at Second City E.T.C.

Bob Odenkirk’s program bio notes that he writes for TV’s Saturday Night Live, but don’t let that put you off. Odenkirk’s one-man show Half My Face Is a Clown displays an intelligence and craftsmanship long missing from SNL and most other shows of that ilk.

In a quick succession of 14 scenes, Odenkirk explores the theme of performance, assuming a variety of characters and developing their situations with satisfyingly coherent comic logic. In one bit he’s a bad stand-up comedian stealing his jokes from “Bazooka Joe” comics as he chews gum onstage; in another he’s an uncomfortable priest delivering a woefully unprepared funeral eulogy; in another he’s a stereotyped hillbilly boozer who suddenly breaks character to criticize the audience’s willingness to laugh at such stereotypes. Two vignettes address Chicago provincialism: in one, a beer-swilling ethnic grunts a poem praising the Windy City in ridiculously extravagant terms; the other shows a smug Mark Russell-type political comic taking his ideas from the community trivia reported in a tacky neighborhood newspaper. In these and other sketches, Odenkirk involves the audience by making our reaction part of the scene–inviting us to laugh and then suggesting that we consider why we’re laughing. He never plays at us or down to us but always with us, even as he maintains confident control of the proceedings.

Odenkirk’s jokes are fresh and intelligent; his characterizations are well observed and precisely defined, avoiding crude stereotypes except when stereotyping is the point of the skit. His emphasis on different characters allows him to transcend the usual limits of stand-up comedy while retaining that form’s intimate interaction with the audience.

The professionalism Odenkirk exhibits in his careful preparation of material and performance is also evident in director Tom Gianas’s smooth pacing and use of minimal but sharp changes in lighting and stage placement to keep the show varied and interesting during its brisk one-hour running time. For audiences looking for high-quality humor–and for the numerous aspiring comic performers around town who could use a role model–Bob Odenkirk offers entertainment that’s at once freewheeling and disciplined, imaginative and professional.