Each week in a Lower Manhattan space called both Rififi and Cinema Classics — a combination bar, video store, and comedy club — comedians Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale host "Invite Them Up." It’s a kind of Little Rascals talent show for emerging comics and musicians, not much different from what happens at Cambridge’s Comedy Studio, one of the local rooms where Mirman honed his skills before relocating to New York City.
The shows have a no-frills, homespun feel that’s captured on the new live three-CD-plus-DVD set Invite Them Up (Comedy Central), which was recorded and filmed over three nights in May 2005. Like the Comedy Studio, the Rififi nights are a kind of safe harbor where regular audiences come expecting anything and the performers have the right to bomb without their careers, fledgling or otherwise, blowing up.
The package features 23 comics and three musicians, and as you’d imagine, there’s a lot of dross — enough to exclude at least one entire CD from the set. But the idea here is vérité. And there are some brilliant, unpredictable performances. Mirman (who appears at the Worcester Palladium with Cake, Tegan and Sara, and Gogol Bordello on January 19) and another former Bostonian, David Cross, offer especially clever turns. In a segment snuck into the package from a performance at Toad’s Place in New Haven, where Mirman opened for the comedy troupe Stella, he dismantles a digital heckler. A few months before the show, he’d received e-mails from Connecticut saying in essence that he sucked and daring him to read them on stage. Mirman did better: he brought one of the writers up onto the boards, read his note, and delivered a witheringly funny response. At Rififi, Cross and Jon Benjamin improvise a hilarious Q&A, with Cross playing the role of a doctor who performs abortions up to three weeks after birth by reinserting children into the birth canal. It’s not a Cosby moment.
There are a few solid comedic musical bits by Andy Blitz and the duo God’s Pottery, who come off as the anti–Tenacious D, extolling Jesus’s virtues in verse laced with references to premarital sex and alcoholism. But the performances on the "Musicians" portion of the DVD are atrociously inept save for the talented picker Langhorne Slim, who recently performed with Mirman at the Middle East in Cambridge. And all of the live performances on the DVD are badly filmed and edited, though they do stick to the rough-edged, do-it-yourself æsthetic that Mirman admires in the indie-rock bands with whom he frequently tours. It’s no surprise that he signed a deal with Sub Pop Records last year and recorded a to-be-released album for the Seattle-based label that birthed "grunge" in October.
Mirman is also an enthusiastic maker of concept videos — humorous shorts produced on half a shoestring that have ranged from celebrating the weirdness of Trekkies to satirizing TV cop dramas to poking holes in the pretentiousness aura of the film American Beauty. His two new efforts here are less successful, though the cheesy costume his wine-swilling, time-traveling knight wears in "Sir Eugene" is laughable in itself. And "Eugch (Sexpert)" is a great idea — lampooning the studly advice doled out by men’s junk magazines like Maxim — that fails because of strained writing.