Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Comedians At The Gate

The other night, as I watched a performance of The Pirates of Penzance, I found myself wondering how, at more than 130 years of age, William S. Gilbert's deliciously witty libretto can make so many modern comedians seem like noisy Neanderthals. Some of their acts are simply hateful, others reveal shocking levels of cultural illiteracy

Sadly, much of this is due to the dumbing down of American culture. With all due respect to CNN and other supposed news organizations, what does it say when the most trusted political voices and "truth tellers" are to be found on Comedy Central?

While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take top honors for skewering pundits and politicians, there's no denying that Stewart is also one of the keenest and most perceptive interviewers on television. As much as he jokes about working for "a fake news network," he cuts through to basic truths with far more skill than most other talking heads.

Whenever Stewart has been criticized by conservative buffoons such as Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, he has made no pretense at being anything other than a comedian. He works with material that comes from public sources, including rival networks whose "talent" lineups are bloated with self-righteous reporters and pompous bloviators.

To be sure, there are many kinds of comedy. Whether going for puns or pranks, slapstick or sexual innuendo, the ultimate goal is simple. As Donald O'Connor so beautifully demonstrated in 1952's Singin' In The Rain, a comedian's job is to Make'Em Laugh.

In October 1960, when An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened at the John Golden Theatre, they were already famous for a style of comedy that was as bold and beautiful in concept as it was in its execution. Fifty years later, their writing has lost none of its bite (as evidenced in one of their most famous skits):

Equally impressive is the following video clip in which the casts of Fiddler on the Roof and Avenue Q worked together to create a Broadway mashup for a World AIDS Day fundraising event.

When it comes to today's political arena, few people can match the rabid enthusiasm or sheer chutzpah of Stephen Colbert's comedy.

But, as comedian Will Durst was quick to point out during his opening night performance of Elect to Laugh! at The Marsh on Tuesday night, Colbert and Stewart have teams of writers churning out material for them. Therein lies a big difference.

Will Durst (Photo by: Pat Johnson)

A native of Milwaukee, the 60-year-old Durst is an old school stand-up comedian with a big vocabulary who, in surveying the political landscape sees one Presidential candidate as "oxyMormonic," another who looks like "Mr. Rogers with rabies," and refers to Sarah Palin as "the Queen of the Illiterati." Pacing back and forth with a clear command of his audience, Durst doesn't hesitate to jump from a scathing description of election night drumming circles in Mill Valley to a recollection of the terrifying moment when he forgot his wife's first name.

In the following clip, he analyzes the brief and sharp trajectory of Texas Governor Rick Perry's recently-aborted campaign for the Presidency.

While there is much hilarity in his show, Durst is quick to admit that there is a huge difference between performing at a stand-up comedy club and performing in a theatrical venue like The Marsh. That difference in demographics is all about the intellectual sharpness of one audience versus another.

Presented with an opening night audience that was closer to his age and could quickly grasp all of his cultural references, Durst stretched an 85-minute show out to nearly 110 minutes without missing a beat. As you can see in the following video clip, as he gets excited he becomes more and more animated.

Are you tired of watered-down comedy without much substance? Looking for some razor-sharp insights into American politics? Hoping for true wit (as opposed to the truly witless Steve Doocy)?

The Kinsey Sicks return to The Rrazz Room on August 7 with their new show, Electile Dysfunction.  Will Durst performs every Tuesday night through November 6 (Election Day) at The Marsh (click here to order tickets).

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