Lowbrow Bar Theater
Ten years ago, Chas Roberts made a list of goals. Being the host of a boozy variety show wasn’t one of them.
A year before Chas Roberts was supposed to graduate from his D.C. high school, he wrote a list of 27 goals: hop a freight train, work for a traveling carnival, share a can of beans with a hobo, sleep on a sidewalk in San Francisco, crash a wedding and kiss the bride, and so on. "I'd been reading a shit-ton of Bukowski and Vonnegut," Roberts says. "But I got tired of reading about lives and wanted to go out into the world."
So he did. He dropped out of school and went out into the world, where he became his own kind of overachiever. He hopped a few trains, slept on sidewalks (and benches and subways and under tables in Laundromats), and crashed three weddings, kissing three brides.
Roberts lived out his own anthology of down-and-out stories: There's the morning in San Jose when he accidentally made a prostitute cry. (He was trying to deflect her attentions by telling her how much he loved his—made-up—wife. "She said she wished someone loved her like that," Roberts says. "And then the tears began to flow. It was sad.") And his comically counterproductive train-hopping experience in Grants Pass, Oregon, when he was trying to get to San Francisco: "I was leaving a carnival I was working for, and the Greyhound station was three miles away, but the train tracks were only one mile away. The train slowed enough for my fat ass to run, grab the ladder, and climb up the back." But after 45 minutes on the train, bored and worried about where he'd end up, Roberts jumped back off. He walked an hour and a half before hitching a ride back to the Grants Pass Greyhound station and starting over.
Roberts wandered around the country, paying his way by working a few shifts at a time at whatever T.G.I. Friday's was closest (the restaurant chain has a vagrant-friendly "worker passport" program), and ended up in Seattle. He'd hoped to work a few weeks and move to Canada, but he liked the city, started playing in some bands, studied graphic design and video production, and stuck around.
Now he channels his worldly experiences into an alter ego named Jackson Lowe, the growly but enthusiastic host of Get Loweded at Re-bar.
Get Loweded is a monthly cabaret, a showcase for all varieties of lowbrow bar theater: standup, sketch comedy, burlesque, variety acts, quiz shows, and improv. "It's like all the people I've ever met, all the bars I've worked in, the bands I've played in, the game shows I've tried and read about," he says (Roberts is a student of game shows). "It's basically about drinking culture."
Roberts and his cohort, including members of the People's Republic of Komedy, molded Get Loweded into regular segments, a kind of Stations of the Cross for booze.
To commemorate one-night stands, there's the "Random Hookup" segment, wherein the audience chooses two strangers to spend the rest of the show sitting awkwardly next to each other (or, sometimes, making out) on a couch up on the stage. To commemorate drunken know-it-alls, there's a quiz segment, pitting audience members against standup comedians. And, to commemorate drunk cuisine, there's "Would You Eat That?" a sort of culinary Jackass, where audience members volunteer to eat something ill-advised. "Ice cream with a taco mashed up in it," Roberts grimaces. "It's incredible—whatever it is, there's always someone in the audience who'll eat it." Other regular segments with evocative names: the "Inter-Gender Arm Wrestling Champion," "Pothead Theater Presents: Will It Flush?" and "Ask Niccolo Machiavelli."
Jackson Lowe is a barfly's impresario—garrulous, funny, and cutting, but never a jerk. He's a cross between Jack Falstaff and a professional-wrestling referee, a gravel-voiced wit with a belly and beard who wears sunglasses indoors. And he has a carnival barker's patter. Normally, Roberts has a stutter—he elongates vowels, like the e in "regurgitation"—but it disappears when he's being Jackson Lowe. Something about the character, he says, frees up the traffic jam in his synapses and banishes the stutter. "It's even more gone when I sing," he says. "I tried to sing in monotone for a few weeks when I was around 19. I was the hit of some parties."
Get Loweded took awhile to find its audience. From August to December of last year, around 30 people showed up each month. The February show pulled in 100, and March attracted around 200. The success came just in time: Since the beginning, Roberts, who is also a booker at Re-bar, has been paying out almost $600 per show. He was about to go broke. (This month's show, called Get Loweded Sells Out, is partly sponsored by Camel.)
The audience at the March show was Roberts's kind of crowd—happy and hollering. They shouted out answers to the quiz, and some sang along to a Pogues song one performer played on her musical saw. And they drank. According to owner Carla Schricker, it was the most profitable Monday night in Re-bar's 19-year history.