The Rejection Show in the LA TIMES today!

February 1, 2005

Reveling in Their Rejection
On a New York stage, writers, comedians and artists bring new life to work
that was turned down. It's funny, it's cathartic, it's pathetic.

Reveling in Their Rejection

By Josh Getlin, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK ˜ Chances are you don't remember a cartoon recently sent to the New
Yorker magazine, where a patriarchal grandfather thunders at small children
gathered around him: "I came to this country with nothing but the hair on my

Or recall the "Top Ten 'About Schmidt' Sequels" written for the "Late Show
With David Letterman," which included No. 6: "Enough About Schmidt Already,"
No. 3: "Catch Schmidt if You Can" and No. 1: "Who Gives a Schmidt?"

Or saw "Hugsy," an eight-minute sketch developed for NBC's "Saturday Night
Live," in which a sex-starved scientist invents a beautiful blond robot,
only to learn that she has purely platonic feelings for him and wants to
date other men.

You won't find any of this material on tape or in magazines because it was
all rejected. Turned down. Given the heave-ho by editors, producers and
others who either didn't think the jokes were funny or placed their bets on
other material.

Week after week, hundreds of submissions like these are tossed into circular
files in New York and Los Angeles. Some are hidden gems. Others are definite
duds. All have disappeared down a black hole of humor, never to be seen

But now these works are being resurrected. They have found new life ˜ and
new fans ˜ at "The Rejection Show."

Once a month, in a dingy converted school building in Manhattan's East
Village, novelists, TV writers, stand-up comics, cartoonists, filmmakers,
recording artists, dramatists and poets come together for a friendly but
edgy celebration of failure. At "The Rejection Show," every performer loves
being a loser. At least for one night.

"Failure is a part of everyone's life, whether you're a comedian or somebody
working in an office job, and there's no reason to run from it," said Jon
Friedman, a 27-year-old stand-up comic and filmmaker who came up with the
idea for the show.

"We've found that sharing rejection can be therapeutic for performers and
also entertaining," he said. "Failure is sad ˜ but failure is also funny."

People have long been fascinated by comedians and other performers who
stumble in public. Johnny Carson built a good chunk of his persona around
"Tonight Show" monologues that bombed; Rodney Dangerfield and other
comedians turned personal setbacks and humiliation into successful careers.

The public is also hungry for outtakes in film, music, television and
literature ˜ the kind of extras that have become increasingly common on
DVDs, CDs and television blooper specials.

Both phenomena are on display at "The Rejection Show." Participants either
share work that has been turned down, or discuss "rejection-themed"
material, including magazine articles, fiction, and personal stories of
childhood and adult failure.

It's a loose, freewheeling affair where microphones go out, lights flicker
and a crowd of 100 or so jams into a spare, claustrophobic space. The
floor-level stage stands in front of a gray concrete wall, facing three
sections of folding chairs. Before the evening begins, the darkened room
looks like any other downtown club scene.

But "The Rejection Show" does not offer a typical night of stand-up

Most New York comedy audiences are not forgiving. They want laughs. Now.
They'll tell performers if jokes aren't funny.

At "The Rejection Show," however, the very fact that material has failed is
the whole reason for the performance. Audiences have not come to judge. Many
say they show up to enjoy comedy they would not normally see; they are also
drawn by the spectacle of performers grappling with rejection.

The cast is constantly changing. Some are still struggling for recognition,
while others have achieved varying levels of fame. Friedman calls on a
growing list of contacts to recruit each month's performers, who appear for

Colin Quinn, a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus and former host of Comedy
Central's "Tough Crowd," appeared at the show last year and gave the
audience an eye-opening example of how promising material can fizzle.

He performed a comic bit rejected by "Saturday Night Live," a
Elizabethan-era sketch he wrote featuring characters named Notorious and
Facetious who ask a pompous character named Thesaurus to give them one-word
definitions of their names. He played all of the characters himself.

Quinn admits that the skit did not succeed at "The Rejection Show," even
though the audience gave him a healthy round of applause for trying. He said
he'd gladly return and do new material.

"This show plays on a small stage, but it's about something much larger," he
said. "It's not just comedy, it's life.

"Here you can say, 'Look, this stuff wasn't so bad.' Or you can really let
it out in front of strangers and say, 'What could I have been thinking?' "

On a snowy night, a long line begins to form outside Performance Space 122.
Crowds are on the young side, in their late 20s and early 30s, with a
smattering of graybeards. Tickets are $7, a bargain by New York standards.

At 8 p.m., Friedman strides on stage, introduces the lineup and another show
gets underway. The performances usually begin with personal tales of woe.

"My whole life has been one long rejection," says comedian Matt Goldich, who
whips out a faded get-lost letter from Jody, a girl he had a crush on in the
sixth grade. He has held onto this document for 20 years, and wants to share
it with the world.

"Yo, Matt," Jody wrote. "I like you as a friend and nothing more. See ya."

The crowd chortles, many shaking their heads.

Goldich ticks off other rejections in his life, including dismissive letters
X-Hotmail-From: from Rolling Stone saying there are no writing jobs for him. He ends his
spiel with a performance of "Hugsy," the skit he wrote with a friend that
was spurned by "Saturday Night Live" producers. The audience roars with

The mood gets racy ˜ and mean-spirited ˜ when The Hazzards take the stage.

