Before coronavirus hit, I was bartending a few nights a week at a comedy club in Queens. A tiny little spot off the last stop on the N-line, it was very popular for open-mic nights. From a bartending perspective, the money was just okay, but the people were awesome. Every night for happy hour, comics of all varieties and skill levels would file in to get their names in a bucket. Depending on how many comics showed up, the host would announce how much stage time there was for each and then pick names at random. There were great performances at open mics, there were terrible performances at open mics. On the busier nights, comics would sometimes sit at the bar and wait to be called to the stage. Some would order a drink to calm the nerves while others worked on material, scribbling and scratching away at worn journals and beat-up notebooks—spectacular people watching. Kudos to all of the comics who came out night after night hustling as best they could. No matter what anybody says, performing on stage is fucking hard. As a bartender, my stage is behind the sticks with a rail of shitty liquor and a half-full ice bin. I liked to joke with the comics waiting at my bar. “You know,” I’d say, “bartending is pretty similar to stand-up.” “Oh yeah?” some would respond, taking the bait. “For sure, the only difference is when I make people laugh, I get paid for it.” (ba dun tss!)
I never felt like that big of an asshole. After all, the ones who laughed
always tipped more.
These days, the similarities between bartending and stand-up might actually go beyond simple yuks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, you’d be hard -pressed to find two industries affected more than restaurants and comedy. We took a trip to The Vspot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to meet with owner and comedian Alex Carabaño (HBO’s Entre Nos: The Winners) to get his take on how the coronavirus has affected the service industry and stand-up comedy. We had a blast sharing stories, laughs, and even some food.
Vspot’s menu is entirely vegan and Alex is a comedian. Vegan jokes seemed like an appropriate place to start...
86 Logic – With everything on the menu completely vegan, we have to ask, when did you become a vegan? Are you vegan?
Alex – When my brother and I opened the restaurant, I still ate meat. I used to sneak chicharrón in the back. Do you know what those are?
I’m a fat kid, so yes, I know what chicharrón is, but you, dear reader, might not. Chicharrón is fried pork skin and most definitely not vegan.
Alex – I’d [secretly] mix chicharrón with the sides. I was always an animal lover though. I always wanted to [go vegan], but I was just very hesitant to do it. I was immature about the fake chicken and everything. Then I started working here. I was here to help my brother open the restaurant … we became partners … then I helped change the menu to a Latin menu … [Now] I am mostly vegan. I don’t eat meat, I don’t drink milk, but once in a while I make a booty call to cheese.
86 Logic – Tell us about the early days of the restaurant. Your early days of comedy. When did they merge?
Alex – The restaurant has been [in Park Slope] since 2006. We started with Danny, my brother, and eventually our business partner Steve, long-term college friend of Danny’s. Steve was a lawyer, saw how fun the restaurant life is and we became partners. He helps a lot. Danny and I are in house, [so] we do the recipes. Steve helps with the outside stuff; getting us in festivals and fairs and legal stuff… My father was in construction, so he did all of our little things… Comedy I started doing years later. When you pursue comedy while also running a restaurant, the restaurant is your baby—you’re [at the restaurant] a lot—even if you’re not doing much work, you have to be around. You have to be there, so I couldn’t pursue stand-up the way other comedians were doing it.
86 Logic – You can’t work a busy Saturday night AND do a show.
Alex – Exactly … Then somebody gave me the suggestion, ‘Why don’t you do shows here?’ So we used to host and that blackboard [Alex points to the wall next the bar covered with dessert specials] was the backdrop. I built it. My cousin built a little stage. It was wobbly, but he built it. And we would just have everybody come in and turn the chairs toward the stage and I would host it. I would get a lot of stage time hosting. I only did it once a month, but it was very helpful. Then we have this [points to the front of our booth] mirror, so if it’s going well, you can see all of your funny movements. If you’re bombing, you bomb. But I had a lot less reps than other comics, [so] hosting in the restaurant helped me craft a little bit.
86 Logic – Speaking of bombing, tell us about your worst show.
Alex – Oh man, where do I begin? I have a lot of bomb stories. Once, I bombed so bad I inspired an audience member to become a comedian. That’s pretty bad.
