By Dan Zak
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
It started with an immigrant's MySpace blog and ended with a trip to the airport to pick up Sarah Silverman. The Brightest Young Things' road to maturity has been a strange one indeed.
They've been dismissed as yupsters along the way. They've been pilloried as pretentious egotists. They've also been tracked faithfully by college kids and 20-somethings. For three years, Washington's Brightest Young Things have chronicled their nightlife exploits and cultural tastes on their Web site, pulling 100,000 hip-hungry readers along to the latest, hottest concert/exhibit/album/meme/whatever.
Whether this makes you love them, hate them or wonder why you're reading about them, know this: They're tightening their bearhug on this city. Forget the photo floods of intoxicated partyers, or the clumsy-earnest concert previews or self-indulgent blog posts. This year the event crashers officially became the event planners. They threw the memorable 9 a.m.-to-5 a.m. inauguration bash at Bohemian Caverns, the trend-setting pool parties at the Capitol Skyline Hotel and last weekend's sprawling four-day Bentzen Ball comedy festival, the likes of which the District has never seen.
The groupies are now the gurus.
* * *
Svetlana Legetic, 29, doesn't walk. She strides. She's 6-foot-1 without her boots. She's fond of plaid shirts and jangly necklaces. She has the cute, cockeyed mind-set of a Miranda July and the quippy, accented cadence of a Bond girl. She leaves her 16th Street apartment at 9 a.m. the Tuesday before the comedy festival with an easy-breezy confidence that flies in the face of the latest facts: Brightest Young Things is not ready for the Bentzen Ball.
"I feel like I'm giving birth to five children every day," says Legetic, editrix and queen bee of BYT. "There are 65 comedians that need to fly, sleep, eat, be entertained during the day. There are shooting schedules that need to be accommodated. They all want to perform with certain people. We're now juggling six or seven venues. It's nonstop."
So are the everyday duties: BrightestYoungThings.com's events calendar needs to be updated. And more concert reviews, more blog posts, more conversation starters for the message boards need to go up. There's a Surrealist Ball to plan for the Phillips Collection in December, and Legetic's green card application is due Thursday (she was born in Novi Sad, Serbia, and moved to the United States nine years ago to study architecture).
Down Columbia Road she goes, hanging a left onto the 18th Street strip, ducking into a cranny between the Diner and Grand Central and into what passes for BYT headquarters: a single table in the middle of Affinity Lab, a communal office space shared with other chattering, typing entrepreneurs. It's not ideal, Legetic says, but it's better than running the operation out of her apartment, especially now that Brightest Young Things has a full-time staff.
Over the summer, she and friends Jason Bond Pratt, 32, and Libby Ellsworth-Kasch, 25, left their day jobs -- the other two worked for a data-mining firm -- and took pay cuts to commit professionally to BYT. What began as a shoestring blog is now an incorporated media entity with 150-plus volunteer writers and photographers and a stable of earnest interns.
* * *
The way they tell it, this all just kind of happened in 2006: Legetic, then an architect in Bethesda, met IT manager Cale Charney at a house party. Both posted party photos on their MySpace pages. At another party, Legetic met Pratt, a Web developer. He saw business potential in Legetic's popular blog and bought her a URL to build it out.
Soon Charney was contributing party photos, a band interview here, an album review there -- and contributors were lining up to post movie reviews, party dispatches and concert previews under the name Brightest Young Things, chosen (with tongue in cheek) to nod to satirist Evelyn Waugh's writings about the debaucherous youth in 1920s London.
Pratt met graphic designer Erik Loften, 28, smoking outside Chief Ike's in Adams Morgan in 2007, and soon thereafter the site relaunched with a snappy new design. They met the site's main photographer, Dakota Fine, 27, at a party at the Embassy of Sweden in early 2008, and by that spring Ellsworth-Kasch had started as an intern and quickly became an editor.
What evolved from this gradual assembly was a free-for-all webzine curated by a core group of tastemakers who have nurtured connections among the city's hippest DJs, bloggers, art mavens and party planners. They became a united force of in-the-knowness, and they spread that knowledge to their readers.
"It worked because we liked each other and didn't have any goals," says Charney, 30, who still works outside of BYT as an IT manager for a satellite communications company. "We weren't trying to create an empire, or have a hierarchy. . . . We like doing things that are sort of goofy or childish or embarrassingly fun and will only work if everyone gets it and isn't trying to be too cool for school."
Online ads and small events, like the election night party at Bohemian Caverns and New Year's Eve parties at the Rock & Roll Hotel, have put some money in the bank, and this year they ramped it up.
The Bentzen Ball idea hatched after BYT's "ideas man," Jeff Jetton, interviewed Los Angeles comedian Tig Notaro at last year's D.C. Comedy Fest. Notaro thought Washington would be a good place to launch a comedy festival and decided the Brightest Young Things could make it happen. They got an airline to fly in Notaro's chosen comedians, and a hotel provided lodging.
The Bentzen Ball came on the heels of BYT's wildly successful "Summer Camp" series at the Capitol Skyline in Southwest Washington. Hundreds of oiled-up bodies jammed into the pool for themed parties like "Jesus Camp," with an inflatable Nativity scene and nuns in Speedos, and "Fat Camp," with eating contests.
"The thing just took off," says Skyline's PR director, Alyssa Shelasky. "Every Saturday I'd come to the pool party and be, like, 'Oh my God, they're unstoppable.' Not everyone gets them, but for people who have lived in New York or Los Angeles or London, you see what BYT is doing and you know immediately that they are incredibly sophisticated, savvy, modern people."
* * *
"BYT is the dregs. . . . Neither hipster nor hippie nor hoya nor hottie, they embrace their mediocrity and advertise it to the world."
