at Zanies

Stand-up comic T.P. Mulrooney calls his Hitch Up the Mules, a one-man show at Zanies comedy club, “social psychology for people drinking in bars.” Well, what quicker way to trace neuroses to their source? In his clever patter with a philosophical edge, Mulrooney argues that since the 1960s, when Americans faced their first cultural identity crisis, we’ve gone beyond the mere instinct for survival to pursue a more elusive and treacherous goal, a choice life-style. (Tell that to the homeless.) But unfortunately a life-style means choices–and leisure and freedom, Mulrooney says, threaten us more than the old rules that guaranteed survival.

Using slides to illustrate our displaced priorities and materialistic mind-set (including a hilarious series in which he parties with a Clinton look-alike), Mulrooney hearkens back to the pioneer days, when trying to live past the age of 40 constituted the only life-style. In the show’s sharpest segment, he asks randomly chosen audience members to call out their occupations in the midst of a pretend Indian attack on a wagon train. As he shouted for help, we learned that the brave reinforcements sent to save us were a sales representative, a contingency management coordinator, and the governor’s press assistant. We’re doomed, I thought, but fortunately the fourth person was a nurse.

In short, we’ve specialized well beyond the need to live till tomorrow–we’ve mastered survival but lack reasons to live, and we’ve got too much time on our hands. “How silly life gets when we don’t have to fight for our lives,” Mulrooney says. (But I’m not sure there–I don’t need to hang glide or bungee jump to taste mortality. Here you may be skirting death just crossing the street.)

Offering himself as a “classically confused American of the 90s,” Mulrooney clearly relishes the chance to inventory the crazy consequences of this cultural shift, especially the obsessions that define us, which he does by contrasting four archetypal Americans. Dumbing down to bovine level, he plays Joey Bayline, an obsessive coupon clipper and Orioles fan who measures people by their income and finds himself coming up short. Then there’s Mulrooney’s semifascist, xenophobic Uncle Bud, a World War II vet who thinks detente is a fey Russian word; he represents a time when style wasn’t enough. Rick is “the Style Guy,” a rebel without a clue who wears a bright orange lumberjack cap and is deliberately, pointlessly gauche.

Most developed and poignant is the Carjacker, whose story is based on true accounts of bored debutantes who drive their Jaguars into the crime-ridden barrios of South Central LA for quick, dangerous sex. (It seems Madonna started the trend.) Exasperated with the shallowness of the socialite whose car he’s nabbed–she has even less purpose than he does–the Carjacker eventually warms to her when he discovers her one skill: she can talk with his mother about Erica on All My Children.

Though Mulrooney often touches on the dichotomy between having to survive and having choices, many of his subjects are also standard stand-up fare: the difference between Catholic kids, who spend the rest of their lives waiting to be hit one more time, and public school kids, whose bookless arrogance parochial kids can only envy; relationship troubles; Saddam Hussein; suicide in Sweden, where people won’t go down dark alleys for fear they might suddenly off themselves; golf jokes (which I didn’t get); and the strange trajectory of the sex drive. Mulrooney punches these up with pungent impersonations of Dustin Hoffman, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, and Jack Nicholson.

Honest to the end, Mulrooney offers no advice on how to find a significance beyond survival. But in an excellent Jimmy Stewart impression he makes a final point reminiscent of Voltaire’s “Cultivate your garden”: quoting Harvey’s Elwood P. Dowd, he says it’s better to be pleasant than smart. (I guess when we weren’t looking the two became mutually exclusive.)

Combining Jay Leno’s commonsense reductionism with Chicago-style irreverence, Mulrooney delivers his loosely knit material with verve and, well, style. He’s gone beyond simple survival to make us laugh–and that’s not an irrelevant life-style choice.