Eric Vetter and No Name Prepare for United Palace Theater Show

Eric Vetter and No Name Prepare for United Palace Theater Show

Photo: Thomas R. Pryor

Tomorrow evening, native Washington Heights resident Eric Vetter and his comedy-variety show No Name will perform with some big-ticket guest comedians at the legendary United Palace Theater for their 20th Anniversary. The show is set to feature NPR host Ophira Eisenberg, stand-up comic and former VH1 panelist Christian Finnegan, The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac and performances by No Name’s 13-piece house band The Summer Replacements.

Last week, in between a storytelling open mic at Word Up Bookstore and a show at Otto’s Shrunken Head, I met with Vetter at Indian Road Café, where he was helping host The Uptown Cabaret: Spotlight with Alex DeSuze. DeSuze, who created the cabaret series, is also the drummer for The Summer Replacements, where she goes by “The Assassin.” In between introducing piano composer Amy Englehart, greeting friends and neighbors throughout the restaurant and profusely thanking the Indian Road staff, Vetter talked to me about the upcoming performance, the history of No Name and his favorite comedy shows in New York City.

Q: I’m so excited for you getting the chance to perform at the United Palace Theater. How did that come about?

United Palace Theater

A: I asked. [laughs] First of all, you need to know, I saw the very first movie I remember ever seeing at the United Palace when I was very, very little in the last couple of years when they were still showing movies. So when they showed Casablanca there this fall, it was the return of movies. My sister [and I] made a big deal [that] we were going to go and see the movie.

When [the movie] was over, I lingered around as the crowd was filing out. At that time I was looking at places [for No Name’s anniversary show] and it never occurred to me that it could be [held at the United Palace]. I just wandered down to the stage—because no one was keeping me from doing it—and I stepped up on stage and looked out at the audience and [thought], this feels good.

The next day, I dropped them a line and figured I’d get a polite [no]. In less than an hour, [they replied], “We’re interested. Let’s talk.” It took a long time to make it official, but it all came from that. I stopped looking at other venues because [I thought], how am I going to top an 84-year-old, 3,000-seat movie house?

To have [the show] in the Heights is a big deal to me [too] because when we started doing shows […] performers said their friends wouldn’t travel above 14th Street to see a show. 

Q: Do you have any other dream venues you’d like to play?

A: That’s a good question. Every good venue has its charms and they’re all different. I love doing the show out of the bookshop. It’s really cool when we’ve got a good turn out and you’ve got people standing all the way in the back by the door. I mean, The Beacon Theater would be great, but let’s see how we do [next week]. If [we’re successful], people may [find out] about it who hadn’t heard of [No Name] before. Actually, for our show [on Friday], I was contacted [about getting stage time for] W. Kamau Bell [of FXX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell].

Q: Wow, that’s really cool. Do you have any tips for connecting with others in the entertainment world?

A: Just do it. Do it, do it, do it every chance you get wherever you go. […] Someone said [to me], “Wow, twenty years. That’s amazing.” I [said], “No, we just didn’t stop doing shows.” […] Seriously, there is no substitute for doing [what you love] as often as you can. Two things: If you’re passionate about [what you’re doing], that’s the best way to develop your skills and meet people. And the other thing is that [performing a lot] is a good way to find out if you really have the heart for it or not.

That’s what we’re built on. The first six years, [No Name was] a sketch comedy group. A friend of mine from college and I started this. We got a little bit of notice here and there: The New York Post [named us] their “Comedy Pick of the Week,” we got to play Caroline’s a couple of times. My partner and I had always talked about trying to do a variety show and at six years in, [when] she went back to grad school and [worked] a demanding day job,  [we decided to start doing a variety show]. [I said to her], “When you’re available, we can do sketches, but in the meantime we can give stage time to talented [friends].”

We did a couple of test shows and they went pretty well. We wound up with a deal to do a regular, ongoing show [at midnight in Times Square]. The first night, at show time, there was no audience. I went to the performers and said, “Give it 15 minutes. If no one else shows up, we can either go home or share with each other what we came to share with the audience.” Fifteen minutes came and went and nobody showed up and the performers said unilaterally, “We want to stay.” A couple of the comics didn’t want to do stand-up because there was nobody there to play off of, but they said, “We’d be happy to be the audience for everybody else.”

