Monday, July 11, 2016

Funny Boy

Maybe you were the class clown -- the wise-ass who could always make everyone laugh with your snarky impersonations and funny faces. How's that working out for you today? Are people still rolling in the aisles when you tell the crowd a fart joke? Are they paying money to listen to your humor? Are they ponying up hard cash for the gift of your wit and wisdom?

Comedy is a tricky business. Stand-up comedians who deal with contemporary outrage (Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Louis C.K.) have a constant source of new material. Even at the end of her career, Joan Rivers paid gag writers for jokes she could use in her act (Rivers kept her material meticulously catalogued by topic).

For comedians who have built a stock of characters, it's often easier to hide behind a costume and a carefully-scripted role than to just stand in front of an audience and mouth off. Great artists like Lily Tomlin have been able to weave a collection of oddball characters (Edith Ann, Ernestine, Bobbi-Jeanine, Judith Beasley) into a one-person show that they can tour to multiple cities.

After he gained fame on MADtv (where his characters included Rusty Miller, Marvin Tikvah, and the Depressed Persian Tow Truck Man), whenever Michael McDonald performed for the troops at military bases in the Middle East, the character everyone most wanted to see was Stuart.

When a sketch comedy show ends its run (or a beloved cast member moves on to greener pastures), famous characters often fade from sight. But this year, actor Martin Short resurrected a character he created for his 2001-2003 television series (Primetime Glick) for his new show, Maya & Marty. Dressed in a fat suit, Short's comic creation is a rude, infantile, and totally clueless celebrity interviewer who claims that he got his nickname after crickets laid eggs in his anus. Jiminy Glick also has one of the funniest show business biographies ever written.

Few people in Hollywood are as quickwitted as Martin Short, a talent he puts to use in Jiminy Glick's inane interviews with other performers. Consider these two segments (taped 15 years apart) with Jerry Seinfeld.

Longevity is a tough challenge for comics and comedy writers. Bay area audiences recently had a chance to witness two world premieres: one by a beloved stand-up comic attempting to stretch himself in new directions and another by a prolific Bay area playwright who discovered a rich source of new material. Both shows clearly demonstrated the value of having a strong director as an ally.

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Born in Bogota, Colombia in 1964, John Leguizamo and his family moved to New York when he was four years old. As he grew up in various neighborhoods in and around the borough of Queens, his motor mouth (combined with a sarcastic sense of humor) drew lots of attention. Leguizamo started appearing in New York's nightclubs as a stand-up comedian in 1984; two years later he made his film debut. On July 22, as he turns 52 years old, he also celebrates three decades of steady work on stage and screen.
John Leguizamo in a scene from Latin History for Morons
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the world premiere of Leguizamo's new one-man show, Latin History for Morons. This co-production with New York's Public Theatre feels quite a bit less raucous than some of Leguizamo's previous shows. That's partly because:
  • Much of the inspiration for this show came from the needs of his son, who had been getting bullied by some white classmates at school and had no Hispanic cultural heroes as role models. Faced with a critical middle school graduation project (in which his son was tasked with identifying a personal hero), Leguizamo went into helicopter parent mode as he researched stories about patriotic Latins who fought in the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
  • As he moves into his fifties, Leguizamo is no longer the young hotshot trying to get a break as a stand-up comic. Instead, he is both a concerned parent and a mature artist with a wider array of tools at his disposal (and a somewhat more sophisticated approach to shaping his material).
  • Although he describes himself as being of Amerindian/Mestizo descent, Leguizamo's bloodline includes a maternal grandfather from Lebanon and a paternal grandfather with Colombian and Italian roots. Nevertheless, he has always identified most closely with Puerto Ricans. In working with Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone (a stage director of Puerto Rican descent who also helped craft Rita Moreno's one-woman show), he has finally found a creative partner with whom he feels himself to be on the same wave length; someone who "gets" him.

During the summer of 2015, Leguizamo and Taccone developed this 90-minute show under the auspices of The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep's incubator program for new works). There's no doubt that Leguizamo enjoyed his research.

As in his previous one-man shows, Leguizamo delights in riffing on topics about which his audience will probably have little or no knowledge. The audience quickly responds to his bits of physical comedy, especially when he starts dancing the merengue. However, while his skill at creating multiple characters with his voice (ranging from his therapist to his deaf gay uncle, from Stephen Hawking to Mike Tyson) remains impressive, some tired old shtick about gays and Jews could easily be eliminated from the show -- not because the material is offensive (it's lame and lazy), but because he's capable of writing much better jokes.

