Posted on

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – New York

Sowerby & Luff write…

We couldn’t go to New York without seeing some live comedy and as much as we enjoy watching stand-up, we wanted to see a gig that was similar to our own show in London Sketch Club. So, we jumped on the L train from Brooklyn and headed towards Chelsea on the West Side.

The buskers on the New York subway are so good that people don’t hurry past them like they do in London, they actually stop to listen to them. Then they stand and applaud afterwards. You see entire horn sections, string sections and the occasional drum kit. You see PA systems, microphone stands, and mixing desks. If someone asks you how to get to Carnegie Hall, tell them not to bother. Just go down the New York Subway.

We’d heard good things about a sketch show and character comedy night in Chelsea, so we showed up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre at West 26th Street, and booked to see the 7 o’clock show Shameless, which featured a female character comedian called Eliza Skinner. We caught up with Eliza at the bar afterwards, and she described it as “a show about people you don’t like, but have to love.”

Eliza puts raw, repellent desperation front and centre, both in her scriptwriting and in her performance – wrenching humour from awkward circumstances, and cringe-inducing comments. We asked her if it was more difficult to break through with a character show, as opposed to a stand-up act, and she told us that there are now more and more clubs in New York which cater for that style of comedy.

The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, apart from being a name which is almost impossible to remember, presents four or five shows a night, with a different audience coming in for each show. You can buy a ticket for the whole evening, or you can just pay around $10 to see one of the shows. There’s nothing like that on the London comedy circuit, but it’s how venues operate at the Edinburgh Festival, so it was something Georgina and I were very familiar with. The UCB runs like the Edinburgh Fringe all year round, seven nights a week, and that’s something we found really exciting.

We interviewed Eliza for our podcast, then we went back into the theatre to watch the second gig of the night – a one-man show featuring an LA comedy actor called Will Franken. This lanky, long-haired comedian’s genius resides in his excellent sense of the absurd, and a total disdain for any kind of political correctness. Will is devastating as he skewers liberals and bigoted right wing fanatics in equal measure. He plays activists, Christians and homophobes, and often walks a precarious tightrope between good and bad taste.

Will finished his show with a scene about a terrorist with a bomb, who inadvertently finds himself on a plane that is going to crash anyway, due to engine problems. It was a very strange experience, sitting not four miles from Ground Zero, and watching a sketch about a terrorist on a plane with an audience of New Yorkers.
“He’s performed that sketch many times in Los Angeles,” one of the audience said to us afterwards. “But I think he may need to tone it down a little for New York.”
We loved Will’s show, and he has since become a regular contributor to our podcast.

Posted on

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sowerby & Luff write…

Having been lost in New York many times, even we could locate the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Georgina had been hankering to go there for years. A quick look at the map told us it was only a few miles away, so we went to the corner of Bowery and hailed a Yellow Cab.
“The Metropolitan Museum of Art, please,” said Georgina.
The cabbie peered back at us from beneath a bright purple turban.
“Which way you wanna go?”
“Whichever way you think?” I said. “We’re not native New Yorkers, so we’ll leave the route up to you.” This was probably the most stupid thing I said to anyone during our entire stay in America.

The Metropolitan Museum was roughly half way up the east side of Central Park, on 5th Avenue, exactly 4 and a half miles to our north, so I was more than a little surprised as the Yellow Cab headed due south towards the Lower East Side. Before long we were speeding past the Brooklyn Bridge, and heading for the Financial District at the furthest southern tip of Manhattan Island.
“Why are we driving south?” I asked the driver.
His reply was both reassuring and cryptic. “5th Avenue is one way,” he said. “You can only drive down it from the north.”
This was clearly going be an unscheduled Magical Mystery Tour of the whole of Manhattan.

Twenty minutes later we were sitting in a completely stationary traffic jam in Battery Park, at least two miles further away from the Metropolitan Museum than when we had got into the cab. Annoyed and frustrated, we glanced over to the right hand side of the road, and noticed a busy building site, surrounded by tall buildings. It wasn’t until Georgina pointed out a giant American flag flying at the far side of the site, that we suddenly realised we’d arrived, completely by accident, at Ground Zero. Georgina put her hand over her mouth. It gives you a very strange feeling in the pit of your stomach to see Ground Zero with your own eyes. The destruction of the World Trade Centre was a global catastrophe on a vast scale, and the events of that day – even though they changed the lives of everyone on this planet – seemed to most people remote and distant. Unreal, even. Like watching a movie. To find oneself, unexpectedly, just a few feet from the scene of such an event is oddly surreal, and it’s actually quite hard to feel any emotion at all. Being at Ground Zero makes you feel numb – the history and horror of the place simply too great to take in. Too terrible to put into words. By the time the traffic got moving again, we’d almost forgotten why we were in the cab in the first place, and neither of us said anything for a quite a while.

