Theater News

Riding the Wave at Surf Reality

For twisted senses of humor, there’s no place like the Surf Comedy Festival. John DeVore checks out the offerings.

If the venerable comedy shack Surf Reality isn’t exactly an institution, then its varied denizens deserve to be institutionalized. For the uninitiated, Surf Reality is a walk-up theater space on the Lower East Side that combines a mellow West Coast work ethic and East Village attitude with a love of making people laugh until beer comes out their noses. For those whose comedic tastes consist of The Golden Girls and Bazooka Joe comic strips, steer clear of Surf Reality’s dingy Allen Street entrance; but if trailer parks and men in thongs make you cackle, come on in because the beer is cheap.

A 50-seat factory cranking out underground guffaws, Surf Reality has been nurturing not-ready-for-primetime comedy for years. And, for the third year, the brains-in-control are presenting the Surf Comedy Festival through May 13, a two-week orgy of comedic performance art consisting of 60 downtown acts. It’s a Herculean effort that seems as much about exposing the public to Surf Reality’s gallery of rogues as about creating a seasonal reason for talent to get together and show off for one another. The festival has become the jewel in the crown of the venue, highlighting what is basically a year-round celebration of improv comedy, vaudeville, and other twisted neuroses.

Laid-back and well-tattooed, Richard Prichard is Surf Reality’s amiable proprietor and widely acknowledged as the reigning Godfather of downtown comedy. Since 1993, when Prichard first set up shop behind his theater’s huge iron door, the name of his game has been encouraging new comic voices. As overused and misunderstood as the term “community” is, that’s exactly what Prichard has been developing. Indeed, in referring to himself as a comedy “curator,” Prichard’s programming tastes lean toward the exotic. Supportive and gracious, his commitment to new kinds of comic vision has turned his tiny performance space into a huge career launching pad for his motley crew of talent.

One of the linchpins of the Surf Comedy Festival would have to be Trav SD and his American Vaudeville Theater. Trav SD is a one-man arcade; he hosts one of downtown’s most eclectic variety shows, populated by a loyal gaggle that includes magician Mark Mitton, the southern-fried Trixie’s All Girl Chorus, a troupe called the Purple Organ (bleeding genitals–that’s all I will divulge), and Master Li, whose post-modern kung-fu stand-up act is one of the best routines in the city. Leading these performers is Trav SD himself, the owner of the fiddle Nero played while Rome burned, whose surreal, carnie-style bon mots conjure up a young Groucho Marx gene-spliced with W.C. Fields.

Tickets range from freebies up to $12, but the festival is merely the starting gunshot for what Surf Reality does year-round. The Festival also exports talent to venues such as the Living Room, Bluestocking Books, and Collective Unconscious, currently the home of the harrowing, Drama Desk-nominated show CVR. Visit Surf Reality online at for up-to-date listings and make sure to check out some of this week’s gut twisting acts:

Upright Citizens Brigade
Thank the Windy City for this quartet of sketch-comedy acrobatics. Success on TV hasn’t dulled their edge.

Reverend Jen
Rev Jen, as she is affectionately known, is a downtown mainstay, unashamed geek, and a self-styled “celebudante.” Her variety shows revel in metal heads, trolls, and giant Q-tips. She remains a hero to those of us who were ignored and unloved in high school.

Them Keener Boys
Tom and Dave Keener, named Manhattan’s Best Local Comedians by New York Press, dole out catchy and subversive tunes like the Smothers Brothers on crack.

Zero Boy
This self-titled cyber-clown is another downtown art star whose Alice in Zeroland must be seen to be believed.