Anne Harris and Sydney Maresca have been writing and singing songs and
accompanying themselves on a Casio keyboard and ukulele since 2000. They got
a break last year when their song "Gay Boyfriend" reached No. 67 on the
British pop charts.

It tanked after a week, though, and the group's record label lost interest
in them. Some fans loved the song. But others sent a flood of e-mails
attacking the two women and their tune. The Hazzards shared the nastiest
ones with the audience.

"You're fat! Get a life!" said one message.

"One guy sent an e-mail saying I reminded him of a woman on a TV soap
opera," Harris noted. "I looked her up on the Internet. She's a post-op

Next up are the New Yorker cartoonists, and several take the stage,
projecting transparencies of recently rejected work onto a screen.

Failure is a part of the game, said Matt Diffee, 35, a comedian and
cartoonist who is co-producer of "The Rejection Show." "But there are times
when it really hurts, you know? You wonder why something so good has just
been tossed and forgotten."

Diffee unveils a recent example: Two seagulls are bobbing on the ocean waves
and one mutters to the other: "Always an oil spill. Never a vodka spill."

He shows another, which he calls autobiographical: A man sits on a sofa,
complaining to his parents, "I'm 32 years old. Stop treating me like an

Then David Sipress pulls out a pile of his rejected work, winning cheers and
whistles for his drawing about the grandfather and the hair on his back.

He gets even bigger laughs for a drawing of two soldiers with binoculars who
are secretly watching a line of aliens as they leave a flying saucer, all
holding hands. One soldier turns to the other and says: "How the hell should
I know if they're gay?"

Soon it's time for the TV writers. Dan Cronin, who penned the rejected
"About Schmidt" top 10 list, is joined by two colleagues. All voice a
similar lament: There are too many talented writers sending in too much good

"I'd say there are hundreds of people in New York alone who want to work for
someone like Letterman, and there are maybe 12 writing jobs on that show,"
Cronin said. "Getting this kind of job is like winning a seat on the Supreme

Sometimes the work is so surreal it doesn't stand a chance ˜ like Patrick
Borelli's "Top Ten Reasons You Know You've Committed Vehicular Manslaughter
in Massachusetts." (No. 6: "While driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike, you
become incensed while listening to a caller on WEEI, who suggests that the
Patriots might lose to Pittsburgh in this Sunday's playoff game, causing you
to swerve and murder a family of three driving to New Hampshire for a ski

He's also had lousy timing. Just before Sept. 11, 2001, Borelli sent in the
"Top Ten Two-for-One Bush Back-to-Work, Kids Back-to-School, Summer's Over,
Don't Be Sad List." (No. 8: Kids ˜ Pack a fun lunch and trade with your
friends. Bush ˜ Don't get sad when Cheney says, "Lunch is over. Get out of
my office.")

"That one didn't stand a chance," Borelli said. "Talk about rotten luck."

Friedman knows the feeling well. Rejection has been hovering over him since
he tried breaking into New York's super-competitive comedy scene four years

A Long Island native, he worked as an intern at NBC, Comedy Central and the
New Yorker, sifting through piles of unsolicited material that poured in
each week. He saw firsthand the rejection letters doled out daily to
hundreds of people like himself.

Friedman caught a break two years ago, when he got a job as the host of the
comedy show "Big Night Out" at a Midtown club. It didn't pay, but he got to
know people in the business and networked with up-and-coming comics. His
confidence onstage grew and he applied for a job as a writing assistant at
Comedy Central.

Then that fall, he said, his life was battered by "a perfect storm of
rejection." Within several weeks, Friedman was passed over for the writing
job. Comic material he submitted to TV shows was all turned down. His
girlfriend dumped him.

"I couldn't believe it," said the comic, a wryly amusing but intensely shy
person whose awkwardness onstage is part of his appeal. "I've experienced
rejection before, everyone has, but all of this happening at once felt like
a bomb exploding inside of me."

At about the same time, Diffee had signed up to appear on "Big Night Out."
On a whim, he decided to show transparencies of cartoons he had drawn that
were rejected by the New Yorker. The audience cheered his work and Friedman,
now obsessed with failure, was struck by the enthusiastic response.

Immediately after the show, he talked with Diffee about the possibility of
doing something even bigger with rejection. "I thought we could take the
theme and make it the basis for an entire evening," Friedman said.

He found a club near Times Square that agreed to play host to the new show.
Crowds began to grow at the Tank, and word of mouth spread. "The Rejection
Show" recently moved into larger digs at PS 122, and there is talk of
bringing a version to Los Angeles. Friedman is also thinking of writing a
book about the show.

"At first I thought this show was a bunch of whiners, complaining they were
misunderstood," said Cronin, the TV writer. "Then I saw there was something
deeper going on."

It's not just that people get up onstage and vent their frustrations, he
said, because the act of facing your frustrations as an artist is only half
the story.

"There's a quintessentially New York feeling in this show," Cronin said.
"We're saying, this is what we've done. We're proud. You got a problem with

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