Wow. It’s been way too long since I’ve written anything, let alone something for this blog. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been tuned into the comedy scene though. Last week I had the chance to see three very different shows and I’m going to take this opportunity to compare and contrast them in an effort to make some kind of cohesive, cliché statement about something.
Last Tuesday, I went to see This Party’s A Riot! The new revue at The Second City was entertaining though not mind blowing. By sticking to straightforward premises and broad themes, the cast hedged their bets to assure a wide appeal. Some times the simple sketches worked and good writing shone through, like the sketch featuring a son, father and grandfather trapped in a car together hashing out what is right and wrong with each other’s generation: Relevant and full of laughs. Other sketches fell flat though, like the bit about the Arabic revolutionaries who use Facebook to liberate their people but then can’t liberate themselves from Facebook, or the sexually suggestive “super hot” yoga teacher complete with fart jokes. The performances were competent if not inspiring, with the exception of Inessa Frantowski whose weeping office worker character single handedly made what would have been a boring sketch into a highlight (To be fair, Rob Baker’s straight man killed). The seasoned cast do a solid job selling the material but come off feeling so professional that it lacks the crucial element of danger, even during the improv. Nothing too exciting. However, considering the target audience is out-of-towners and people “of a certain age,” (read: with money) I suppose my criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, I am a card-carrying member of the downtown pinko hipster “elite.”
To prove it, the following night I made my way to The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern to take in Michael Showalter and local opener Nick Flanagan. This show was so alternative that the crowd STOOD! Like they were watching a BAND! In all seriousness it was a really cool show. Flanagan was very well received by Showalter’s audience and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He made a comment about experimenting with new delivery methods and I think he was serious. Instead of his characteristic deadpan, he became a little more conversational with the audience and it actually suited his facetious jokes about drugs, bodily functions and weird pseudo-sexual impulses. He seemed very comfortable on stage in front of a room he probably figured would “get” him.
Showalter’s set, on the other hand, could best be characterized by his lack of comfort. Not to say he performed poorly or seemed out of sorts, but the thrust of his act – promoting his kind-of-a-memoir Mr. Funny Pants – was an honest self-examination that displayed a vulnerable side that most comedians go on stage to hide. It’s no secret that comedians are often motivated by their insecurities but Showalter took it beyond self-deprecation and nakedly exposed his fears of fucking up, having “what is it that you do?” conversations and even referring to himself as a comedian. His interaction with a drunk fan and accidental heckler summed up the spirit of his performance quite poetically. She disrupted his set screaming “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE EVERYTHING YOU DO!” Showalter tried to avoid name-calling with a “how-could-I-stay-mad-at-you” speech. But when she wouldn’t shut up – even after he politely explained why what she was doing was rude – he was forced to embarrass her (she later stormed out after another audience member apparently called her a “cunt”) and needed the audience’s help to get back his train of thought. “The world doesn’t understand me and I’m tired of having to explain myself,” he seemed to be saying. Not complaining, but commiserating with an extensive support group of devout followers. As someone who aspires to be creative for a living, I found it interesting to see someone with a healthy amount of success – albeit all of the “cult status” variety – to display such a lack of confidence in themselves.
With that in mind I headed to my final outing of the week on Saturday night. I went to Ryerson University to see RIOT! – my own former sketch troupe and a 60 year tradition at that institution (not to be confused with The Riot). My fellow alumni and I ventured to the always boisterous midnight show and found ourselves surrounded by the next generation of smart-ass college kids. The show was a blast, thanks in large part to the contraband adult beverages we provided for ourselves. But kudos is due to the cast for bringing energy and excitement to the stage. The performances weren’t the tightest and the writing was neither groundbreaking nor particularly subversive, but the young performers brought pure comic exuberance that those stuffy details were easily overlooked. Will that energy alone work every time in every room? Nope. But a confident presence and a sense that you’re having fun will serve you well no matter what material you’re performing.
If there’s something I can take away from this week it’s that the relation between experience and confidence (not to mention competence) is not as obvious as it may seem at first glance. Maybe managing your audience’s expectations is just as important as your material. Maybe that is your material. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got, but it’s best if you don’t make it seem like work. That’s a cliché I can get behind.