Friday, March 28, 2008

Gwydion on Magooby's

A guest post from Gwydion, my oldest friend, whom I love dearly:

If you aren't one of the Playground regulars -- I counted at least six or seven of us -- who caught Steve's act at last night's Open Mic at Magooby's Joke House, you missed what I can only describe as a powerfully human experience. Stand-up is theater; a stand-up routine is a comedic monologue, and a comic is usually both the actor who performs that monologue and the writer who creates it. The playwright Arthur Miller said that "The best of our theater is standing on tiptoe, striving to see over the shoulders of father and mother. The worst is exploiting and wallowing in the self-pity of adolescence and obsessive keyhole sexuality." (Bullshit or not?) Last night, at Magooby's, we saw a great deal of the both the best and the worst.

The highlight (or lowlight) of the worst was a comic who spent ten minutes stumbling through a rant about how the other kids didn't think he was cool at school, five painful and decidedly un-funny minutes describing how he cleaned himself after using the restroom, then one horribly awkward final minute strapping a dildo to his chin just because he could, all while the MC furiously flashed the get-off-the-stage-you're-time-is-up light. Throughout the evening there were entirely predictable jokes about penis size and oral sex and bestiality and just plain trying to get laid, and it all seemed like the sort of thing one hopefully grows out of, in time. If, as Steve Martin said, "Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke," then last night's lower-brow comics were indeed successful... but only barely.

Last night's higher-brow fare -- the best -- was, on the whole, far more successful. There was one comedian whose one-liners -- punctuated, oddly, by a repeated (and ungraceful) harmonica riff -- were quite clever, almost (but not quite) Stephen Wright-like. A few others cracked wise about politics or shared odd stories, and the one or two steps they took out of the gutter were a welcome diversion. Believe me, I'm not a prude -- if you've heard any of my work, you know my characters can sometimes swear like sailors; what disappointed me was how prosaic the observations were, not how obscene. The key to their success was largely due to the fact that, amid the sea of depravity, their work stood out.

When I judge a performance in the theater, I'm always interested in teasing out whether it's the material or the performance that's making me happy (or not). Last night there was a dearth of good material, but there were several performers -- even as many as five or six of the 20 overall -- who knew how to command a stage, hitting the right beats, connecting with the audience, and just being fully present. (As opposed to the guy who stared straight ahead and laughed at his own jokes, making the entire audience laugh AT him, not with him.) There was only one performer, however, who brought the real funny: solid material AND a strong stage presence. I am very, very pleased to be able to say it was our dear Steve.

I won't spoil his routine, which I hope he tries out again at another venue and continues to build, by sharing any of his jokes here. If he wants to do that, he can do it himself. I will say, however, that his monologue was thoughtful, imaginative, and thoroughly funny. A combination of political humor, human observations, word play, and one-liners, it killed. Steve was relaxed at the microphone. He was patient with his jokes, letting them develop organically and then closing the sale each time with his punchlines. Best of all, he made people think while he made them laugh... which is exactly what I expected him to do.

The hardest part about Steve's performance was the fact that he followed a comedian who absolutely and completely died on stage. In an evening of comedy, this was pure tragedy. The poor man got up to the microphone, began stammering through his first joke, stopped, forgot what he wanted to say, apologized, tried a second joke, and forgot that one, too. You could see the shame welling up in his face, and the entire crowd immediately began aching for the guy. He was just on the verge of leaving with his tail between his legs when some deeply compassionate stranger in the audience reminded the man of his first opening line, hoping it would help... and it did, a little. The beleaguered comic finished that one joke -- more an observation than a bit of funny business, actually -- then admitted defeat and walked off stage. (Wherever you are, fella, I hope you consider yourself a success, not a failure, for even daring to get up on stage at all.) In any event, this was effectively Steve's opening act, and though I know him well enough to know he was probably as moved as I was by the man's struggles, he didn't seem to let it get to him at all. He mounted the stage (here were are back in the gutter again), took the microphone, and started making us laugh.

In the tradition of the very best Playground posts, then, let me close with a few Comedist questions. If you were there last night, what was the holiest moment? What was the greatest moment of sacrilege? If you weren't there, which do you find funnier, low-brow or high-brow humor? Is one to be preferred over the other? Is one, in other words, inherently "better" for us as humans? Is comedy that challenges our suppositions and makes us think morally, ethically, or creatively superior to comedy that simply reflects stereotypes and rehearses commonalities? Share your thoughts... and a moment of praise for our dear and humble Steve, who would never have taken the time to praise himself.