John Leguizamo in a scene from Latin History for Morons
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

After desperately trying to cram all of his research into his son's graduation project, Leguizamo is blindsided by the teenager's eventual choice of a hero in a scene which mirrors the relationship between American Dad's patriarch and his nerdy son, Steve. It's a bittersweet moment in which (like fathers everywhere) Leguizamo realizes that his son's cultural landscape is not the same as his own -- and that the types of people his son looks up to are not the same as those that someone from an older generation with very different values might admire.

In the long run, Latin History for Morons is as much a realization that his son is growing up -- and away from his parents -- as it is that Leguizamo may be growing older and less hip in his child's eyes. However, it's impossible to leave the theatre without being impressed by the craft that has been lavished on the piece by Leguizamo and Taccone.

Performances of Latin History for Morons continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through August 14 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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In August of 1974, the Pacific Sun published the first installments of Armistead Maupin's serial, Tales of the City. Two years later, the story was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and the rest, as they say, is history. The nine books that followed were translated into ten languages, and sold nearly six million copies. Visitors to San Francisco were eager to visit locations like Macondary Lane. Over the years, Maupin became one of the patron saints of LGBT literature.

As the driving force behind the San Francisco Olympians Festival, No Nude Men Productions, and San Francisco Theater Pub, Stuart Bousel has been a prolific playwright, stage director, and recently became Director of New Works for Custom Made Theatre. A fast writer with a keen ear for dialogue, Bousel's Facebook friends have been richly entertained during the past two years with his sporadic posts labeled Adventures in Tech.

The cast of Stuart Bousel's new one-act play,
Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side)

Basically, Bousel was recreating conversations he heard while working as an office manager for a tech startup -- conversations which pitted the dreams and hopes of tech-oriented Millennials against the realities of their lifestyle's impact on San Francisco's aging population. From crowded rides on MUNI to debating the morality of riding aboard industry-sponsored commuter buses; from working in offices where "bros" seemed to magically appear and disappear to chatting up baristas and teasing Australian co-workers about their accent, Adventures in Tech developed a loyal following of people who were amused by Bousel's writing and could empathize with the smugness of the bro culture he depicted.

Poster art for Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side)

Pianofight recently presented the world premiere of Bousel's Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side) in a lean production smartly directed by his friend and fellow playwright, Allison Page. While Bousel has demonstrated is skill at writing comic dialogue in such plays as Everybody Here Says Hello! (which has been published by EXIT Press), Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side) showcases his talent for writing short, smart vignettes and biting black-out sketches.

Whether focusing on the kind of office culture that encourages adults to behave like adolescents (or recruiting practices where people are lured into a job with the temptation of good snacks), Bousel's writing captures the inner anxieties of 21-year-olds who worry that their friends might be "too old" or people whose egos are easily wounded when a barista misspells their name.

Stuart (Dan Kurtz) and Cody (Casey Spiegel) in a scene from
Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side) 
(Photo by: Andy Strong, PianoFight)

The amiable Dan Kurtz stars as Stuart, with Casey Spiegel creating an endearing and very funny portrait of Bousel's boyfriend, Cody (a graphic artist who clings to his stuffed animals during discussions in bed). Among the women wreaking havoc on Stuart's life are a job recruiter (Amanda Rosenberg) who worries about whether or not Stuart "likes" his job, a snarky Coffee Shop Girl (Adrianna Delgadillo), and a frustrated female engineer (Emily Keyishian) who takes time out from playing with her action figure dolls to ask Stuart if he can order tampons for the women's bathroom.

His male coworkers include Derek Jones as a coworker who prefers to keep his ear buds plugged in tight, Cooper Carlson as a more garrulous coworker who imagines that all gay men lead glamorous lives, and Kevin Glass as the audience favorite, Stuart's Australian coworker.

Cooper Carlson, Derek Jones, and Dan Kurtz in a scene from
Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side)
(Photo by: Andy Strong, PianoFight)

Whether or not Bousel continues to post further Adventures in Tech on his Facebook page, some of his characters have already developed a loyal following, either because of their peculiar mystique (Australian coworker) or because they mirror the real-life Stuart and Cody. Much of the material, however, is comic gold which, in the hands of a gifted director like Allison Page, keeps the action moving at a fast pace for the play's 80 minutes.

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