The audacity of 'Tourettes Without Regrets,' Oakland's underground variety show

Jun 6, 2016

Jamie DeWolf, founder and host of tonight's performance, steps up to the microphone. The stage he stands on juts out into the center of the Oakland Metro Operahouse, practically surrounded by the eager crowd.

“Are you ready to get crazy on a Thursday night?” Jamie calls into the microphone as the crowd cheers.

Tonight is the show’s 10th anniversary, and in celebration DeWolf is dressed as an old man. He’s wearing a cardigan, his pants are pulled up to his waist, and he leans his weight on a walker. Standing on stage with him is a pretty girl in a revealing nurse’s costume. Next to her is a man-sized badger with dusty fur.

DeWolf calls on the crowd to engage in a sort of ritual. “If you know what to do, start doing it now. Start to sway ladies and gentlemen. Sway like you will be after you finish the drinks.” As the music picks up, hundreds of people begin to sway back and forth. Many have been coming long enough to know the drill, and those that don’t, quickly figure it out. Soon the room is like a sea, moving in unison. Strangers are hugging each other. People are laughing.

“10 years [expletive]! 10 years!” DeWolf exclaims. 

This is "Tourettes Without Regrets," a once-a-month performance that is hard to describe. There are beat boxers, burlesque dancers, rappers; one performer in particular is dressed as a jelly doughnut. But DeWolf describes it as “an underground variety show, and it kind of comprises of everything you can do with a microphone on or off stage. It’s sort of like a dirty old vaudeville show with contemporary urban twist.”

When he says everything you can do with a microphone, he means it. During the show DeWolf says, “We’re about to play one of my favorite games on the planet. What’s down my pants, ladies and gentlemen?” It’s never clear what will happen from one moment to the next. Genres seem irrelevant. DeWolf explains, “If you’ve never been to a rap battle, if you’ve never been to a poetry slam, if you’ve never seen burlesque, if you’ve never seen stand-up comedy, or dirty haiku, or freakish, inventive contests — then that’s what the show is for, to put all of those elements into one show. What makes 'Tourettes' individual and unique is throwing all of these elements together and seeing what happens.”

To be clear, DeWolf doesn’t have Tourette's Syndrome. The name "Tourettes Without Regrets" is a play on the condition’s popular association with the inability to control outbursts of obscenity. “I’ve been accused of having Tourette's ever since I was a young child,” he says. 

DeWolf doesn’t censor himself, and the show is an extension of that. "In some respects, it was just a defiant middle finger to everyone of these other shows that were like ‘Minds Open’ or like 'The Lyrical Corner.’ These sort of bookstore poetry readings that I just loathed. So I started it as revenge.” Revenge, he says, for open mics that couldn’t handle his explicit style of poetry.     

“Basically every open mic in my hometown banned me and they kicked me out and my last show I threw a chair at the host. And I vowed that I would make a show that would dwarf all of theirs,” DeWolf says.

So DeWolf created a venue where he and other audacious artists could perform freely.

“Every religion needs its church, every art form need its venue. Every painter needs a gallery and 'Tourettes' sort of became a clubhouse for all these different divergent talents and performances.”

DeWolf says the surprising mix of creative forms often produces inspiration and connections among audience members and performers alike.

“'Tourettes' is sort of like a laboratory. That's kind of the way I view it. It’s a lab. I take all these chemicals and I throw them together and I see what happens. You know, for some people it just means a one night stand and a hangover. For other people they make creative alliances that are going to extend throughout the rest of their life.”

The thing about this show is that while you can be a passive observer, you most likely won’t be. Audience members often become participants, performers and judges. Keeping the roles open means the line between audience and performer is blurred.

“It makes everybody realize that anybody can be on that stage.  There is no reason why you shouldn’t be,” says DeWolf.

This transforms the experience for the audience and informs how they relate to performance and to art, he says.

“I think that it redefines underground art for a lot of people. I think that it redefines what is comedy, what is funny, what is poetry, what is high art, what is low art.  I think that it shows people the diversity of crowds —that you don't have to come from one scene. You can come from any scene and people are hungry for it. And that all these elements can be thrown together and can coexist happily.”

And tonight," Tourettes Without Regrets" stands as a symbol of 10 years of open expression, and no one in the crowd or on stage is stopping yet.

This piece originally aired in 2010.