Ten minutes later we were hammering up West Street, the Hudson River on our left, and weaving in and out of traffic at about sixty miles an hour.
“This driver is insane,” I whispered to Georgina, as he threw the cab into a sharp right turn and headed northwards again, up through the West Village. It was around here that I think he sensed that Georgina and I were not entirely happy with the route he was taking, so he slammed his foot down flat on the gas, accelerating along 9th Avenue like a Boeing 777 going along the runway on take-off.

Another glance at the map told us that we were now drawing level with the Metropolitan Museum, but it was still on the opposite side of Central Park. As the meter ticked furiously past forty dollars, we decided that this was probably the moment for a timely intervention.
“Excuse me” I said. “Are you now planning to drive all the way around the north of Central Park to get to the other side?”
“5th Avenue is one way,” he repeated like a mantra. “You can only drive down it southwards.”
“Tell you what,” said Georgina. “Why don’t you drop us here. We’ll walk across the park.”
The driver seemed momentarily confused.
“You want to get out?”
“Oh, yes please,” we said. “I think we both feel fairly strongly that we can get to the Metropolitan Museum from here without spending the next twenty five minutes driving around Harlem.”
“OK,” he said. I gave him forty five dollars.
“Why are you giving him a tip?” snapped Georgina.
“I don’t really know,” I said, and we headed off towards Central Park.

We arrived outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to discover a vast cheering crowd on the front steps watching a couple of break dancers spin around on the pavement. At the end of the performance they collected at least 200 bucks from the punters, thus proving that worldwide the tourist dollar is as likely to end up in the pockets of street performers as it is in the wallets of Equity members.

The Metropolitan probably has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world, and they don’t do things by halves. The entire Temple of Dendur has been transported from Egypt and rebuilt, brick by brick in a large room, partially surrounded by a reflecting pool and illuminated by a slanting wall of glass which opens onto Central Park. The whole thing looks like a set for an early James Bond movie. 
“Any ideas for the pandas?” I said.
“What about one of those Egyptian fertility goddesses,” suggested Georgina.
“How are we going to get it out of the case?” I replied.

On the next floor we came upon the Age of Rembrandt Exhibition, which was absolutely packing in the tourists. But after walking around for several minutes we were unable to find any paintings by Rembrandt.
“Where are the Rembrandts?” I asked Georgina.
“I’m guessing there aren’t actually any Rembrandts in the exhibition,” she replied.
“Why not?” I said.
“Because this is the age of Rembrandt,” she grinned. “It’s all the other painters that were alive at the time.”
“What, all the shit ones who weren’t quite as good as Rembrandt?”
“Yes,” said Georgina.
“What a completely brilliant idea for an exhibition,” I said, and I sat down in front of a de Hooch, a de Booch and a de Gooch to rest my throbbing ankle.
Georgina’s favourite painting at the Met was a giant canvas, completely covered by solid black paint.
“What’s it called?” she asked.
I glanced at the information card. “Untitled,” I said. “So, not only could this artist not be bothered to put anything into the painting, he also couldn’t be arsed to think of a name for it.”
“What’s the name of the artist?” asked Georgina.
“I can’t be bothered to find out,” I said.

Before leaving the Met, we had a good rummage about in the museum shop but all we came away with was a souvenir postcard of a painting by a Dutch artist other than Rembrandt.

Posted on

Hill Country Barbecue, New York City

Sowerby and Luff write…

This joint is obviously where New Yorkers went when they wanted to pretend to be Texans, and the whole restaurant was based on the idea of an indoor barbecue. Hickory wood was piled high next to the kitchen, and you ordered your meat by the pound. God, the Americans love their meat.
“Half a pound of lean brisket,” you’d say to the chef, and he’d grab it off the hickory grill and slap it on the scales. In order to further duplicate the experience of eating at a real Texan barbecue, the meat was then served not on a plate, but in brown paper, out of which you were also expected to eat it.

“I’d like a quarter of a pound of moist brisket, please,” I said meekly, and it was quickly weighed and slapped into my brown paper with little ceremony. As the meat was wrapped for me to take to the table, the fat quickly soaked through, and dripped appetizingly onto the floor.
“You want sides?” asked the chef?
“What are sides?” I whispered to Georgina, and she pointed towards another serving hatch, at which a number of mashed-up vegetables bubbled on a hob.
“I’ll have some of that, and some of that,” I said politely, not really knowing what it was I was ordering. The sides were scooped into big paper cups, and placed on my tray. I think I ordered corn on the cob and sweet potato, but both had been liquidised beyond recognition. It was like eating food that had been specially prepared for an old person with no teeth. Georgina ordered about a half a pound of lean brisket and some sides that were a slightly different colour and texture to mine, and we took our trays and sat down at a table.

