WHEN she started the alternative comedy venue the Un-Cabaret about 15 years ago, Beth Lapides set down a few rules: no shtick, no costumes, no characters. Comics could bring notes onstage, but no wigs.
"We told them, 'Do material that your head is going to explode if you don't tell somebody,' " she said.
Perhaps that's why while mainstream comedy clubs have boomed and busted around it, Un-Cabaret has flourished as a place where performers can, nay must, be true to their own voice.
"Sometimes you ask yourself, 'Why are you standing there naked in public?' And other times it really feels good to be naked," noted Michael Patrick King, best known as a television writer and producer ("Sex and the City," "The Comeback") who also performs at Un-Cabaret, where the nakedness is emotional rather than literal.
Lapides and Greg Miller, her producing partner and husband of 20 years, recounted the Un-Cab story recently over dinner in a West Hollywood cafe. The Un-Cabaret concept, and the name, came to Lapides in a moment of revelation after years of performance. She started out as a visual artist in New York in the early '80s, then moved onto performance art, which brought acclaim and government grants.
Soon her performances started to look something like stand-up. The more comedic her work became, the less she could depend on grants. "They're not really looking for the funny," Lapides noted. Comedy clubs were sprouting up everywhere, so she decided to hit that circuit, "without realizing how horrible it really was. I wanted to do comedy, and yet I was going into these environments that aesthetically offended me, politically offended me, morally, socially, gender-ally."
By 1990, she and Miller had moved to Los Angeles. Looking to run a one-woman show before a European tour, she did a one-nighter at the Woman's Building, a feminist arts center downtown. The audience laughed way too much, Lapides recalled. After the show, she asked some of them why. "They said 'We're women and lesbians and artists, and we go to the comedy clubs and they just make fun of us,' " Lapides recalled. She promised that upon her return from Europe, "I'll make you a show that's going to be un-homophobic, un-xenophobic, un-misogynist, it's going to be the un-cabaret."
BY 1993, Un-Cabaret had landed in the basement club of the new Luna Park in West Hollywood. Lapides and Miller booked three Sundays. The show ran weekly for the next seven years.
Explosive heads abounded. Just about every alternative comic took to the Un-Cab stages. Jon Stewart stopped by for a set, invited along by a friend. Bobcat Goldthwait performed without his customary screaming.
"The first time I went, I met Andy Dick, Kathy Griffin, Janeane Garofalo, Jack Black and Mary Lynn Rajskub, all in one night," said Scott Thompson of the Kids in the Hall troupe.
Margaret Cho reveled in the difference from the mainstream clubs. "There was a lot more room for a kind of honesty, as opposed to set-up, joke," she said. "It was great, because that was the style I had already somewhat developed but had a hard time working out in clubs."
At Un-Cabaret, comedians develop material that feeds other projects. Julia Sweeney's live show and movie "God Said, 'Ha!' " emerged from performances there, as did Laura Kightlinger's book "Quick Shots of False Hope: A Rejection Collection, Vol. 1."
AFTER Luna Park closed in 2000, the show moved around until arriving at its present home at M Bar in Hollywood, with monthly shows that give the couple more time for other endeavors. Said Lapides, "For us, the Un-Cabaret is the well from which the water for all of the other projects comes."
The first spinoff was Say the Word, a show featuring comedy writers who would only go onstage with a script. "That opens up a much bigger pool of people," Miller said. "The amount of talent in this town that isn't being utilized is criminal."
The pair then produced CDs of both Say the Word and Un-Cabaret. They made a pilot for an MTV talk show that didn't get picked. That led to the Other Network, a popular club show featuring unaired pilots by talents like Judd Apatow and Bob Odenkirk. Lapides and Miller are in talks to create a series out of it -- a pilot about failed pilots.
The Other Network also spawned a comedy-writing contest with winners getting notes from TV writers, and a series of CDs of Lapides interviewing some of those writers about the business. Then there's the Un-Cab Lab, a workshop in which students learn how to brave the stage with their own stories.
Somewhere in there, Lapides reviewed all her notes from her years of Un-Cab performances, with the idea of writing a memoir. Instead, she came out with ... a book of haiku. Funny and sharp, "Did I Wake You?: Haikus for Modern Living" was published this year and led to Lapides' new one-woman show, which will debut as part of the Central Library's ALOUD program on June 28. (One example: "The absence of yes / over time, is equal to / no Hollywood math.")
Through it all, Un-Cabaret itself goes on, the same, yet evolving. "I've really come to believe that the subject of comedy is how are we the same and how are we different. That is one reason it has really blossomed as an art form," Lapides said. "Just because you're trying to make it funny doesn't mean it is necessarily less artful."
Who: Featuring Beth Lapides, Jeff Garlin ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and Mike McDonald ("MADtv")
Where: M-Bar, 1253 N. Vine St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Info: (323) 993-3305, www.uncabaret.com