Aaron Freeman

at the Royal George Cabaret, open run

Writer, comedian, talk-show host, “recovering Catholic,” ex-lottery ball, father of two, Aaron Freeman has for the past ten years proven that comedy doesn’t have to be silly to be funny. That it’s still possible, even in this increasingly apathetic, entertainment-bedazzled age, to make a career out of cracking wise about politics.

True, Freeman is no Noam Chomsky: he’s not likely to disturb a mainstream audience’s consensus view of reality. He skims along the surface of things, joking about the way Richie Daley sputters and stammers on camera, even referring to him as R2D2, and then makes a quip about Bill Clinton’s recent bad hair days. Never for a moment does Freeman contradict the current conceit that TV is reality. In fact Freeman, a frequent guest on Chicago Tonight with John Calloway and the host of his own late-night talk show, reinforces the notion.

Still, it’s thrilling to see a comic, any comic to the left of Rush Limbaugh, tackling topics more challenging than penis size or the latest menu item at McDonald’s. In the long-running Do the White Thing, Freeman even dared to share the stage with a performer–professor of economics turned comic songwriter Rob Kolson–who thought nothing of building bits around free-market economic theory. Of course the tall, brash, lightning-fast middle-class African American and the somewhat shy, self-effacing middle-class white guy were such an instantly likable team, they could have said almost anything and been a hit.

In Disguised as a Grownup Freeman works alone, and this is both the show’s strength and its weakness. Freeman can’t hope to re-create the Freeman-Kolson dynamic by himself. Nevertheless, with his booming voice and strong, confident stage presence, Freeman has an infectious, joyous dynamic all his own. Even during a sparsely attended early show he performed with the sort of energy and verve many performers need a full house to summon up.

At the beginning Freeman lightly touches on the show’s theme–that, unlike our parents, we are all just pretending to be adults–and then leaves that behind as he riffs his way through a dozen or so current topics: the Daley administration, the Clinton administration, the standoff in Waco, the situation in Somalia, gays in the military. As in Do the White Thing, much of his material is drawn from that day’s newspaper. Freeman even brings a copy of the Sun-Times with him onstage, and flipping from one highlighted article to another provides a very funny running commentary.

Some of Freeman’s remarks fall flat, especially when he’s trying to find the right article to discuss: “School split over rebel flag and logo. Mmmmm. Somebody’s out there shooting arrows. Mmmmm.” But once he lights on a topic, this Second City-trained improviser comes up with off-the-cuff commentary to rival the best op-ed columnists. Freeman refers to Attorney General Reno as Sister Mary Janet Reno–“She has no life,” he says. He dubs Congressman Dan Rostenkowski “a white man’s white man–a big beefy guy with a stamp on his neck that says ‘USDA approved.'” Then he chides Woody Allen: “If you’re going to have a mid-life-crisis fling, you should look further than the living room.”

Ironically, Freeman’s prepared material is not as strong as his ad-libbed stuff. Freeman’s musical send-up of Wall Street and Washington–“Guys and Dollars,” sung to tunes lifted from Guys and Dolls–is more charming than funny. His parodic TV commercial, “Crazy Ivan’s Nuclear Madness Warehouse in the Heart of Moscow,” makes a valid and scary point, but the form of the joke, modeled on Dan Aykroyd’s old Saturday Night Live parodies of a discount electronics dealer, feels a little stale.

Even less satisfying are Freeman’s forays into serious material. His nonsectarian preaching about God at the beginning and end of the show–“God is the ultimate adult”–left me cold. As did a long, only mildly interesting folktale about a race of intensely spiritual human beings who show Freeman how to sprout wings, a tale he spliced onto the end of a routine about Somalia. Listening to Freeman’s heavy-handed attempts at deep religious meaning, I kept asking myself whether he would have dared waste so much stage time on these pseudo-profundities if he were still working with Kolson.

At this point the ratio of comedy to gassy serious points is still reassuringly high, although it’s hard to listen to Freeman joking a la Woody about the deep religious questions of his life–“How do I work my VCR? Why do men have nipples?”–and not worry that his next project will be a Freemanesque version of Interiors.