86 Logic – Are they funny?
Alex – [ laughs] I don’t know. Probably my worst bomb was a year ago… Comedy is just reps. I got a gig with somebody. They said ‘Oh you’re gonna go to Jersey for this dinner and they want a comedian.’ They gave me very limited information. I was like ‘Oh my father’s in Jersey, I’m doing comedy now, fuck it.’ So he comes with me and we go to this hotel. It’s in a banquet hall, and it’s like a dinner gala thing… It seemed the more I was on stage, the more people weren’t paying attention to me. I realized they set me up to teach their kids what NOT to do with their lives. [laughs] It felt like a setup. So I’m up there and they’re all ignoring me. The room is humongous and there’s all these people eating dinner. I’m bombing, but I’m at the point of my career where you just have to finish your time, get your money, and leave. It’s one of those. So I’m doing it, I’m doing it. I’m starting to lose inspiration. I’m looking through the crowd, looking out for my father, and I’m thinking it’s gonna be like [the movie] Kickboxer where he sees his brother in the wheelchair, he gets the energy and inspiration, and he wins. So I’m like, ‘Fuck, I need something’ and finally I find my father in the crowd and we lock eyes. He pretends he doesn’t know me; he was so embarrassed that I was bombing. He started acting like [he was there for the party]. And I was like, ‘You know what? That’s fucked up.’ So yeah that was a pretty bad bomb. But at the same time, my father got it. He’s seen me do well. It was a bad setup.
86 Logic – Tell us about your best show.
Alex – Probably the [HBO’s Entre Nos: The Winners] competition I won to get on TV. It was better than the actual TV gig. It was here in New York, I invited some of my friends, it was a New York crowd, and I was just on fire. 10 minutes—boom—right off the bat… that show was my best from start to finish. I crushed thankfully, and I normally don’t wanna say that… but I did.
86 Logic – You won! Say whatever you want.
Alex – [laughs] Yes, I won. [The late] Angelo Lozada was in audience; my father was there. It was just a really amazing perfect night—then they had an after party. We were dancing, drinking, smoking… This is what dying at all of these shows is for, these good moments. You realize a lot of the times you do these shows and think, ‘Why did I do this? It was horrible, there was a basketball game [on] and everyone ignored me.’ But it makes you stronger and more prepared and more appreciative of those good shows, you know? So that was definitely the best one, it got me on tv, they paid us to go out there, at a hotel in Beverly Hills. I went downstairs to the salsa night, and who’s next to me? Deon Cole and Craig Robinson.
Even we know those names.
86 Logic – Let’s move on to COVID-19 stuff. Think back to March. How quickly did your life as a comedian change?
Alex – Oh man, every gig I had was obviously cancelled. I had gigs in Miami, LA, and Jamaica—Jamaica, Jamaica, not Queens. Paid gigs...
Those are the good kind.
Alex – I had one, I think, in Canada. Had some nice gigs lined up that all got cancelled. But to be honest with you, I had just [done] the HBO thing, that was like a really cool thing, but it was such a nightmare—the filming, the preparing for it, that I actually liked the break.
86 Logic – Did you eventually become restless?
Alex – Yes. Actually, it was after the first time I did a Zoom show, and the Zoom show was not fun. But it [must have been] fun enough doing my own bits again. [I thought] ‘Fuck, I wanna get on stage.’ So I secretly organized a feedback open mic. A feedback open mic is when you take your new jokes, grab the mic, and as friends we would sit here and talk. I would start doing my jokes and then you would sort of critique, ‘Oh, that might be offensive’ ‘Oh, what if you did this?’ and we sort of workshopped jokes together. Then you go up and I would help you, and we’re basically just helping each other. To me it’s the smartest thing a comic or stand-up comedian can do, and none of them do it. They all do these regular open mics, where nobody is paying attention and the energy is terrible.
86 Logic – Nobody wants to laugh at who’s on stage because they are worried that they might not be as good?
Alex – Exactly. Some of them are nervous in their set because they’re next, some of them are just selfish. They’re comics so they’re haters a little bit. Long story short I got really itchy for comedy. The feedback open mic was what got me the bug and then the outdoor shows started. I don’t really ask for spots, but thankfully, I’ll get about one, maybe two, a week naturally from just being in the circuit. And I’ve just been riding that, doing one a week.