[That night] some amazing work was done and [afterward] we shared feedback. A lot of times in that first year, that scenario repeated itself a lot, [which] dictated what this show would be about: people who were serious about their craft and just wanted to [perform].

One thing was very interesting to me about those early shows was that I would go out and check out other shows and if I saw people [whose work I admired], I would invite them to come down to our place. Almost without exception the women all said, “We’d love to do the show, thank you.” They would come and even if there [wasn’t anyone] in the audience, they would come back to me and say, “Hey, I know somebody else who would be good for this.” The guys, as often as not, would [ask], “Who else is going to be there? Do you have a big audience?”

Cut to several years later, we were at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction—if you [aren’t familiar with Mo Pitkin’s], it didn’t exist for long, but it was an awesome place for creativity and Jimmy Fallon was one of the owners and [hung out] there a lot—those same people kept saying, “Hey, can I do a spot?” It’s not like we were big, but we were drawing consistently at that point.

As long of a story as that is, I do think that connects back to [the idea] that if you love doing it, do it and whatever you’re supposed to be doing will come out of that. 

Q: What are some of your favorite places to perform?

A: Otto’s [Shrunken Head], I love Otto’s. It’s an awful place to do a comedy show and I love it. There’s no separation from the sound outside, but the people there to perform just want to perform and that’s nice. Nowadays, I’m finding myself more partial to places that have in-house drum kits [for The Summer Replacements to use].

[Overall] I think [my ideal place] has to be—I don’t want to get New Age-y, but a place with a good energy. [Indian Road Café] is a place [like that]. Any place where you’re able to create a nurturing environment for the performers. Most of our shows are [workshop style], where the performers feel safe to try stuff out. That’s what started to get us better performers: we’ve been doing it a long time and people who grew with us became people who were working major clubs and they still wanted to perform [with us].

I will add though that because of our roots in sketch comedy, I am partial to black box theaters. I was a theater student and there’s always something very friendly to me about a black box theater.

Q: Do you have any favorite comedy shows or comedians the city?

A: Moonwork. Moonwork is awesome, they are about two months older than [No Name] and they figured out who they were a lot earlier than we did. They’re the gold standard. There’s a show called Comedy Outliers, which is a lot newer. I think they’re only about two years old, but they consistently have some really good [performers]. Hannibal Buress’s Knitting Factory show is off the hook. And one other show, I think it’s done for now, but Liam McEneaney, [who will perform at the anniversary show], had a long-running show called Tell Your Friends! that was [always] top notch.

Q: Can you tell me about The Summer Replacements?

A: I have a friend named Mark Jones, he is an awesome [funk and jazz] bass player. He writes music for PBS documentaries and Dora The Explorer. He’s got a very good career and he’s an awesome guy. When we [started performing at Otto’s Shrunken Head], he said, “[My band and I] want to be your house band.” I said, “You understand this is a free show?” He said, “That’s alright.” I said, “You understand there’s no pay because when there’s a free show, there’s no money involved?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. If you make money, we’ll make money.”

The band [was just Mark] and a keyboardist [and] for the better part of a year, they were our house band. [The duo] added a drummer [and at some point] I asked them, “Do you mind if I sang a song at the top of the show?” and they [said], “Yeah.” And that’s where that started.

At one point, it was about to be the summer and Mark was going on a long tour and [the keyboardist] had some health problems. Just before then, Alex [DeSuze] had replaced their drummer and Carl, our [current] keyboardist, was a friend of mine and I asked him, “Maybe you and Alex [could be the band]?” We thought it was just going to be for [the summer]—hence, The Summer Replacements. After that, we just started picking up people here and there. Officially it’s a free-floating unit; whoever’s available for any given show [plays]. I’ve done two shows with [just] Alex.

[For the anniversary show], we thought, “Let’s see how many bodies we can get onto the stage at once.” Because who goes to a comedy show and sees a 13-piece band?

Q: What’s next for you and No Name?

The only thing I would say is to get through this show and enjoy every moment of it, go into intensive care for a week and then keep doing the shows we already have in progress and look into whatever else we can do. I do want to do more with a jazz venue in Brooklyn where we’ve done [shows with] two bands plus an extended set by a major comic. I’d like to do more stuff like that, [but maybe at a venue] with a bigger capacity.

Tickets for the 20th Anniversary show will be available at the door and advance tickets are on sale now at unitedpalace.org.

 

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