and they signed on to help pull the logistical strings while she enlisted her comedian friends.

For BYT, the Bentzen Ball (named for the Danish doctor who laughed so hard watching "A Fish Called Wanda" in 1989 that he died) represents a new effort to branch out.

"I think we were a little bit ready to do something different -- meet some new people, try some new formats," says editor Svetlana Legetic. "This is more fun for us in a sense, in that we are learning, we are pushing ourselves."

We caught up with five of the festival's performers to talk about their comic adventures and the appeal of performing in Washington.

Tig Notaro

Tig Notaro had been to the city only once, to perform in last year's DCcomedyfest, when she met up with a BYT writer for an interview and ended up befriending the whole crew. After the demise of that festival, Notaro set in motion an event of her own, calling in a few of her best friends to help. (She is, for example, BFFs with Sarah Silverman and appears on "The Sarah Silverman Program.")

Next year, her inner circle may get even bigger: She'll be playing mom to Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett in the movie "The Runaways," due out next year.

What are your impressions of Washington?

It's funny, because I'm sure to the rest of the world, D.C. is this city full of business suits and monuments, and I have been firmly lodged into the arts and party world of D.C. I forget there is a president in town.

So you have total disregard for our laws and our government?

Exactly. It's nonstop parties, shows, events. And then I'll see the monument and I'll go, "Oh, that's right. The nation's capital."

You performed at DCcomedyfest. How do you want Bentzen Ball to be different?

They had their venues more sprawled out across the city. What I wanted was to be walking distance for comedians and the comedy fans. It was important to me that the festival be all about the comedians, so we are making sure from morning to nighttime there are activities for the comedians -- not just the shows, but lunches, parties, tours, everything. Festivals are so fun to do. They're just a gigantic party with 50 to 75 of your best friends all in a city, together.

Patton Oswalt

The star of "Ratatouille" and "Big Fan" is one of the festival's headliners, and he's a local, having graduated from Broad Run High School in Ashburn.

Do you have fond memories of Washington?

I didn't get to go into D.C. that much. When I was in high school, we would sometimes go into the city to try to see shows and drink underage. We had our fake IDs. But I didn't really go into D.C. till after I got into college [at William and Mary] and I started doing stand-up, and then I would go in all the time. I got into comedy in the summer of 1988, between freshman and sophomore year of college, when you're trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life, and it was one of the many things I was trying out. And it was one of the things I really, really liked.

What is it about D.C. audiences?

Even if they don't agree with what you're saying politically, they'll still say, "Oh, that's pretty funny."

When you're in D.C., what's the first thing you want to do?

I want to take my parents to dinner somewhere -- I want to try to get into that place Minibar. I have eaten in almost every molecular gastronomy restaurant there is except WD-50 in New York and Minibar in D.C.

You're taking your parents there?

Yeah, even though he [restaurateur José Andrés] does weird stuff, it tastes so good.

You've done comedy, acting, voice-overs. . . . What direction is your career headed in now?

I don't know what direction it's headed in, and I kind of like the idea that I don't know what's next. It's actually kind of cool for me right now.

Lizz Winstead

The hard-nosed news junkie is famous for helping to create "The Daily Show" and Air America, and she's moved on to a new project: skewering morning shows with her new show "Wake Up World." (During our interview, the TV in the background never stopped chattering.)

You always sell out in Washington. Why do you think this city responds so well to your comedy?

If I didn't sell out in Washington, D.C., I would be really bad at what I did. Last time I worked there, I really had some interesting comments from people. They said, "Thank you for not explaining politics to us."

In Washington, brevity is really my friend. In comedy, if you have to explain it, it's not worth telling.

Why pick on morning shows?

Every day, if you count up the number of hours that morning television racks up on the dial -- it's something like 29 hours. When you look at some of these morning television shows, they're funded by news divisions. A lot of Americans get their news from morning news shows. Is it better to get zero information or completely inaccurate information?

You watch a lot of TV. Do you ever feel like you're rotting your own brain?

I do sometimes feel like something's eating my brain, like, "This is time I'll never get back." You're watching for moments that can be comedic gems, and sometimes, it feels like you're cleaning the public toilet.

Natasha Leggero

Natasha Leggero deigns to be a comedic Miss Manners, a woman of class -- moral beacon to Chelsea Handler's drunken Jersey girl on the talk show "Chelsea Lately." Ask her about comedy, and she'll tell you what's wrong with America.

Describe your stand-up.

I like to say it's Edith Wharton meets Andrew Dice Clay.

Um, Edith Wharton?

Well, I like to hark back to the days when women were more ladylike. When there was a more civilized society -- okay, well that's kind of a joke. I definitely think there's been a decline in our society, and I like to let people know that you don't have to be rich to be glamorous.

I just think this casualness that's taken over the country is like a virus. Everyone is just dressed in sweat pants and running errands in their pajamas.

And where are you from, Natasha?

Rockford, Illinois.

Which is known for its fashion.

[Laughing.] Yeah, Rockford is known for one thing: Cheap Trick, who still live there.

I think the Midwest is a great place to grow up, because it really gets you out of there fast. Staying there is not an option.

So, how is what you do on "Chelsea Lately" -- riffing off the news -- different from what you do onstage? It's very different. Well, I guess the harshness is the same. What's great about the show is they really let me get as mean as I want, so I enjoy that.

Onstage, the target is still stupidity, but it's not celebrity.

Paul Rust

Paul Rust has had a very good couple of years in Hollywood: He was one of the stars of "I Love You, Beth Cooper," had a small role in "Inglourious Basterds" and is working on a Judd Apatow movie with fellow comic Charlyne Yi.

So you were in "Inglourious Basterds." Um, I'm trying to remember which one you were.

I was one of the Basterds. But I was one of the, uh, more quiet ones. It was awesome. I got to go to Berlin for two months, and I had never even been overseas. It was sort of like my senior backpacking trip that I never took.

Have you been to D.C. before?

Well, I went to Washington for the first time last summer. My girlfriend [former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Casey Wilson] is from Alexandria. Oh! I was just thinking I should tell her dad that I'm going to be in town so he can come and see me!

I actually really loved it. It's such a classy city. Having a city with such deep history is cool, especially living in L.A., where civilization kind of began in the 1920s.

Is your comedy political?

No! [Laughs.] I don't think I've ever made a political joke. I used to do impressions of George H.W. Bush when I was in third grade and even then that was just Dana Carvey's impression. Most of my comedy is kind of silly conceptual stuff. It's not like, setup and punch line.

Which, as I'm saying this, I realize, no one will be looking forward to me performing. "Oh, a comedian who doesn't tell jokes? That's great."

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