Jim Carrane Is Living in a Dwarf’s House, at the Second City E.T.C., and The Gong Show (Freaks on Parade), WNEP Theater. Jim Carrane knows a thing or two about making people laugh–he’s a master of self-deprecating humor, whether detailing his frustrating experiences planning his grandmother’s 95th birthday party or contemplating his own future as a minimum-wage grunt. Once again he tries to pass himself off as just another misanthropic, sad-sack loser in this one-man show, cowritten and directed by Gary Ruderman, but his charm makes that impossible. Even at 36, Carrane views the world through a child’s eyes, marveling at the wonders of volume discounts at Sam’s and becoming positively giddy at the prospect of a check from a relative. Yet his material is unquestionably sophisticated, and he never resorts to phony gags or cheap one-liners. Frank to the point of bluntness about his deep-seated insecurities, he’s utterly ego-free as a performer.

Still, Carrane takes too long to settle into his material, and his low-key performance–he either sits at a kitchen table or stands directly in front of the audience–is often as slack as his characters. As adept as he is at solo performance and storytelling, Carrane ought to be able to hit a comfort zone from the get-go, especially since his warm stage persona has won him an adoring audience.

In the late 70s The Gong Show was the absolute paradigm of tacky TV, an off-kilter talent show with “celebrity” judges and even more dubious contestants. In WNEP’s hour-long salute, one “lucky” ticket holder (on the evening I attended, it was me) gets to weigh in on the sloppy, reckless proceedings with the other judges. Far too few of the acts suffered the indignity of the gong, but the evening’s unanimous winner–an amputee who placed a pair of fuzzy ears on the stump of his leg and transformed it into a dog–was stranger than anything on the original show, even the infamous “Popsicle twins,” who performed fellatio on their frozen treats. Chuck Barris would have been proud.

–Nick Green