Richter’s Thing

at the Roxy

The youthful members of Richter’s Thing, the group presenting the revue Beating the Shabby Cat Wednesday nights at the Roxy, display one impressive quality as aspiring comic performers: they are willing to make complete fools of themselves onstage. Nothing, it appears, is too low or too embarrassing for them–which makes them either really gutsy or really self-indulgent. I’m sure they think of themselves as gutsy–their press release is filled with hype about “comic brinksmanship”–but paying audiences aren’t likely to share that opinion. Even favorably inclined customers–i.e., the performers’ families and friends–will find their tolerance tested after an hour of the tedious, adolescent sexual comedy that dominates this show.

As its title indicates, Beating the Shabby Cat relies heavily on jack-off jokes. This turns out to be an appropriate subject for the group. Masturbation is a form of sexual expression in which one is concerned only with pleasing oneself; the kids in Richter’s Thing seem to be amusing themselves so much that they don’t really care whether anyone else thinks they’re funny. And the show’s approach to a joke certainly resembles the basic technique of onanism: pull at it long enough and something will come out.

The folks in Richter’s Thing began playing together at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; like much undergraduate humor, their show is preoccupied with intellectual trivia on the one hand (Freud, Margaret Atwood, Genghis Khan, Immanuel Kant, and the Grateful Dead are among the names thrown about) and self-consciously vulgar sex jokes on the other. Beating the Shabby Cat assumes that the combination of dropped names and dropped pants is innately funny; certainly very little effort has been made to develop the material. Such a scattershot approach might work if director (and company founder) Richter Hartig went for fast-paced, breakneck energy; instead, the skits are allowed to slouch along interminably, exposing the actor-writers’ lack of inventiveness.

Early in the show, Hartig himself appears onstage in a lady’s nightgown to denounce the bulk of Chicago comedy as “a drag.” (Get it?) Perhaps Hartig and his performers consider themselves a fresh new alternative to the plethora of formulaic improv-style comedy groups that seem as ubiquitous as Batman T-shirts this summer. But the subject matter in Beating the Shabby Cat is hardly innovative: Batman and Robin locked in battle with the “Freudler,” trading verbal jabs about penis envy, oedipal anxiety, and the like; a stand-up comic in ancient Rome; “Tipper Goreski,” who exposes satanic lyrics in polka music; a stand-up comic in Elizabethan England; a guy listening to a telephone sex line; Nicaraguans torturing an American spy by making him watch a street mime; twitchy old boozers at an Uptown bar. Out of these less than brilliant ideas the likable and energetic performers–Erika Greene, George Kirjanov, Michael Koptik, Ted Schillinger, Tim Sheridan, and Meredith Turner–mine occasional, fleeting glimpses of actual humor, but these soon sink under the dead weight of too much unfunny material.

The one sketch in Beating the Shabby Cat that struck me as reasonably fresh concerns a class clown whose friends encourage his stupid antics until he leaves the room; then they mock him viciously. The punch line of this scene is that even after he’s been confronted by his buddies’ real opinion of him, the jerk clings to his delusion that he’s funny. For their own sakes, I hope the brain trust behind Richter’s Thing will shake themselves free of the same delusion and begin to develop the self-critical discipline that separates professional comedy from collegiate cutting-up.