Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Hosts With The Most on the Ball

Watch some of today's sharpest talk show hosts (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson) in action and you'll notice some interesting traits in common. They started out as stand-up comedians, they read, they have an uncommon curiosity about the world around them and, when they interview people, they're able to draw on a much wider base of knowledge than political hacks and corporate shills like Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade.

Anyone who has attended concerts by comedians like Eddie Izzard, Margaret Cho, and Ricky Gervais knows that, in addition to their sharp wit and great storytelling skills, they're able to ad lib because they have a tremendous set of cultural references at their disposal (someone once suggested letting Nathan Lane host the Tony Awards without a script).

While comedians like Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, and Mario Cantone take delight in their own craft (and are the first to mock themselves), they can also be surprisingly candid about personal needs. When England's Graham Norton brought his stand-up act to San Francisco several years ago, he closed his show by telling the audience "It's time to go. There are cocks out there that are not going to suck themselves."

While some comedians have landed talk shows and comedy specials, there's another time of cultural host that shines when given an opportunity to work with an audience. Whether that person is a cuddly intellectual or an old-fashioned stereotype of a mincing pixie, one's storytelling ability is often what keeps audiences coming back for more.

Such artists may not be backed up by applause signs cuing their audience or a drummer who can punctuate their punchlines. Yet their delivery is smart, stylish, and based on an intellectual acuity that is deceptively sharp.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the unheralded joys of this month's performances at the San Francisco Olympians III Festival has been playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel's introduction of each new play. As the founder of the festival and someone who has harbored a life-long passion for mythology (Bousel was introduced to Bulfinch's Mythology in the fourth grade), his love for the Greek gods in all of their complicated glory is downright infectious.

Whether explaining that Oceanus and his sister, Tethys, created 3,000 children ("Just think of what it's like to start saving up for all those college funds!") or explaining where the theatre's safety exits are ("If you see a monster's foot come through the ceiling, walk around it, run down the hallway and turn right into the Tenderloin, which is undoubtedly safer.....") Bousel may be one of the very few stand-up comics to use Greek mythology for most of his source material.

Playwright/director/entrepreneur Stuart Bousel

Because his stage persona resembles a cuddly intellectual bear (one night, upon noticing that something had fallen from his pocket to the stage floor, he gasped "Imagine if that had been cocaine!") and his audience is largely comprised of actors and playwrights who are his friends from the San Francisco Theatre Pub, Bousel has the advantage of a loving, intelligent audience able to catch most of his ad libs and respond with hearty guffaws.

It's rare during any new works festival to find an artist who can get the audience primed with such a breadth and depth of cultural references. On some nights, Bousel's introductions may be better than one of the plays he is introducing!

* * * * * * * * *
Leslie Jordan doesn't need any introduction. Audiences fell in love with the 57-year-old, 4'11" comedian when he appeared as Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, Beverly Leslie on Will & Grace, and Bernard Ferrion on Boston Legal. Having seen him perform on gay cruises and before largely gay audiences before, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who can point to a 1970s picture of three handsome young men and mischievously drawl "The one on the right had the biggest cock in Atlanta!" Here's Jordan speaking to a group of Google employees in 2006.

Jordan returned to The Rrazz Room this week with his latest collection of autobiographical tales during which he demonstrated his ability to mimic a pouty seven-year-old who is quite irritated to discover that he is no longer the center of attention. The comedian had the audience doubled over in laughter as he told the story of how "Miss Odessa" (a large black woman in a speakeasy in Tennessee) determined that the teenage Jordan should make his official drag debut dressed as Tina Turner in a white Afro wig.

Whether boasting about his ability to imitate women he met at his mother's hair salon, describing his childhood insistence on getting a bride doll for Christmas, or recalling his attempt to dye his hair blond with hydrogen peroxide (it turned orange, instead), Jordan had as much fun telling each story as the audience had hearing it.

Whether recalling his introduction to black beauties ("A truck driver could take one in San Francisco and travel to the coast of Maine in 10 minutes!") or the time he informed his stunned mother that he was not going to go to college but would instead to move to Atlanta and become a female impersonator, Jordan's delivery never fails to hit the mark. Just watching him pantomime how he used to run back and forth from one end of a park in Atlanta (where the hippies were smoking marijuana) to the other (where he was busily giving blow jobs in the bushes) is a lesson in comic timing.

Whereas Jordan's other solo shows have concentrated on his years as an alcoholic, meth addict, and minor fixture in Hollywood, Fruit Fly tries to answer the age-old question: Do gay men grow up to become their mothers? Most of Jordan's material, which concentrates on his first 25 years of life (and how the birth of his younger twin sisters robbed him of the family spotlight), is augmented with pictures of him as a toddler that are simultaneously adorable and hysterically funny.

No comments: