There was more than one thing in the air Monday at the Cantab Lounge. The first was a fecal stench. The second, fortunately, was the possibility Cambridge has found a successor to the Great and Secret Show — the long-running alternative comedy night that recently ended its run at another Central Square venue, ImprovBoston.
The Cantab show, the Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Sleepover, is the creation of comedians Chris Coxen and Robby Roadsteamer, who intend for it to be weekly, like the Great and Secret, and free, as the Great and Secret was in its heydays with the Walsh Brothers at ImprovBoston’s old location in Inman Square. Coxen and rock star Roadsteamer are mainstays of the local comedy scene and know just about everyone in it, so they have a broad field of talent from which to recruit acts and plenty of good will to keep the talent around while audiences build.
Monday’s inaugural audience included more participants than watchers, but there were also plenty of nights the Great and Secret was like that. In fact, that show’s magic was partly that it was a community of comedians, and the comfortable atmosphere contributed to an environment in which comics felt free to try out material that was new or on the iffier side of alternative. It wasn’t always funny but, well, what did audiences want for free?
The first Sleepover had a little of that going on; Nate Johnson riffed on the odor in the air, creating on the fly the character of Hiram Pines, a formerly homeless man selling perfumes and colognes, and not all instant comedy is going to kill. But it’s consistently more interesting than most of the observational humor trotted out at two-drink-minimum clubs, and Johnson returned later for a Coxen & Johnson “Telepathy brothers” sketch that grew steadily more funny.
Niki Luparelli did a breathy, sweet solo variation on her Steamy Bohemians sex bomb persona, swinging a hula hoop while telling dirty jokes and pulling various items out of (and putting others into) her bra. The most revealing thing about her act, though, was the power and beauty of her singing, despite the silliness of playing along on the ukulele and kazoo. She brought welcome energy to the show, probably topped only by Roadsteamer’s usual antics: roaring exhortations to the audience and abbreviated hard-rock tunes keying off whatever he’s feeling at the time. Monday the crowd got a bit of “Someone Put a Condom on My Dreams,” “I Hope I Get Something Creative Out of This,” about artists’ tendencies to use whatever sucks in their lives, and “I Got Construction Boots,” in which Roadsteamer and glockenspiel player Nikki Dessingue (more commonly known as a keyboardist/lyricist/vocalist for Where the Land Meets the Sea and The Campaign for Real Time) improvised rants about who’s in what kinds of boots. Dessingue’s presence made Roadsteamer’s act strangely charming, like putting a kind of screwball romance filter over the amps and aggression of the man behind “I Put a Baby in You.”
Probably best of all, though, for all of those missing the old Great and Secret, were the comedians who put storytelling into their sets. Mehran told an uproarious X-rated story about a man he met while looking for a roommate. “I love how long we’ve talked about this,” Mehran exulted at the end, but his exuberance and surreal turn of phrase never let the audience tire of the story. Rather than just be curious as to where the story was going, listeners got to relish the smaller surprises of his language along the way. And Ken Reid turned his day’s real estate frustrations into an extended rant on living in Somerville, which he’s come to feel is like the older brother “that dropped out of high school but still buys Cambridge beer. He used to be kind of cool.” (It’s easier to understand the sentiment if you, like Reid, were to come home midday and find two homeless and/or developmentally disabled people making “mouth love” topless on a stained mattress on your sidewalk. All true.)
The Sleepover has a distance to go — first, ensuring there’s no return of what Coxen called the “rustic essence in the air” — before it’s a second home like the Great and Secret. But the hanging-out after a Great and Secret Show wrapped was part of the show's charm, and the Cantab’s bar is open long after Sleepovers end, as well as there being music upstairs. Coxen and Roadsteamer may yet be able to work out the kinks without stamping out the community.
Coxen acknowledged Tuesday that the Great and Secret is something of a model for the Sleepover. “Without a doubt,” he said, he wants a sense of looseness and community. “But the Great and Secret was not an open mic night, and I have the same feelings with this show. What I will say is that for people I trust, like Ken or Shane Mauss, I would definitely encourage them to try new stuff.”
Still, he said, “It’s not just about the performers. I want it to be fun for everyone.”
The Greater Boston Alternative Comedy Sleepover runs every Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Cantab Lounge, 738 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. Call (617) 354-2685 or go to club-bohemia.com.