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Since December of 2012, Columbia Heights watering hole Wonderland has recurringly opened its upstairs bar to a small tribe of dweeby, self-effacing, pop-culture-literate comics and the people who want to hear their weird jokes. But after tonight, the laughter fades forever inside those walls.
Well, OK, Wonderland will still host comedy. But probably none like that of Funny Moms, the kooky and lovable series started by departing D.C. comic Adam Friedland. He’s moving to New York—-where too many great D.C. things go to become better-looking and better-connected—-and taking his awkward party with him. This evening’s show is his finale.
Friedland, 27, started Funny Moms as an outlet for experimental and nontraditional comedy, the kind practiced by him—-then a budding comic—-and a small group of his clever friends, namely Sara Armour, Jamel Johnson, Michael Foody, Brandon Wardell, and Matty Litwack. It shape-shifted over time, as Friedland opened the stage to untested or more straight-up performers, but it maintained a feeling of unpredictability, incubated by a young (and probably too-forgiving) crowd.
An example of how off-script Funny Moms could feel: At the last one I attended, stand-up Michael Foody played an original animation called “Taxi Cab Confession,” about a renegade cab that mows down a child and expresses zero remorse. Then, Friedland offered up a slideshow of humdrum images—-him at a wedding, him with his parents—-with LOLcat-style captions plucked from Katt Williams material. And at one point, a comic with no understanding of the audience rattled off some fell-off-the-truck material about gay sex in prison. It was horrible. It was spectacular. And tonight, it’s all over.
Before Friedland grabs his hat and heads for the exit, I chatted with him about why he’s leaving and what he thinks Funny Moms achieved in its short lifetime.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WCP: Why did you decide to leave D.C.?
Adam Friedland: I had a job opportunity present itself. D.C.’s been great; I’ve really enjoyed living here, and prior to starting comedy, I was booking shows at Subterranean A and living there. And sort of at the tail end of that time, I started doing stand-up. [But] basically if you’re gonna make a career of it, you have to move to a bigger market, and New York or Los Angeles are basically the two markets where there is industry represented, quote unquote.
The neat thing about D.C. is that comedy is really flourishing here right now. You can go to an open mic basically any night of the week at this point. So being in a tertiary market afforded me the ability to really explore and to find my voice, and then once I did that, to develop a strong amount of material. I think I’m leaving with 25 to 30 minutes right now that I’m proud of.
Tell me more about when you first got into comedy.
I got into law school. That was always the plan. And it was like a bucket list item that I had—-I was like, “Oh, I wanna do an open mic.” I went to RFD in Chinatown, and all I remember from the whole experience was this complete rush that I got when I got offstage. I couldn’t remember at all, even moments later, what I’d said. I knew that I got laughs. But I just completely whited out. It was an alluring feeling. It sort of kept me going.
I was voted “class clown” in high school for three straight years, and my parents would always be like, “Why not ‘most likely to succeed?’” And I was like, “I’m a clown, mom and dad! I’m a clown!”
Law school never happened?
I got in, and then I started doing some open mics and stuff and I deferred for a year—-I was like, “I wanna see where this goes.” And then I kept performing. And then it quickly became a passion. I think it took about six months to really—-if this makes any sense—-to take being silly seriously.
In my first year, there was sort of a freedom attached to the fact that I had really no idea what I was doing. One time I was at an open mic and I put a paper bag over my head and told really depressing jokes about my wife and kids and stuff. I tried out all these different things. And then ultimately I sort of developed a voice and developed comfort being on stage speaking in the first person, which was something I was not able to do for at least a year, year and a half.
So, to clarify, after you deferred, you didn’t end up going to law school?
No, I deferred and then I told my parents that while I was young and before I had kids and six figures of student debt, I wanted to see how far I could take this. I’ve had a couple of successes that [made me think] “OK, I’m not wasting my time.” I think there was always that sort of fear for me, that I was just pursuing this crazy dream, and it is sort of a crazy dream, but our generation feels like we’re entitled to pursue dreams [laughs].
When I did the show for Bentzen Ball, I opened the show at the Lincoln Theatre for Nick Kroll and Moshe Kasher and Sara Schaefer, which were some of my favorite comics—-Nick Kroll in particular is someone I completely ripped off for my first year of doing stand-up—-and that night I realized, “I’m not wasting my time.” I saw these established performers backstage, and I saw them nervous. I saw that that’s something that’s always going to be there. I got positive reinforcement from some of my heroes… I think that made me pretty confident in my decision.
When did you start to do Funny Moms?
I started Funny Moms a little bit over a year ago at Wonderland, and the original concept was stand-ups performing live comedy that didn’t necessarily have to be stand-up. In those first couple shows, we had tremendous success because there was a group of five of us who were just my friends that I did stand-up with. I didn’t vary the lineup initially. And they really took to it. And people did really weird things.
One example of a success of Funny Moms’—-if I can take credit for that, which I don’t think it’s fair to fully take credit for—-is my friend Michael Foody, a very talented comic in D.C., has been producing these weird, esoteric, almost meta animations for the last six Funny Moms. So it gave people the opportunity—-who perform stand-up all the time in different venues—-to go outside the line and see what can work in a live setting that isn’t necessarily traditional stand-up.
One thing I’ve noticed about Funny Moms is that you’ll have these self-deprecating, quote-unquote alt comics, but usually there are one or two more traditional comics who will get up and do material that’s much more straightforward. The last time I went, there was one guy who joked about how gay sex is disgusting and Salvadoran women are ugly.
Yeah… There’s an urban comedy circuit in D.C. that’s pretty successful, and [that comic] is one of my favorite people from that scene. I don’t know if he read the audience too well that night [laughs].
Were hecklers ever an issue for you? The audience just didn’t seem like it was into heckling.
The cool thing is that we were able to build a little bit of a name where people knew what to expect and came uniquely for the show, not just people that were hanging out at Wonderland randomly. I think that the crowd there tends to be more progressive and accepting, and cuts the performer a little bit of slack if they’re trying to get to a place that’s just not necessarily clear initially. Sometimes a comedy-club audience can grow impatient with that concept. That’s the cool thing about Wonderland. It’s been a really convenient test kitchen for all of us.
Is anyone else going to pick up the Funny Moms baton in D.C.?
I haven’t spoken to anyone; my focus has been primarily on [getting] Funny Moms up to New York. But I’m not sure. For a while I sort of wasn’t sure about the identity of the show, but I think after I did Bentzen Ball, everything sort of solidified in my mind about what we were doing.
Alternative comedy has always been a label that sort of bugged me because I think comedy is just comedy. Funny is funny at a certain point. Gallagher was smashing watermelons—-that’s not necessarily my thing—-but I think if he was a guy with a mustache and thick plastic glasses smashing watermelons, people would probably say that that was alternative comedy [Ed. note: Gallagher does in fact have a mustache]. You know? Sometimes alternative comedy just means comedy from people that dress hipper. It’s sort of a false label a lot of the time.
But the idea is that stand-up, which I love, is but one corner of a much larger umbrella that is comedy. So breaking down those walls and letting people sort of fuck around onstage was the ultimate goal. And I think we had a lot of positive results.
It was definitely a really important thing for me in my personal development, and I was happy that I got to share it with my friends, basically, which was a really positive byproduct. Hopefully one day we’ll look back on it and be like, “Oh that was crazy, we were performing for 35 people and they were flabbergasted and had no idea what we were doing.” But hopefully when we’re all in comedy retirement communities in Florida, it’ll be a fond memory.
Funny Moms takes place tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Wonderland Ballroom. Free.
Photo courtesy of Adam Friedland