Live long enough and points on your timeline shine brighter than the rest. Some are due to the false sheen of nostalgia. But occasionally a moment beckons through the gray of memory because it truly was important. Because it did matter. Because it was the apogee of a certain time and place.
For me, one of those moments was seeing Paul Rust shit onstage.
If you don't know Rust by name, you've likely seen him on one of your screens. He's been an integral part of the Comedy Bang! Bang! series, popped up in Brad Pitt's squad in Inglourious Basterds, and co-created and stars in the Judd Apatow–produced Netflix series Love. Previous to that, he was getting precious stage time at the UCB Theater in Los Angeles, long before it became the talent factory it is now.
I was in the UCB audience most nights in 2006. It was a ticket that was cheap (still is) and easy to get (not so much). But back then, before cellphone cameras and thousands of shows delivered on hundreds of platforms, it felt like a shared secret. Here was this incredible collection of comedic talent every night, for cheap or free.
While Tuesday night's Comedy Death-Ray shows were rightfully legendary, my personal favorites were the theater's Saturday midnight offerings. One of them was the Dirtiest Sketch in LA Contest, a monthly collection of ten sketches performed by anyone who wrote one. The show had three rules: "It has to be dirty. It has to be written. It has to be less than three minutes." It was punk as fuck.
These were dangerous, weird, gross, disturbing, and brilliant shows. Often all at once. Driving home through those empty LA roads at 2 AM, having seen whatever weird shit you saw that night, with the hum of laughter still ringing in your ears was a near-religious experience.
"Some of the best were put on by really weird failures, the fact they were failing made it that much better," says Cyrus Helf, a friend who attended a handful. "But then you had people like Paul [Rust] and Neil [Campbell], who took it to the next level. It was offensive and dirty and disgusting, but they performed it with such dexterity and skill, it elevated it to the magic we saw that night."
The specifics of the sketch in question, through my own memory and other eyewitness accounts, goes like this: Lights up. Paul and Neil entered, playing buffoons in an over-the-top near-vaudeville style. Dumb voices, dramatic gestures. They maybe were camping? Early in the scene, Paul told Neil he thought he'd been sexually assaulted, so Neil tells Paul to take off his pants, to check. "Then Neil was like, 'I'll take my pants off, too, so you feel more comfortable,'" recalls Helf. "That's when, as an audience member, you're like, what the fuck?"
The sketch escalated, as per rules of Sketch Writing 101, and both Neil and Paul were suddenly naked onstage. By that point, a plastic sheet had been laid out. Paul mentioned to Neil that his assailant may have put something inside him. Neil went in for a closer inspection. Paul turned around and gave the audience a nice look too.
Now, I don't blame you if you don't believe that a naked man onstage spreading his ass elicited a roar of laughter from the attendant audience. And yet, it is an undeniable truth. What happened next was even more unbelievable, but just as true.
"Perfectly timed, Paul starts shitting," recalls Helf. "He shit on command, on cue, in front of an audience. Talk about performance anxiety."
"I remember it being perfectly timed," says Tiffany Silver Braun, also in that night's audience. "I was just thinking, did he take laxatives? Because it was exact perfect comedic timing." She pauses. "Such a weird thing to talk about."
As you might expect, the audience lost their collective minds when Rust pooped onstage. It remains the most incredible reaction to a live performance I've ever seen or heard, a collective buy-in by everyone that makes the ten-second event feel like being in one of those first Nirvana shows, or seeing Dylan at a Greenwich Village coffee shop." People can relate to something like that, whether it's some amazing concert or performance, where you walk out with a grin on your face," says Helf. "It's a high."
Rust pooping onstage also broke the show. That sketch led to an unfortunate "who can top it" environment where performers started being gross for gross' sake, with no sense of style, narrative, or timing. (Watching someone vomit is disgusting, waiting for someone to do so is just annoying.) The plastic sheet became norm rather than exception. Soon enough, more rules were enforced, a ban on bodily fluids among them. The ceiling had been hit from Rust's bottom.
"Why paint the Mona Lisa twice?" asks Helf.
That sketch is still whispered about in certain circles in New York and LA, at industry parties and in green rooms. And for good reason: It was the perfect dump at the perfect moment in the perfect place at the perfect time. It was a magical.
I was lucky to have seen it.
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