Newsday ‘Meet The Rejects’ (Cover Story)

By Karin Lipson – Newsday April 18, 2004


The show’s about to start, and a videotape needed for a comedy routine has been chomped to bits by a VCR.

Another tape has lost its audio. And the printed program announcing the performers looks, well, kinda lopsided.

But, hey, what could be more fitting? This is, after all, “The Rejection Show,” a monthly live review of comic sketches, jokes and magazine cartoons that celebrates what others have spurned.

Like what?

Like an interview with a sullen NASA robot.

Or a TV sports show in which the “athletes” are dogs.

Or a routine about a woman who’s a sex slave in a doughnut factory.

Welcome, rejects

The hottest ticket at The Tank, an aptly named midtown Manhattan performance space run by a creative bunch of 20-somethings, “The Rejection Show” is a refuge for the rebuffed, a haven for the heave-hoed, a destination for the deep-sixed. Performed on the third Wednesday of every month (it rears its mischievous head again Wednesday at 8 p.m.), “The Rejection Show” lets writers, stand-up comics and artists take the stage without pay and dust off material that’s been turned down by some of the very best in the business — think Conan, Letterman, “The Daily Show,” The New Yorker magazine. Who wouldn’t want such high-quality rejections?

OK, so being accepted would be better, but the performers at “The Rejection Show” aren’t just comedic wannabes. “They’re more established,” explains Jon Friedman, the wicked brain behind “The Rejection Show” and himself a stand-up comic and writer’s assistant at TV’s Comedy Central. “They have success. For the most part, they are the actual writers on these shows.” (Coming up Wednesday: Colin Quinn, who’ll be the first TV comedy-show host to reveal his own rejections at the show.)

A small price to pay
On the Night of the Technical Malfunctions a few weeks ago, the 26-year-old Friedman is riffing a little for the crowd, a congenial mix of hip young New Yorkers and out-of-towners who’ve heard or read that this is a pretty happening place to be — especially for the painless entrance fee of $5. (They get their tickets at the door, or through www .smarttix.com/212-868-4444.) The Tank, at 432 W. 42nd St., accommodates about 100 in its long, skinny main room and a small side area, and tonight the joint is jammed.

“Last night I was praying, please, let everything go smoothly,” Friedman tells the audience. “But God, or someone up there, must have a sense of humor, and he said, ‘I reject that.’”

Pretty soon, Friedman and his co-host, 23-year-old Adam Cole- Kelly (they met at Comedy Central), are warming up the crowd by reading aloud some e-mails they’ve supposedly gotten from friends they’ve invited to the show. To no one’s surprise, they’ve been roundly rejected.

“Sorry I can’t come,” writes Friedman’s friend Greg. “I got into a fight with a clown.” (A clown?)

Cole-Kelly reads an e-mail from a neighbor who’s a producer for a band called, with almost impossible appropriateness, the All-American Rejects; Cole-Kelly had approached the neighbor about letting the band play at an upcoming show.

Neighbor: “Definitely not. P.S. Give me back my drill.”

Every little bit counts
After a brief bit (repeated every month) in which comedian Peter Kassnove pretends to be a rejected candidate for the part of guest host — which, of course, gives him excellent credentials to do the hosting — the first official “rejectee” of the night is announced. He’s Christian Finnegan, a writer for Comedy Central’s “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn.”

Finnegan revives a comic sketch — ditched by Quinn — that would have had the “Tough Crowd” star interviewing NASA’s Mars rover Spirit (the spacecraft that went abruptly silent for a time while exploring Mars in January). Reading the role of Spirit, Finnegan calls NASA “so needy,” always wanting to talk. “It eventually got so annoying, I just turned off my ringer,” Spirit explains. “Sometimes I just want to rove.” And so a space-exploration crisis is reduced to the cliches of a romantic relationship gone sour.

It’s over-the-top, silly — and actually pretty funny. In fact, you can’t help wondering just why it was rejected.

