Sunday, February 15, 2009

From Bedpan to Deadpan

Styles of comedy change with the times. What may once have guaranteed a laugh might land with a thud in front of a modern audience.  What may once have seemed shocking might barely raise an eyebrow in today's jaded society. And yet comedians are still slugging it out in front of audiences, performing live stand-up comedy as they pursue laughter.

This weekend I had a rare opportunity to see two great comedians at work. Their styles are diametrically opposed.  Their content could not be more different.  Their comedy is separated by 85 years of cultural change. Their craft is astonishing.

On Friday night, I went over to The Marsh to catch a performance of Scott Capurro Goes Deeper. A Bay area native, Capurro grew up in Daly City as part of a family he kindly refers to as being descended from southern white trash. Although he has been living in London for the past several years, his humor has not been blunted by the English. Here's a clip of Scott performing in 2002. His political wit is just the tip of a truly venal iceberg. In this clip, he's just warming up.

Whereas some comics are labeled as "edgy," Scott Capurro likes to play with double-edged razors (the kind of weapon angry drag queens used to keep in their mouths in case they had to "cut" someone). When Capurro takes the microphone, his sexuality becomes political and his politics become overtly sexual. 

Capurro's material is far too biting to ever earn him a weekly sitcom or television variety show. He will  probably never play large venues like Davies Symphony Hall.  He'll probably only get booked by small nightclubs, gay events, and fringe festivals.  


This man is a shrewd, intelligent, and daring comic who takes no prisoners and is far more dangerous and unpredictable than comedians like Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Lewis Black. He enjoys playing with his audience almost as much as he enjoys playing with himself.  If inspired, he won't hesitate to do both at the same time.

Dropping his pants and sticking one hand in his underwear (while the other is holding the microphone), Scott has no qualms about vigorously fondling his genitals as he eyeballs people in the front row and continues to tell jokes. Capurro talks freely about how all men (not just gay men) have an uncontrollable urge to pull their dicks out of their pants. Discussing his favorite rape fantasies (or providing convenient pretested rape fantasies for use by shocked members of the audience), he pushes the envelope further than anyone I've seen.

Although I've watched polished comedians like Craig Ferguson, Bill Maher, Stephen Lynch, Christopher Titus, and Gilbert Gottfried perform, when it comes to getting away with comic murder they simply can't compete with Capurro's pirouettes of perversity. As one listens to Capurro describe how desperately he wishes he had a clitoris -- but how he would much prefer to have it located in his ear so that he could get more enjoyment out of those long family dinners -- you have to admire the man's ability to mine comic gold from the basics of human anatomy.

Whether describing the sexual fantasy scenes he's enacted with his black fuck buddy, bemoaning the fact that he loves to fuck Chinese guys (but is always horny two hours later), or working his audience's last nerve with an uncomfortable string of provocative AIDS jokes, Capurro is not just dancing on a high wire. He's juggling torches while doing flips and cartwheels on it. 

Nothing is sacred, as evidenced by Scott's simple advice for how to put an end to pedophilia. Recalling his burning lust for his male babysitter while still a mere tot, he's convinced the solution is to "Kill the children!"

Here's what I love about Scott Capurro. He makes an aggressive, ball-busting female comic like Lisa Lampanelli seem about as threatening and inappropriate as Dinah Shore. He makes the racial barbs of a classic insult comic like Don Rickles seem as tame as Myron Cohen. When Capurro picks on someone in the audience -- "When did you have your last orgasm? Do you know what rimming is?  What can you tell us all about fisting?" -- he makes Dame Edna's act seem as intrusive as Minnie Pearl's. 

Even when he turns around, drops his pants, and jiggles his still perky 46-year-old buttcheeks at the audience, you can't help but enjoy his act for its utter fearlessness. The man will go to any length to entertain a crowd and give people their money's worth. At the performance I attended his lightning delivery -- dropping scatter bombs faster than Joan Rivers -- held its pace for nearly 100 minutes. You can watch some of his more recent video snippets here.

* * * * * *

To help celebrate Valentine's Day the The San Francisco Silent Film Festival held a mini-festival at the Castro Theater. Their fourth annual "winter event" got off to a rousing start with a screening of Our Hospitality.

Written, directed, produced, and starring the great Buster Keaton, this film features some great slapstick bits from the era of silent film. A much kinder and gentler style of comedy than anything that would ever come from Scott Capurro, it remains a crowd pleaser for all age groups. As I waited on line to use the men's room, I listened to a father ask his two small children which parts they liked best.  

The kids loved the film.

With Philip Carli providing live accompaniment on the piano,  Keaton's second feature-length film offered the perfect beginning to a rainy day filled with classics from the silent film era. Considered by many to be an early masterpiece, Our Hospitality (1923) was the only film to feature three generations of Keatons (the actor, his vaudevillian father, and the actor's infant son).

While filled with great moments of slapstick, Our Hospitality also features one of Keaton's greatest stunts -- a waterfall rescue scene which defies imagination. The intelligence behind some of Keaton's gags (using a horse as a decoy by hanging a hoop skirt from its rear end and tying a bonnet to its head) have lost none of their punch. His skill as an acrobat -- not to mention his famous deadpan facial expression -- remains an inspiration to moviegoers.

Inspired by the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud (which lasted from 1878-1891), Our Hospitality also serves as a miniature onscreen history lesson about early methods of transportation. The Smithsonian Institution was so impressed with the accuracy of Keaton's props that it asked him to donate to its permanent collection the dandy horse he can be seen riding in some of the film's early scenes. 

Keaton, who had a passion for trains, set the film in the 1830s and modeled his steam locomotive on Stephenson's Rocket. His attention to detail in creating a narrow-gauge railroad with all kinds of twists, turns, and obstacles, drew continued laughter from the audience -- as did the loyal border collie who kept chasing the train throughout the movie.

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