An authentic Country and Western band were playing somewhere, but the restaurant was so big we couldn’t actually see them.
“How’s your moist brisket?” Georgina asked.
“Very moist,” I said. “I particularly like all the little bits of brown paper mixed with the meat.”
“That’s what makes it authentic,” Georgina said.
“Fancy another half a pound of brisket?” I asked.
“I’m good,” she said.

Posted on

New York Marathon 2007

Sowerby & Luff write…

“What do you mean, you’ve lost your voice?” said Georgina. “We’re supposed to be recording at the New York Marathon this morning”.
I held up a piece of paper. “Fuck,” it said.

It was a bright, crisp morning, and as we walked along 3rd towards Bedford, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a huge crowd cheering a sporting event. As we turned the corner, we were greeted by a spectacular scene. The leading runners were sprinting through a water station, set up at the top of our street, and on either side of the road there were thousands of New Yorkers screaming encouragement for the runners.

Only a few seconds before we arrived at the corner of Bedford – roughly the halfway mark in the race – the world famous British runner Paula Radcliffe had sprinted past, en route to her second New York Marathon win. She was running in her first marathon for over two years, and bravely fought off her great Ethiopian rival Wami to finish in an amazing 2 hours 23 mins and 9 secs. A piece of British sporting history. If we hadn’t stopped for breakfast on the way, we’d have seen it with our own eyes. But hey, those pancakes at Aldo’s Diner…

The New York Marathon starts on Staten Island, then goes through Brooklyn and Queens before crossing the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, where it makes its way up to the Bronx and then south again to the finish at Central Park, through which we had walked ourselves just a couple of days earlier.

We stayed at Bedford Avenue until every single one of the 39,000 runners had flowed past us towards McCarren Park. The cheers from the locals were incredibly supportive of the competitors, and strangely moving. In fact we both got quite tearful at one point.
Calls like “stay strong” and “you can do it” could be heard all along the street, as spectators joined in the spirit of the day, whether they knew anyone in the race or not. Georgina quickly got caught up in the excitement, and was soon shouting encouragement to all the runners with names printed on the front of their shirts.
“Go Bob!” she’d shout.
“Go Barney!”
Of course, not having a voice, I was unable to join in with this ritual, but I’d occasionally give the runners a wave or even high-five them as they went past.

Many spectators wore matching shirts and hand-painted signs to show extra-special support for their friends or favourite runners. There was a girl standing opposite us holding up a big sign which read “Go Sue!”. As soon as Sue had run past, the girl turned the sign over, and on the back it read “Go Carol!”

In Williamsburg, former marathon runner Luis had been standing watching the runners from this exact spot for almost 20 years. “It’s never disappointing,” he said. “The energy is fantastic.”
“It sure is,” said Georgina.
Someone once said that if New York is a human being, then the marathon is its heart. I think Georgina and I would both agree that’s very well put.

Posted on

Strawberry Fields, New York City

Sowerby & Luff write…

On West Drive in New York City, we found Strawberry Fields, the garden of remembrance for John Lennon. It’s a small circular mosaic, with the word “Imagine” in the centre, surrounded by park benches. Its simplicity makes it very touching, and it’s probably the only location in New York where the place is named after a song, and not the other way around.

The memorial was created by Yoko Ono, with the support of the city of New York. Over a hundred countries contributed to the garden with native plants and stones, and a small plaque lists all the countries who contributed. John and Yoko loved to walk in Central Park and one of their favourite spots is precisely where Strawberry Fields now lays.

While we were there, the sombre atmosphere was slightly offset by the fact that the mosaic was covered in pumpkins, candles and Halloween party props – John’s fans obviously feel their hero would want to be a part of the celebrations for this holiday. In the same way, I imagine that Strawberry Fields is probably adorned with tinsel and holly at Christmas. I’ll bet it looks great in the snow.

There were about ten people sitting on the benches around John’s memorial, all of them, as far as we could see, either drunk or stoned. One elderly tramp had a cardboard begging sign which made us laugh out loud. It simply said “Why lie? I need a beer!”
We sat on a bench between Strawberry Fields and the Dakota, and recorded a short chat for the second of our New York podcasts. Then we crossed Central Park West and went and stood in the exact place where Lennon was shot.

John and Yoko bought several apartments in the Dakota building, and Yoko still lives there. The place was built in the late 1800’s, and it’s part of a series of spectacular gothic buildings which overlook the park – one of which featured in the movie Ghostbusters.

Access to The Dakota is restricted and the entrance is guarded by a fairly eccentric doorman who stands permanently outside, posing for photographs and filling in the tourists on any gory details they care to enquire about. John was shot right in front of the main entrance on December 8th 1980, when he was returning from a recording session for his final album Double Fantasy, accompanied by Yoko.
“I really don’t want to be here,” said Georgina. So I resisted the temptation to try and interview the doorman, and we headed back towards Broadway.
“What was the name of the guy who shot Lennon?” asked Georgina.
“I can’t remember,” I said.