-- Columbia Heights blog FarmFreshMeat.com in a May 2009 post.
"I think that in the last five years D.C.'s demographics have completely changed. The amount of 20- and 30-somethings has blown everything before it off the charts. I think BYT made the first good attempt by anyone in D.C. to reach those people."
-- DJ Mark Zimin, 37, of the long-running Mousetrap Britpop night at the Black Cat.
* * *
A week before the festival, Legetic and Pratt drop off a check for $10,000 at the Lincoln Theatre on U Street, where Bentzen's opening-night show will feature alt-comedy prince Patton Oswalt. They pop into the Studio Theatre at 14th and P to check out the green rooms, then walk to the Black Cat to go over ticketing procedures.
Over lunch at Cafe Saint-Ex, Legetic and Pratt fantasize about doing things bigger, better. They picture an event at Verizon Center or Nationals Park. They think about one day making the core group all full-timers with salaries. They see themselves as full-service experiential marketers with a captive audience, capable of expanding to other cities. As they age out of their own branded demographic, they are busy building the enterprise into something a Bright Mature Thing can work with. Pratt is developing a Web platform that would allow people to promote their events and handle their RSVPs and ticketing -- all on BYT's site.
"This city is built on ideas," says Pratt. "There's no port, no factories. Everyone comes here to chase their ideas. There's no reason people shouldn't look here for leadership in fashion and art."
"It's a big city but it's almost completely conquerable," Legetic says. "You can make it your own."
The final days before the festival are sleepless and hectic. The Brightest Young Things blitz concierges and flier wallspace all over town. They drive to Front Royal, Va., to pick up wine. They line up Zipcars, double-check spreadsheets, make final arrangements for comedians to appear on morning shows and tour the White House. They've been sleeping little, eating poorly. Their Amex credit line gets shut off after running up $20,000 in charges.
The night before the festival begins, they all wind up at Pratt's group house at Third and U streets NW to stuff ticket envelopes and iron out last-minute details until 2 a.m. Charney institutes a no-yelling policy. Ellsworth-Kasch runs to the corner store to pick up beer and ice cream sandwiches.
"I just looked in the mirror and I look like a drag queen who's been dragged through the mud," says Legetic.
"This is not how this happens next year," says Pratt, cutting out individual tickets. "We talk to major cash sponsors in January and have a six-figure budget ahead of time."
* * *
Opening night is slow at most venues.
"An empty balcony at the Lincoln Theatre," Oswalt grumbles during his set, which is otherwise applauded by the near-capacity orchestra section.
In their next-day Web report, BrightestYoungThings.com calls it "a packed house" anyway. The photos give it a Hollywood sheen.
Saturday night, lines form outside mostly full houses. At the Black Cat, comedians scurry up and down a staircase behind the stages to catch snippets of one another's shows. Charney, who's running the venue for BYT, times each set on both floors. Pratt pops in from time to time, thumbing his BlackBerry, checking sales at the door. He thinks they're definitely going to lose money on this.
Over at Studio Theatre, Legetic also juggles simultaneous shows, racing from green room to green room. "I'm missing my three headliners," she says, before tearing up a flight of stairs. On one stage, comedian Steve Agee, from "The Sarah Silverman Program," talks about weighing his testicles on a kitchen scale.
In the dark hallway by the other stage, Mary Lynn Rajskub paces before her set. Since she plays an intelligence analyst on the TV series "24," perhaps she can profile the Brightest Young Things on the spot.
"They're still very mysterious to me," she says, seeming a little surprised to even be here. "I hear they're good people."
At the festival's open-mike program in the crowded backroom of Ben's Chili Bowl after midnight, Nick Offerman (Amy Poehler's boss on "Parks and Recreation") strums his guitar as he sings a lewd, endearing song he wrote for his wife, Megan Mullally. The performance stuns the drunk chili hounds.
Then, finally, the wrap party. The Brightest Young Things lay out a catered spread in the industrial space of Gold Leaf Studios at Fifth and I streets NW. DJs send Prince, the Clash and Michael Jackson off the white brick walls as comedians trickle in. Just before 4 a.m., Justin Cousson, a 20-year-old student and stand-up comic troupe member at the University of Maryland, plops down on a white sofa. He's pretty much the luckiest guy in the world, he says. BYT invited him to be at the festival, which put him side by side with his favorite comics.
"I got lucky," Cousson says. "The whole city got lucky. The audiences left knowing they live in a city where anything can happen."
* * *
The next morning, the Brightest Young Things go to the airport to pick up Sarah Silverman, who's headlining the weekend that they and Tig Notaro created out of nothing. About an hour before showtime Sunday evening, the 9:30 club officially sells out. At 8:15 Cale Charney welcomes the crowd and introduces Legetic, Jetton, Pratt and Ellsworth-Kasch as his "best friends in the whole world." The crowd "awwws" and dutifully applauds.
Then Silverman takes the stage, and the capacity crowd is captive for the next 2 1/2 hours. The Brightest Young Things watch from the wings, smiling and leaning on each other, groupies once again, as a concert hall full of people enjoy the fruits of their work. They mingle with Silverman, Notaro and other comedians in the green room, exult in the success of this final show and the audacity of the whole weekend.
Before they leave, they collect a $29,560 check from the 9:30 club made out to BYT Media Inc. Ellsworth-Kasch suggests they frame it, but turns out they'll definitely need to cash it. The Bentzen Ball shows didn't sell as well as they hoped, and then there's that maxed-out credit card. The festival will leave them in the red, and Pratt will have to crunch the numbers to see how much of a setback they're facing.
Nevertheless, Legetic's blog post the next day glows with trademark BYT optimism: The Bentzen Ball finale "was awesome," she writes. "I am not saying this because we threw it, I am saying this because it is true."