Bailiwick Repertory

Comedy teams–once standard fare in vaudeville and nightclub acts–have become increasingly rare in our onanistic age of one-person shows and stand-up acts. So rare, in fact, that whenever a funny, truly compatible pair of comedians come along–once every five years or so–they always seem visitors from some earlier, less selfish era, when comedy routines were more than narcissistic complaints and two was not a crowd.

Brian McCann and Philip E. Johnson are such a team. Though their two-person variety show, The Christmas Brothers: A Couple of Snow Flakes, is no exercise in nostalgia–it depends upon such modern devices as video and synthesizers–McCann and Johnson’s collaboration has a touch of vaudevillian warmth. In the tradition of the Smothers Brothers, Rowan and Martin, and Martin and Lewis (in the early years, at least), these two really seem to enjoy each other’s company onstage. Even when they mock the idea of male bonding–as in the show’s only kinda funny opening sketch, in which they adopt each other as brothers–they commit so fully to the silly routine it’s obvious that they trust each other as only fully bonded performers can.

Again, in the tradition of the Smothers Brothers et al, McCann and Johnson are well matched. Johnson comes off as the smoother, better-looking, more sensible one–the Bud Abbott/Dan Rowan/Dick Smothers of the team, if you will. McCann is the goofier, funnier, less socially adept, more childlike Lou Costello/Dick Martin/Tommy Smothers partner. As a longtime member of Blue Velveeta–the quick-witted three-man improvisation troupe that braved two years’ worth of drunken Saturday nights at the Improv–McCann clearly knows in his bones the importance of supporting a fellow performer. (This willingness to give focus to others also makes McCann’s weekly radio show on WLUP FM, The Sunday Funnies, a breath of fresh air in a medium dominated by windbags and mike hogs.)

In their solo skits they’re funny, but together something greater than the two of them takes over. It energizes the show and makes even the lamest material–the caveman Christmas sketch, say, which entails the worst Monty Python accents I’ve heard since high school–entertaining.

Unfortunately, two of the three best bits in the show are done solo–Johnson’s juggling act and McCann’s killing postmodern take on stand-up (the premise: that every joke ends up revealing some additional pathetic fact about the stand-up, that he still lives at home, drinks too much, watches too much cable, etc). The sole exception, ironically, involves not McCann and Johnson but their two-person band, Scott May and Geoff Johnson, who do a very sweet rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Of course, McCann and Johnson’s solo bits wouldn’t seem half so funny if they weren’t part of a show blissfully free of comedy-destroying prima donnas and egotism. Still, I can’t help but feel disappointed that they haven’t realized what they’ve got together and written material for their team as funny as their solo stuff.


Bailiwick Repertory

Best known as the erstwhile host and cocreator of Wild Chicago, Ben Hollis never seemed to me particularly comfortable in the hyperkinetic, sensory-assaultive world of WTTW’s weekly guide to things strange and eccentric in Chicagoland. So it came as no surprise when Hollis confided during his 90-minute low-key interview show, Be My Guest, that he’d quit Wild Chicago because the celebrity began to get to him. His words: “I began to experience myself as a cartoon character.”

Ben Hollis’s stage show is about as far as you can get from the video values of Wild Chicago without resorting to the archaic art of writing words on paper (or a glowing screen). Slow where TV is fast, democratic where TV is elitist, meditative where TV is mindlessly active, Be My Guest is very much an anti-TV talk show. Based on the admittedly romantic notion that we ordinary people have lives every bit as interesting as those of the rich and fatuous, it consists of nothing more than interviews with members of the audience and a “celebrity” (the guy who plays Benny the Bull, the night I was there). One by one the volunteer interviewees are invited onstage to take a seat next to Hollis. Then, for the next 15 minutes or so, he quizzes them about their lives: their likes, their dislikes, where they live, where they just had dinner, how they spent their day.

As an interviewer, Hollis is almost obsequious. He listens carefully, never interrupts (even when the interviewee is droning on and on), never pops in with a silly quip or wisecrack. This is both his great strength and most debilitating weakness. On Wild Chicago you always knew that whatever was on-screen would be replaced in a minute or so by something completely different. In Be My Guest, if Hollis happens to invite onstage a quiet, repressed person with virtually no life and very little to say about it–as happened the night I saw the show–he still gives her the full 15 minutes of fame. So at times the interviewees exhaust the audience long before their time has run out. But at other times Hollis’s persistence pays off: after much prodding, the above-mentioned introvert came out of her shell to discuss a date last summer that was doomed from the start.

Ultimately the show is as interesting as Hollis’s subjects. Still, in an age when a ten-second answer is considered long-winded and everyone’s listening skills seem to be impaired, a show like Be My Guest has its odd, archaic charm.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.