Inside Rififi: The Obscure Comedy Show That Launched Everyone
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Does the word Rififi mean anything to you? Or does it sound like something our former president would have confused and terrified the nation by tweeting it in the middle of the night? If Rififi means something to you, congrats! That means you’re either a movie nerd, as it’s the title of a 1955 French heist film, or else you’re a comedy nerd.
Today, we’re speaking to the comedy nerds. Movie nerds, proceed to the Cracked homepage. (Recommend anything by JM McNab -Ed)
Pre-fifi & The Birth Of A Lively Comedy Dump
Rififi is often spoken of as the spiritual home for almost every East Coast comedian of note to emerge in the past 10-15 years. But, let’s go back to its beginning, sometime around 2002.
Rififi started life as a New York City video-rental place called Cinema Classics. Even years after being established as Rififi, there was a sign for Cinema Classics. It was confusing. According to the Vulture oral history of Rififi, Eugene Merman & Bobby Tisdale were hip to the fact there was a lightly used but potentially perfect comedy spot in the East Village. After starting their own half-hour comedy shows, the duo decided to team up with the one-hour Invite Them Up!, which quickly became one of the hot comedy shows in New York.
Other comedy shows soon started popping up at Rififi, as well as DJ sets, burlesque shows and dance parties. At that time, the East Village was still fairly cool, and Rififi had the look, feel, and sewage-like smell of a grungy rock bar, which lent the space a “realness."
If you happened to wander into a Rififi comedy show there was a good chance you'd see somebody who now really is somebody. I'm talking about, in alphabetical order: Leo Allen, Aziz Ansari, John Benjamin, Todd Berry, Kurt Braunohler, Hannibal Buress, Wyatt Cenac, Louis CK, David Cross, Andy Daly, Jon Glaser, Matt Goldich Pete Holmes, Gabe Liedman, Nick Kroll, Joe Mande, Liam McEneaney, Eugene Merman, John Mulaney, Larry Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Peretti, Kristen Schall, Max Silvestri, Jenny Slate, Bobby Tisdale, Baron Vaughn, Reggie Watts, and more!
Rififi wasn’t a traditional comedy club, and the owner was utterly indifferent to comedy being performed there. Perfect! Thus Rififi became a rare place for comedians to unveil their darkest, weirdest comedy bits to an enthusiastic audience.
I Had No Idea At The Time…
Rififi was a fun, low-key place that, as someone who spent most of his twenties hanging out in small rock clubs in the Midwest, felt comfortable in a way that a lot of places in New York City did not.
But here’s the thing, I was both at Rififi and not at Rififi. A sort of Schrödinger’s Cat experiment for the clueless. The deal was, yeah, I went to Rififi quite a bit during its 2002 - 2008 heyday. It’s just that I rarely saw the comedy.
I usually went to Rififi to catch DJ The Meat Mistress spinning lounge tunes, see the burlesque show, Starshine my friends Creamy Stevens and Little Brooklyn put on directly after Oh Hello! or pop by the Subway Soul Club dance party run by my friend Phast Phreddie on Saturday nights.
At the time, I didn’t know how big a thing Rififi was in the comedy community. Years later, when name after comedy name from Rififi blasted onto my pop culture radar and the Vulture piece came out, I began to then, and only then, realize I had been at a unique & important cultural thing. Like I said, clinically clueless as it was happening.
It’s almost as if I headed down to the Bowery in 1977 to an obscure rock club called CBGB but instead of going to see The Ramones, Blondie, or the Talking Heads, I went to a side room to watch a risqué puppet show and wondered what was up with all that racket.
You’re probably asking yourself, “So, why didn’t you smarten up and see more of the legendary comedy shows, ya big dummy?” First, rude.
Second, it’s complicated. Some of it was due to the fact that I was a full-time writer/producer for The Onion at the time and if you spend your days up to your neck in comedy, you start to hear punchlines coming. One of the other reasons that I didn’t see the uniqueness of the Rififi scene was probably due to the fact it was far from the only game in town.
Soon after landing in NYC, I started going to one of the original NYC alt-comedy shows, Luna Lounge. It was extra fun as the nearby punk-rock karaoke with a live band helped put a topper on those Monday nights. When it was happening, the comedy at Rififi just seemed like another mid-aughts show. In retrospect, that embarrassment of riches means I was pretty spoiled, comedy wise, but I didn't know it.
Rififi Wasn't Just About Comedians, Thank-You Very Much
Many Rififi comics have noted that if their shows ran late they'd soon be met with scowls from wig-toting, huffy, angry women in nipple pasties. Creamy Stevens is convinced they were talking about her. She ran the Burlesque show on Thursday nights and had to make sure the bawdy trains ran on time.
Creamy Stevens didn’t remember any outright animosity between the two groups, but observed that they “had absolutely no use for each other."
While it may be true that there was little outright animosity, one memory does speak to the simmering performer tension around Rififi. It involves an interaction between one of the comedy hosts, who we’ll call Comedy Host Who Became Quite Famous, and DJ The Meat Mistress. This is not an exact replication of the conversation, but it gets the point across.
Comedy Host Who Became Quite Famous: “Hello Meat Mistress, could you turn the music down? We can hear it inside the show and it’s disrupting the delicate balance of our comedy.”
Meat Mistress: “I have to have the music at a certain volume so the Go-Go dancer in the window can move to a beat. Why don’t you close the thick curtain to block out the sound? That’s what it’s there for.”
Comedy Host Who Became Quite Famous: “I need to keep it open in case someone else wants to come to the show.”
Meat Mistress: “I don’t know what to tell you.” (DJ shrug)
Many of the burlesque performers were not only in the same ideological universe as the Rififi comedians but could stay right with them, funny-wise. I particularly remember Creamy Stevens doing a routine where she dressed as a cow who found herself delicious and another where she did a strip tease immediately after being in an offstage car accident. You can even find the cow outfit on the website here.
It Was A Thing Until It Wasn't
Rififi bartenders had an unusually loose hand with free drinks. My recollection was that if you bought a drink and threw down a decent tip, you basically drank free for the rest of the night. I’m not a big drinker but I know a good bargain when I slug it.
Additionally, Rififi's popularity apparently became a big part of its undoing. Its most popular event was a Friday night dance party “Trash!” a dance party that didn't stop, resulting in drunken hoofers noisily hanging out on the street into the wee hours. This led to neighbors calling 311 to frequently complain.
When the club’s stability looked dire, John Mulaney was ready to advocate for Rififi at a city hearing regarding it’s liquor license. He demurred after learning that one of the issues was Rififi didn’t have a cabaret license, thus it was illegal for anyone to be performing there at all.
Rififi closed in 2008. Its demise has been widely mourned, but ultimately Rififi would have changed from how dewy-eyed comics remember it. It’s not like John Mulaney would have hosted a weekly show there after becoming the biggest stand up in the country.
Perhaps a new generation would have remade Rififi in their own image. Perhaps Rififi’s owner would have eventually taken a cue from CBGBs and taken the urinals to Las Vegas. We’ll never know. The loss is bittersweet but the lesson is clear: keep in the comedy moment, because something massive might be happening right in front of you.