Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Clown Prince of Belle Reve

The past week has been a goldmine for political comedy. After her resignation speech, in which former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin asked the media to stop "making things up," she posted the following piece of prime bullshit on her Facebook page:
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care."
Meanwhile, agitated seniors all over the country are making fools of themselves by insisting that they don't want to have socialized medicine "but don't you dare touch my Medicare!"

Observing people, discovering their foibles, and mocking their weaknesses is a key ingredient to writing comedy. But comedy writing is not as easy as some people might think. For example:
A Jew goes into a restaurant at SeaWorld. When the waiter approaches and inquires if the man is ready to place to his order, the customer asks: "Do you have any Manischewitz?"

"No, replies the waiter, "but our catch of the day is manatee."
Close, but no cigar. When comedians have great material they can soar to unimagined heights.
All of those characterizations became a part of the popular culture, just as these three characters from MADtv have worked their way into people's hearts.

Stephanie Weir as Dot Goddard

When a comic character gets "legs" or shows the potential of establishing a franchise, a certain kind of branding sets in with regard to skits and movies that will be written for that character. Those who have followed the career of Sacha Baron Cohen have watched his three biggest creations (Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Brüno) work their way up from five-minute skits to full-length mockumentary features:
Baron Cohen, who has promised to retire each character after the release of its feature film, has nevertheless heavily promoted the release of each film in character. In addition to a variety of international photo stunts timed to the release of Brüno in various cities, you can see him here, in character, promoting his latest film with a popular website:

I held off on seeing Brüno in the theater until after the initial publicity blitz had died down because I wanted to see how well the comedy would hold up without a crowd of eager viewers who had been primed for the experience. Having attended a midweek matinee when there may have been 15 people present at the screening, I was happy to see that Baron Cohen's writing and improvisational skills remained as sharp and daring as ever.

Whether criticizing a terrorist about the condition of his hair or driving an audience of homophobic white trash crazy with rage, Baron Cohen is absolutely fearless. Few comedians are willing to push the envelope so hard in an effort to let ordinary people display their ignorance, their prejudices, or their sheer gullibility.

With hilarious cameos from such celebrities as Paula Abdul, Elton John, Bono, Sting, Harrison Ford, Ron Paul, and Snoop Dogg, Baron Cohen goes for the jugular and achieves phenomenal results. If you have been the slightest bit squeamish about seeing this movie, get over it. It's an absolutely brilliant farce.

* * * * * * * * *
A different kind of farce is currently holding center stage at New Conservatory Theatre Center, where gay stand-up comedian Jim David (also known as "the mouth of the South") is performing his one-man show entitled South Pathetic. A painfully funny narrative about what can happen when an out-of-work comedian returns home to direct a production of the Tennessee Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, for the worst community theater in the South, Jim David's opus is a must-see for any self-respecting theater queen.

The old adage is that aspiring writers should "write what you know." In that respect, David has a keen knowledge of the people he is portraying onstage. Among his cast of characters are:
  • Ethalene McGraw, a member of the local chapter of Mothers of Morality with an ego the size of North Carolina and a big head of hair resting on top of much less talent than you would ever really want to know about. Needless to say, Ethalene has cast herself as Blanche DuBois (a role portrayed by such theatrical legends as Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Ann-Margret, Natasha Richardson, Rosemary Harris, Blythe Danner, Uta Hagen, Tallulah Bankhead, and Jessica Lange) even though she tends to start Act II with the lines from her entrance in Act I.
  • Darlinda Shepherd, a local stripper taking on the role of Stella Kowalski.
  • Stanley Cappobianco, a townsman who shares the same first name as his character, Stanley Kowalski (the role that made Marlon Brando famous), and has to be reminded that the words "get comfortable" are not a cue for him to drop his pants. Unaware of the theatrical importance of yelling out his wife Stella's first name, he has occasionally substituted the words "Hey, you!" during rehearsals.
  • Bob Smith, a salesman for Bob Bedford's Used Cars who lives alone with his elderly, infirm mother and is hoping to move to New York with his boyfriend Moishe (whom he met in a traveling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats.)
  • Sidney Grand, the frustrated host of WQOK Radio in Thermal City, North Carolina, whose previous fundraising marathon netted a little bit over $37.
  • Dickie Hensley, a young, fairly idiotic country hick.
  • Slovan Swientowowisze, a Bosnian refugee and former chemical engineer now working as the theater's janitor.
  • Najeem Bejravi, the Hindu owner of the Dickson Motel (currently missing the letters "S" and "N" from its sign, which instead reads Dick'o Motel).
Add in a classic New York autograph hound, a backstage costumer with a forked tongue who has hated the leading lady for years and, as the ads say, "Be very afraid."

In all honesty, the only thing you need to fear is that you might wet your pants from laughing for a solid 80 minutes as Jim David nails one character after another to the walls of the Thermal City Little Theatre. The writing is brilliant and the actor's delivery is hilarious. You won't want to miss South Pathetic (you can order tickets here).

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