Jimmy Tingle

at Halsted Theatre Centre

January 14-17, 20-24, and 27-31

I first saw Jimmy Tingle (“That is my real name”) at the now-defunct Catch a Rising Star nightclub in 1988. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Johnny Carson was on TV, America was happy and secure (or so it thought), and Tingle was in town en route to Hollywood, where he was booked for an appearance on The Tonight Show.

As Tingle recalls in his witty and thought-provoking two-act monologue What’s So Funny? The Education of an American Comic, his Tonight gig was a one-shot. He wasn’t invited back, his agent said, because he didn’t do “enough clever jokes.” What about Mark Twain? he remembers whining. What about Will Rogers? Lenny Bruce? They didn’t tell clever jokes. No, said the agent. But they never did The Tonight Show, either. The powers that be had decreed that Tingle was “too political.”

They were right. Tingle is highly political. Not in the sense of making fun of specific government figures, or even in the sense of preaching about social problems–though he does address such concerns as homelessness, abortion, AIDS, gay rights, censorship, gun control, and war. Rather the underlying theme of his reflections on how such issues affect ordinary people is that we have met the enemy and he is us.

Such a substantive, self-critical approach is not only unusual given the smug, escapist mockery that dominates stand-up comedy–it’s unwelcome. That’s probably why Tingle is trying to move into the more receptive arena of theatrical performance with this work in progress (directed by Larry Arrick, a Broadway and TV veteran with roots in Second City’s predecessor, the Compass Players). Though I enjoyed Tingle’s barroom act four years ago, he’s much better now–less strident and more thoughtful, less angry at “them” and more aware of himself. Part of his growth must be due to age and experience, of course; but just as important–perhaps more important–his audience now is sober. And so is he.

I mean sober in two senses. Tingle acknowledges onstage that he’s an on-the-wagon alcoholic and seems delighted to be addressing listeners without having to cut through a liquored fog in their brains or his own. But his humor also seems attuned to a more serious, introspective national mood. Just as Will Rogers used homespun (but by no means corny) witticisms to reinforce President Roosevelt’s emphasis on hope in the Depression, Tingle’s concern with renewal and reconciliation seems right in tune with the tone set by Bill Clinton–though Tingle’s also aware of the humor inherent in the earnest language of recovery. (Asked by the New York Times how he feels about leaving Arkansas for Washington, Clinton responded: “I’ve worked through it.”)

If he was an odd duck in the stand-up scene, Tingle may be an outright anomaly in the world of performance. He’s a straight Irish Catholic male who has never once sought an NEA grant. Inhabiting a middle ground between the droll intellectualism of Mort Sahl and the over-the-top outrage of George Carlin–and sounding, with his working-class Boston accent, like a cross between Bobby Kennedy and Columbo–Tingle adopts a Joe Sixpack persona to confront the complexities of the 90s. He approaches touchy topics from a personal angle–not parroting the PC line or getting easy laughs with put-downs but just discussing what happened to him that made him look at things a little differently.

Take racism. “I’m basically white–maybe a little red in the face,” he deadpans. And he admits he was skeptical when a teacher lectured him about the racial injustice of the judicial system: “Everybody I know in jail is white.” But he remembers an eye-opening trip to an all-black high school for a basketball game: at halftime it was announced that black radical Angela Davis had been exonerated on gun-running charges by an all-white jury. “The crowd went crazy,” he says, “and nobody was happier than me.”

While it’s common to point out the racism of America’s selectively enforced immigration policies, nobody else has put it quite the way Tingle does: “Could it be the reason they try to keep out Haitians is that they’re dark-skinned Catholic people who don’t practice birth control?” he asks. “If ten thousand Scandinavian women with their tubes tied pulled up to New York, you’d hear it in every barroom in America: ‘Let freedom ring! Tuesday’s illegal-alien night. Come on down!'” Implied is the admission: he’d be first in line.

His take on censorship is similarly blunt. Like most folks, he went to see the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit for a simple reason: “They said I couldn’t.” Viewing Mapplethorpe’s photo of a long black penis hanging out of a pair of polyester pin-striped pants, he confesses (with perfect comic timing), “My initial reaction was envy.” (By contrast the monologuist Reno, whom Tingle occasionally calls to mind, says she was as offended as Jesse Helms was–but by the polyester, not the penis.)

Where most prochoice performers who discuss abortion do so in highly charged terms, asserting women’s right to choose or bludgeoning the audience with accounts of back-alley butchery, Tingle’s position is more pragmatic: Roe v. Wade came along just in time to keep him from having to get married when he was 17. He was willing to keep the baby–but his girlfriend, at age 16, had more sense.

The shy, slightly defensive selfishness of Tingle’s stance on abortion is a sly reminder of the issue’s ambiguities–because that selfishness is more common than most people would admit. That’s the tack Tingle takes on most matters; while “clever jokes” are indeed few and far between, his subtext–what’s left unsaid but resonates after a line has passed by–is often hilarious as well as illuminating. Occasionally it’s also brilliant, when he matches his subtle comic style with bold explorations of the sheer power of language. Wryly and resignedly protesting the trend toward legalized gambling, he hypothesizes a really useful sport–a horse race between social problems. “In lane numbah one from the streets of America, the offspring of ignorance and poverty, hopelessness and despair, being driven by the profit motive, is Crime in the Streets,” he proclaims in the dry monotone of a racetrack tout. “In lane numbah two is intravenous drug use, sexual promiscuity, and the spread of AIDS. . . . The condoms are approaching the AIDS virus in lane numbah two, and here comes the Pope outta the grandstand . . . a young bald woman comes runnin’ onto the track, she’s . . . takin’ pictures of the Pope and rippin’ ’em up . . .”

Another set piece provides the show’s high point. Tingle links the alcoholic’s self-justification with society’s glamorization of booze, tracing “The Making of Beer” from the brewer to the consumer via the advertising media. It’s a long, luxurious, richly rhythmic stream of consciousness and consonance that could have come from Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, or Lenny Bruce at his most musical.

This inspired, superbly crafted sequence reveals a performer of enormous talent. But it also demonstrates Tingle’s one serious drawback, as he relies on verbal virtuosity to dodge a cathartic confrontation with the addiction he’s covertly describing. As he continues to shape What’s So Funny? Tingle needs to probe deeper and reveal more of himself. As he grows more confident with a wider range of audiences, and more comfortable with the form he’s exploring, one hopes he will drop–or at least confront–the slight distance he keeps between himself and, well, his self. He has the potential to become a major artist; for now, he’s a sharp, skillful comic talking about tough topics in an unusual way that makes people laugh–and think. Will Rogers would surely approve.