The answer comes from the guy who did the rejecting. According to Quinn, the tone of the sketch was out of date. “I felt the whole ‘needy, NASA-dysfunctional’ language was a little anachronistic,” the “Tough Crowd” star says in a phone conversation a couple of weeks later. “There’s a new version of that now,” he says, “which is like a Dr. Phil thing, like ‘I’m not a victim.’”

And, oh yeah — there’s the fact, too, that “I always hated spaceships, ever since I was a little kid,” he adds. “That never helps, when the boss is a dummy about space stuff. ” Finnegan is philosophical about his spacecraft routine’s failure to achieve lift-off: “There are 8,000 different kinds of funny, and not every one is right for every show.”

Space, the funny frontier
The sketch seems to be the right kind of funny, though, for “The Rejection Show,” whose audience laps it up, hooting and clapping. Even when a subsequent rejectee, comic Chelsea Peretti (author of the sex-slave- doughnut-facility concept), keeps cracking up over the fatuousness of some of her own past work as she tries to perform it, the audience laughs along, in the spirit of the evening.

And that’s one of the secrets of the show, Friedman explains.

When it comes to comedy, “the perception is the difference,” says the onetime class clown of East Meadow High School. For example, “my friends think I’m a funny guy, so if I say something that’s borderline funny, them knowing me as the funny guy — it’s always hilarious.”

Friedman came up with the idea for “The Rejection Show” last summer, not incidentally after a girlfriend rejected him. When his friend, New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee, appeared in another show Friedman was hosting and displayed some cartoons rejected by the magazine, “it just snapped at me — this could be my thing,” Friedman recalls.

He contacted The Tank, whose general manager and comedy curator, 26-year-old Justin Krebs, was enthusiastic. The show debuted in September and has been gaining in popularity ever since.

Diffee is now a regular at the “The Rejection Show”; every month he and a guest New Yorker cartoonist of his choosing screen their rejects on a projector, offering observations on their work. The cartoons tend to be “the ones that are either too weird or too hip for The New Yorker, so the audience can feel they’re getting quality stuff, but also that they’re being counterculture, in a way,” Diffee says in a pre-show phone conversation.

For Diffee’s guest cartoonist, David Sipress, the show is a unique outlet. “Cartooning is a very private activity,” says Sipress, who works from home. “You never get to see people open the magazine and laugh. So this is a wonderful opportunity. … It’s thrilling when the image goes up and you read the caption and people laugh.”

It’s especially rewarding because rejection is so much a part of a cartoonist’s life, says Sipress, also a regular contributor to The New Yorker. “Every week, we bring in anywhere from 10 to 20 cartoons, and if you’re lucky, you sell one.” Even then, “you’re left with 17 you didn’t sell. And they’re your babies, so the rejection experience is your constant companion.”

Of course, you don’t have to be an artist or a show-biz personality to know what rejection feels like. Everyone has felt its sting; everyone has feared it. Sometimes the fear can take on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s why the audience responds to rejectee Jessi Klein’s comic narrative about the misbegotten TV pilot she produced called “Dog Zone.” These days Klein, 28, is director of development at Comedy Central. But three years ago, she was a junior development executive experiencing “a lull, where I was really scared I was going to be fired. … All I was doing was Googling myself.”

Told to come up with some “offbeat sports ideas,” she developed “Dog Zone,” a mock ESPN-like show featuring canines competing in activities like jumping through hoops and running between poles.

At the very least, she first figured, the concept would give her some leeway at Comedy Central: “Jobs are like jury duty. You do it once and nobody checks for years.”

Amazingly, her boss liked Klein’s idea — until the star of the pilot, a champion corgi named Piper, “had a meltdown” during its taping and missed his poles. (The audience gets to see some tape here showing Piper’s debacle.) The pilot, Klein notes wryly, was not picked up.

A few days after the show, Klein, who also does other stand-up, muses on the phone that she’d never told her “Dog Zone” story publicly before. “I think I blocked it out, but all my friends remember that it was an awful time,” she notes. “The thing about ‘The Rejection Show,’ by the time you come to talk about something there, you can kind of look back on it and laugh,” she says. “The fact that the audience laughed — that’s a little bit of therapy.”