All illustrations via Drew Shannon.
I am in the basement of a grocery store in Manhattan on the corner of 26th and 8th. It’s 11 PM on a Monday night. Two hundred people are sardined beside me in foldout chairs. We are all here for the same reason: to watch the basement—also known as the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre—transform into a glimmering assortment of comedy’s finest offerings. Every Monday night the space plays host to New York City’s Whiplash comedy show. It’s here heavyweights like Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman are known to make surprise drop-in appearances to try out new material. But tonight, I was to find out, was going to be different, and very, very special.
It started as normally as you might hope an evening in a grocery store basement would: Chris Gethard was filling in as host for Leo Allen and individually introduced each seasoned comic as he or she hit the stage. Among them were Nick Thune, Billy Wayne Davis, Sheng Wang, Michelle Biloon, and Cameron Esposito—each of them riotously funny. Then Hannibal Buress made a surprise appearance and, after announcing he was out of material mid-set, proceeded to ad-lib 20 minutes of material about doing mushrooms at Bonnaroo. As Monday night bled into Tuesday morning, Gethard returned to the stage.
“We actually have another surprise guest tonight,” he said. “It’s gonna be a late one but it’ll be worth it. Craig Robinson, everyone!”
Robinson sauntered on stage looking serious, angry even. A yellow Nirvana logo smiled out of his burly gut as he straightened his tall frame, peering out to the crowd. I felt his eyes burn into me and, feeling sufficiently intimidated, forced an uncomfortable smile. He waited patiently for the screeches and cheers to halt. Known for his roles in The Office, Pineapple Express, This is the End, and several flirtations with drug possession charges, Robinson evaluated the faces staring back at him. He wasted no time in jumping into his trademark, blunt comedic style—unapologetically crass and ripe with pussy jokes:
“What? You should all be doing this by now,” he said, frantically pantomiming a woman masturbating.
The crowd erupted, ravenously snapping photos of Robinson on their phones.
“No fucking pictures.” His voice cut through the laughter.
Assuming this anecdote was a bit of token situation humor, I watched dozens of flashing iPhone lights flicker with images of a miniature Robinson figurines and laughed along.
“I said no fucking pictures. You’re not gonna put this on Twitter or Facebook or fucking Instagram. This shit is for you guys here tonight. Ain’t nobody else gonna see it. You understand?”
Members of the packed UCB crowd began to realize he was serious, and many folded their iPhones away. Expectant and confused eyes hung on Robinson as he introduced the man standing beside him. “Everybody, this is Umbutu. Umbutu don’t speak no English, but he plays a mean piano.” Umbutu—also known as English-speaking musician Chris Rob—proceeded to jam on the piano as Robinson sung Michael Jackson tunes and improvised melodies about the audience’s pussies. I assumed they were improvised because, as Robinson played off the audience, he stumbled on his words and melodies a couple times. But it didn’t matter—you could tell he was in his element and his comfort put the entire room at ease.
Sweat poured down his face as he grinded up on an audience member, proposing a duel.
“Who can play the piano better than me?” he asked. “If one of y’all come up here and play better than me I’ll give you…” Robinson fished in his pockets for a worthy prize. “Here’s 20 dollars, an afro-pick, and a container full of MDMA and weed,” he offered, laying out the prizes on the top of the piano for all to see.
Silence filled the room. Someone tried to snap a picture.
“You want to get your ass kicked?” Robinson boomed. “I’m not fucking around. I said no pictures.” He paused, and perhaps sensing there would be no takers—switched gears. “Get up, everybody get up. It’s time to dance, motherfuckers. I’m gonna need you to clap. I mean really clap—clap like you mean it. Like every clap is helping you get away from your troubles.” He said, discreetly placing the container of weed and MDMA back into his jeans.
Two hundred people stood up from their chairs as he urged everyone to come on stage. A rush of bodies moved towards him and Umbutu. The two continued feverishly beating the piano, flooding the room with sounds of Nirvana and The Monkeys. Robinson’s unamplified voice shook the room. We did our best to sing along as stomping, clapping, and off-pitched singing gyrated against each other.
“Can I get some water before I fucking vomit,” Robinson declared.
As the clock threatened to reach 3 AM, Robinson singled out individual guests to improvise lyrics. One individual was named Mike. Robinson insisted on calling him Bike and added, “What kinda name is that?” After a pause, he declared: “I put my dick in yo face,” squishing his crotch in Bike’s face.
“What do y’all know about Bike?” He asked.
“He’s a white guy… With a beard…” One audience member offered.
“OK, now sing it to me,” Robinson demanded.
“Biiiike is a white guy with a beaaard,” the audience member announced in crackling, flat tones.
He noticed Bike trying to take a photo. “What the fuck are you doing Bike? You want more dick in your face?” He asked.
As the night continued to devolve, the purpose of his guest appearance became increasingly unclear: was he experimenting with new, interactive material or did he just want to party?
Whatever he was doing was working. Even still, however, pulling out a stash of drugs in public after multiple drug possession charges seemed kind of ill-conceived.
But nobody cared. The teeming crowd chomped on the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." “Here we are now, entertain us,” we belched.
Dim light and heaving noise swelled in the room. Had someone dared to bring out their camera to snap a picture it’s unlikely that Robinson—entrenched in sweat and melody—would have noticed. But no one did.
Instead, we swayed on stage in a transfixed haze as the dividing line between comedy and party continued to smear. It was clear Robinson didn’t expect our understanding. Still, his relentless new material was his way of asking for it, if only to see what might happen. And, thankfully, what happened was an unforgettable hour in a New York basement, surrounded by sweat, strangers, and deli meats.
I only wish a few photos would have lived as documented proof. If someone had asked nicely, maybe we could have even had a Vine.
But in the end it wouldn’t have made a difference. Sure, the night would never realize its full Instagram potential, but it didn’t matter; no photo could aptly retell the night. The only thing worth regretting was Robinson’s unfinished piano duel. If you are reading this, Craig Robinson, I’d like to take you up on the challenge. I don’t play much, but I play a mean "Heart and Soul."