Panic at the coffee shop
How best friends Cory Barringer and Cameron Curtis Betts score nervous laughter from their High Anxiety Variety Show
It was no gimmick when Cory Barringer and Cameron Curtis Betts decided to call their new monthly event the High Anxiety Variety Show.
These guys are anxious, and they like to talk about it a lot.
At the show’s premiere event, held in April at Midtown coffee shop the Naked Lounge Downtown, the co-hosts opened the evening with casual talk and a few lighthearted jokes. The flier for the show had advertised live music, comedy, interviews and panic attacks—all of which would prove to be technically true.
From the start, in fact, they set a bizarre tone. After the small talk, Betts turned to Barringer and said “Did you know when you and Robin broke up that I tried to sleep with her shortly thereafter?”
Barringer didn’t skip a beat. “I did. … I knew that because you told me,” he said. The answer elicited some pained, awkward laughter from the crowd. Others found it outright hilarious.
That was the whole point, actually, because that’s what the High Anxiety Variety Show is about—anxiety. And Betts and Barringer are maybe the two people best suited for it. Best friends since high school, they play together in the Sacramento band the Kelps and have lived through enough tests of friendship to keep things, well, interesting. Most importantly, they are eager to talk about all their problems, personally, and with each other, onstage in front of strangers.
That first show’s opening was specifically designed to introduce discomfort. To that end, Barringer had no idea Betts would drop such a potentially painful bombshell during the intro.
The joke, however, didn’t go quite as planned—something that only added to the bit’s genuine sense of unease. Betts was surprised to find out he’d already told Barringer this tidbit from the past and, as a result, didn’t quite get the shocked response he hoped for.
What a way to start a show.
Barringer later called this odd interaction “comedy gold.”
“I’ll leave the genuine laughter to the comics. We’ll stick to making people nervous and wonder why someone let us have a show,” Barringer says.
Now, as the duo preps for its next show, nervousness and angst remain the themes. Each month, Barringer and Betts plan to interview the musicians and comedians they bring to the Naked Lounge.
The pair will also record this month’s High Anxiety Variety Show, scheduled for May 27; with plans to release each event as a podcast. The guest will play regular sets, but Barringer and Betts also want to ask them about their deep, dark apprehensions—because why not?
“We’re not trying to poke fun at anxiety or even celebrate it. This is a place that [we], and most creative people, come from. It’s a unifying bond, and most of our crowd gets that,” Betts says.
The format makes sense. Barringer and Betts are musicians too, of course, but Barringer is also an aspiring stand-up comedian, and Betts has done the open-mic circuit as well. Still, their deepest connection—and the show’s inarguable foundation—is their perpetually worried minds, and the ways they find to deal with them.
Although the show is designed to have spurts of chaos, it actually feels focused, with each segment short, sweet and moving along at a quick pace.
That first night opened with a musical guest, followed by two comedians, one after another, and then closed with another band. Throughout the acts, Barringer and Betts interviewed their guests—something they plan to keep as the format for the foreseeable future.
“I really want it to be the kind of show that you shouldn’t feel comfortable leaving the room because you’re going to miss something,” Barringer says. “Even if you’re not digging the music at that moment, maybe wait, and then get to hear them talk about their process and that’ll inform the next set.”
It all somehow makes sense. Local solo acoustic singer-songwriter Josiah Gathing, a musical guest at April’s show, said he was surprised at how well everything came together.
“I assumed it would be weird and kind of an awkward show, but the audience was really on board with what I was doing. I was playing really sad, serious stuff. It felt like a natural transition into the comedy,” Gathing says.
The musician was subject to his own awkward moments, too. During the interview portion of Gathing’s set, Barringer surprised him by asking if he’d ever had a nervous breakdown.
Gathing thought about it for a bit and then told a story about when, at age 18, he started having a loud screaming argument with himself. It got bad as Gathing started hitting himself in the process of the “argument.” He thought no one else was around, only to be humiliated later when he found out that his sister was watching him the whole time. She told him, “You should get some friends.”
Later, Gathing said he would have felt uncomfortable relating this story to someone in casual conversation, but in the context of the show it seemed natural.
Betts put the show’s headlining act, Bill L. Wallis, through something similar when he asked how the comedian dealt with the discomfort of performing. Wallis’ answer? That he liked to press the front of his body on a wall in another room before his set and feel the vibrations of the building.
Later, Wallis said he actually appreciated the exchange.
“It was cool to talk about some real stuff. Most of the stuff I do in my day-to-day life has some level of anxiety,” Wallis says.
Clearly this isn’t what some might imagine when they think of a typical variety show with magicians, vaudeville, burlesque and corny one-liners. As weird as it all is, however, it’s also sincere.
“We’re both very anxious people. It is the underlying current of a lot of our songs. We wrote a record about it,” Barringer says.
But it’s not going to be all unease, all the time.
“We’re not always going to stay on the topic of anxiety. If the conversation derails into something completely different, we’re going to let it,” Barringer says.
The show’s chaotic nature is fine by Naked Lounge booker Jeremy Dawson. The Kelps have played the venue for several years, earning an impressive draw, and even teamed up with another local band, Honyock, to play shows under the name Broken Voice Club.
After that ended, Barringer and Betts continued to experiment with formats, including a comedy night. It was Dawson who told the friends they should do a regular monthly show. They could do whatever they wanted, he said. The weirder the better, in fact.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that once Barringer and Betts let the idea percolate, they realized they wanted to focus the show on the idea of exploring uncomfortable topics and feelings.
“Every important decision in my life has been completely anxiety-fueled. I can’t believe I’m not sleeping on my parents’ couch right now,” Betts says.
And, maybe it’s no surprise also that working together on this project has brought up many of the arguments, misunderstandings and issues that Barringer and Betts have dealt with over the years as friends. But, while there have been periods in their friendship when they didn’t speak to each other, the show has turned out to be a safe place to work out their differences.
In the end, their bond remains strong.
“I’ve ruined our friendship five times,” Betts says of his kinship with Barringer. “I’m so good at wrecking the most stable and necessary emotional relationship in my life.”
It can’t be that bad because it was Barringer who reached out to Betts about the show.
“Cory texted me and said, ’We should do a variety show,’” Barringer says. “That will always be the thing, that I still have this person in my life.”
As such, the headlining musical act for their premier show was their own band, the Kelps. Rather than interview themselves, however, they asked audience members what they thought of the show, and how it could be improved. The crowd provided a few suggestions, but in the end it was the hosts who came up with one small change via the addition of chairs onstage during the interviews.
The stand-up interviews seemed uncomfortable in the wrong way, Barringer later explained. That might be the only concession to comfort that the duo will allow. Beyond a few seats, Barringer and Betts say they’ll continue to tweak and alter the show as they go on. Anything to keep it unpredictable and, well, anxious.
“The moment I’m too comfortable in a situation I feel compelled to turn it on its head and try it from a different angle,” Barringer says.