86 Logic – Tell us about outside shows.
Alex – Dude, they are good and bad. I mean, it’s great for the comics… we’re like, ‘Oh shit, we’re actually getting to perform and practice!’ But it’s outdoors in Brooklyn, so you’re getting a crack head yelling at you from a distance…
86 Logic – [muffled voice] ‘You’re not funny!’
Alex – …[laughs] Yeah, and then you’re getting fireworks set off. Literally the other day a fucking dog ran up to us. Then there’s the train. If you’re a good comic, you use the train in your act. ‘Now the train’s on time, but when I need it…’ Outdoor shows are fun but different.
86 Logic – What about The Vspot? How have things been around here since the pandemic started?
Alex – We realized that we needed to become like a fast-food restaurant. For obvious reasons, we didn’t really want people in here that much, [so] we just did takeout and delivery. We installed those [points at the ‘drive-thru’ windows at the front of the small restaurant] and that really helped. We tried to stay open in Manhattan…
Feels like a good time to plug the second Vspot location, Vspot Express on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
Alex – but the neighborhood completely just died. Over by NYU, all those kids left. A lot of people moved out. So that one we couldn’t keep open. We had to shut down. We reopened [in September], it’s slow but it’s going. It’s not like here, if you notice…
We had noticed.
Alex –…this guy is back and forth with bags. Like every half hour we get a little something. But it was a little scary to close the other location. Long story short, it was scary, but the Brooklyn location was moving, even during COVID. People weren’t on the streets, but we just kept getting delivery orders. Because there are a lot of people who didn’t move out, people that have known us for 14 years. We were really fortunate here.
86 Logic – Tell us about the St. Mark’s restaurant. What are you guys doing over there?
Alex – We did something similar to the Brooklyn location and we have a window for takeout. So we are just doing takeout and delivery from a small space up front. Every Friday and Saturday the city closes St. Mark’s off to car traffic, so we put the stuff in the street and it’s like a little party.
86 Logic – It should have already been like that honestly.
Alex – [whispers] I know! I remember back in the day, it used to be like that. Brooklyn was all outdoors, everyone was chillin’—it was so much better. This outdoor seating reminds me a lot of my childhood. I like the way it is, block parties everywhere. It’s pretty cool.
86 Logic – Restaurants in New York City are only allowing 25% capacity at this time. Are they even talking about letting people into comedy shows?
Alex – Unfortunately, comedy clubs are on the low end of the totem pole.
86 Logic – What’s going on with your indoor seating restaurant-wise?
Alex – We actually aren’t looking forward to it. We enjoy not letting people in.
86 Logic – Service Industry 101.
Alex – [laughs] Yeah, we don’t want some sick person coming in here AND complaining, so we’re gonna try to keep it mostly takeout and delivery for the time being.
86 Logic –What will the next 6 months of comedy be like here in NYC?
Alex – That’s a great question. I think it’s going to be a lot of secret stuff, speakeasies, somebody’s patio or rooftop. It’s going to get colder though; we can’t just keep bothering the parks. I’d imagine it’s gonna be somebody’s backyard that has heated lamps. They’ll start doing shows, and I’m sure there’s going to be some indoor shows that are just hush hush. Somebody’s basement or whatever, it’s going to be pretty crazy.
86 Logic – What are some things people can do to help support comedy and restaurants in these uncertain times?
Alex – Comedy? I would just say for comedy to see what kind of Zoom shows are going on, you know? Check them out. Try to go to the local outdoor shows or try to buy comedians’ albums. There are a lot of comedians putting out albums right now because they are nervous. They don’t know the future, so they’re like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna throw my jokes out there and just see.’ It’s not a terrible idea, I would say. The same goes for the restaurants. Just get some to-go food. Get a little order to support, you know,? Anything, everything helps. Money talks, unfortunately, in this city. But it does and we gotta stay busy, so support your local restaurant, restauranteur, and comedian. And nobody else!
86 Logic – Yeah, for sure. Definitely don’t buy tiny magazines.
Alex – [laughs] Just kidding!
Interview and photos taken at The Vspot 156 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY
Written by Mike Ferrin