Second City E.T.C.


Factory Theater

If you’ve lived in Chicago long enough, you’ve probably come across people very much like the characters in Joe Liss’s dreadfully titled yet expertly performed one-man Joe Show. Sitting through the production is kind of like taking a guided tour of the northwest side of the city. There’s the crabby laundromat proprietor who knows everybody’s business, the tripped-out flier distributor, the sarcastically indifferent cop, the fast-talking, chain-smoking cabdriver, the show-biz failure who runs a karaoke joint.

In less than an hour Liss provides an accurate and humorous cross section of this city’s denizens, splicing the long monologues with clever videotaped bits that enable him to make quick clothing changes. The characters are presented separately, but their lives intersect and overlap as they pass on the street or talk about one another in the neighborhood bar or laundromat. Wisely, Liss doesn’t dwell on these relationships, but uses them sparingly to give greater depth to his portrayals.

The best moments of Liss’s show come when he’s able to find riotous humor in everyday speech patterns and dialogue. Most amusing is his cabdriver who’s seen it all and done it all, including getting three postgraduate degrees, and who labels as assholes all those who accuse him of bullshitting. More poignant, but still funny in a grim sort of way, is Liss’s characterization of a hopelessly immature secondhand-goods salesman who brags about his pornography collection and his imagined sexual encounters, most notably with a meter reader.

Joe Show falters only when Liss tries too hard to be funny and sacrifices reality for the sake of humor. A country and western singer’s pissed-off diatribe about the partner who deserted him by getting into a car accident and falling into a coma is well on its way to achieving the right mixture of pathos and wit, but then the agitated singer begins to throttle the comatose patient. A videotaped segment about an overweight woman on a late-night talk show is cleverly produced, but ultimately stupid and pointless. Even the cabdriver’s monologue falls flat when he brags that he was the inspiration for the characters Harrison Ford has played. And the final monologue, delivered by a tyrannical British acting teacher who berates his students, may be well performed, but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of Liss’s gritty, urban show.

What makes Joe Show work is the undeniable talent of the chameleonlike Liss, who, unlike many solo performers, is able to completely lose himself inside his characters. He comes off as a sort of good-natured, midwestern Eric Bogosian–without Bogosian’s gripping intensity, but also without his smug condescension. Cleverly written by Liss and director Ron West, Joe Show packs its 50 minutes with enough laughs and intelligence to leave you hungering for more.

Is there some rule that what’s funny in an improvised show becomes incredibly stupid the moment the show’s over? I pretty much enjoyed all of Factory Theater’s late-late-night improv show Disco Bob, but now that I’m trying to explain why, the only funny thing I can remember is that the guy behind me told his female companion not to write “Lemon Fresh Joy” as an audience suggestion because “it’s not a place or a relationship.”

Disco Bob is a decidedly unpretentious theater game in which the six-member ensemble uses audience suggestions of places and relationships to provide about an hour’s worth of improvised scenes. None of them seem all that funny now, but I distinctly remember chortling at one scene involving a street-tough 13-year-old girl getting a bunny tattooed on her pinkie by a slimy tattoo artist and sniggering during a restaurant scene in which a prissy waiter tries to attend to the demands of a gruff man who wants nothing more than a slab of meat to eat, a glass of liquor to drink, and a bowl of granulated sugar for dessert.

The show succeeds in part because 83.3333 percent of the cast is incredibly talented, witty, and unassuming, giving us in the audience the feeling that we’re sitting in the living room of some very clever people. The other 16.6667 percent? Well, maybe it just wasn’t her night. It might not be a bad idea for the Disco Bob company to do more than just a bunch of two-person scenes, to mix it up to break up the monotony. But as it stands the show is an enjoyable effort that could provide those without unreasonably high expectations an economical and entertaining capper to a Saturday night. Just don’t bother trying to describe it to anybody afterward.