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Reveling in Their Rejection

On a New York stage, writers, comedians and artists bring new life to work that was turned down. It's funny, it's cathartic, it's pathetic.

February 01, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Chances are you don't remember a cartoon recently sent to the New Yorker magazine, where a patriarchal grandfather thunders at small children gathered around him: "I came to this country with nothing but the hair on my back!"

Or recall the "Top Ten 'About Schmidt' Sequels" written for the "Late Show With David Letterman," which included No. 6: "Enough About Schmidt Already," No. 3: "Catch Schmidt if You Can" and No. 1: "Who Gives a Schmidt?"

Or saw "Hugsy," an eight-minute sketch developed for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," in which a sex-starved scientist invents a beautiful blond robot, only to learn that she has purely platonic feelings for him and wants to date other men.

You won't find any of this material on tape or in magazines because it was all rejected. Turned down. Given the heave-ho by editors, producers and others who either didn't think the jokes were funny or placed their bets on other material.

Week after week, hundreds of submissions like these are tossed into circular files in New York and Los Angeles. Some are hidden gems. Others are definite duds. All have disappeared down a black hole of humor, never to be seen again.

But now these works are being resurrected. They have found new life -- and new fans -- at "The Rejection Show."

Once a month, in a dingy converted school building in Manhattan's East Village, novelists, TV writers, stand-up comics, cartoonists, filmmakers, recording artists, dramatists and poets come together for a friendly but edgy celebration of failure. At "The Rejection Show," every performer loves being a loser. At least for one night.

"Failure is a part of everyone's life, whether you're a comedian or somebody working in an office job, and there's no reason to run from it," said Jon Friedman, a 27-year-old stand-up comic and filmmaker who came up with the idea for the show.

"We've found that sharing rejection can be therapeutic for performers and also entertaining," he said. "Failure is sad -- but failure is also funny."

People have long been fascinated by comedians and other performers who stumble in public. Johnny Carson built a good chunk of his persona around "Tonight Show" monologues that bombed; Rodney Dangerfield and other comedians turned personal setbacks and humiliation into successful careers.

The public is also hungry for outtakes in film, music, television and literature -- the kind of extras that have become increasingly common on DVDs, CDs and television blooper specials.

Both phenomena are on display at "The Rejection Show." Participants either share work that has been turned down, or discuss "rejection-themed" material, including magazine articles, fiction, and personal stories of childhood and adult failure.

It's a loose, freewheeling affair where microphones go out, lights flicker and a crowd of 100 or so jams into a spare, claustrophobic space. The floor-level stage stands in front of a gray concrete wall, facing three sections of folding chairs. Before the evening begins, the darkened room looks like any other downtown club scene.

But "The Rejection Show" does not offer a typical night of stand-up material.

Most New York comedy audiences are not forgiving. They want laughs. Now. They'll tell performers if jokes aren't funny.

At "The Rejection Show," however, the very fact that material has failed is the whole reason for the performance. Audiences have not come to judge. Many say they show up to enjoy comedy they would not normally see; they are also drawn by the spectacle of performers grappling with rejection.

The cast is constantly changing. Some are still struggling for recognition, while others have achieved varying levels of fame. Friedman calls on a growing list of contacts to recruit each month's performers, who appear for free.

Colin Quinn, a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus and former host of Comedy Central's "Tough Crowd," appeared at the show last year and gave the audience an eye-opening example of how promising material can fizzle.

He performed a comic bit rejected by "Saturday Night Live," a Elizabethan-era sketch he wrote featuring characters named Notorious and Facetious who ask a pompous character named Thesaurus to give them one-word definitions of their names. He played all of the characters himself.

Quinn admits that the skit did not succeed at "The Rejection Show," even though the audience gave him a healthy round of applause for trying. He said he'd gladly return and do new material.

"This show plays on a small stage, but it's about something much larger," he said. "It's not just comedy, it's life.

"Here you can say, 'Look, this stuff wasn't so bad.' Or you can really let it out in front of strangers and say, 'What could I have been thinking?' "

*

On a snowy night, a long line begins to form outside Performance Space 122. Crowds are on the young side, in their late 20s and early 30s, with a smattering of graybeards. Tickets are $7, a bargain by New York standards.

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