JOEL OWES ME DINNER
Spit & Tape Theatre Company
at Angel Island
D.H. Lawrence, in one of his more anti-Christian moments, once suggested England would be better off if no one read the Bible for a generation. That way the generation that followed could read it with fresh eyes.
I’m beginning to feel the same way about Second City-style comedy revues. The form has become so stale, so predictable, so full of laughless sketches on topics better explored 20 years ago that we would all be better off if everyone, except perhaps Second City, stopped creating comedy revues for the next 10 or 20 years. Then people like Joel Jeske and Mark Cody Johnson would stop devising mediocre two-man comedy revues, giving them silly titles and believing that’s enough to make them worth watching.
Jeske and Johnson have tampered with the form slightly. Instead of structuring their show as merely a series of comedy sketches and blackouts performed one after the other until the show is over, they interrupt the flow every few sketches to return to a mythical diner, where, playing themselves, they bitch over coffee.
In hipper hands these diner breaks, which occur about where you’d want to insert commercials if this were network TV, could have been marvelous. They could have provided a platform for the comics to speak directly to the audience, comment on how the show is going–like Chris Hogan and John Lehr–or reveal something new or interesting about themselves or the way we live now.
Unfortunately, it’s quickly clear that Jeske and Johnson, both graduates of Second City’s training center, suffer from the restricted worldview that afflicts all too many seasoned improvisers. For all their hip cynicism, they appear to know little about the world outside what they’ve seen on television, heard in school, or experienced in acting classes. Not having a clue about how to exploit the potential of the breaks, they fritter them away, “playing” a pair of rather limited improvisers bullshitting in a diner. We learn how hard it is to make it in acting and how little money they have, but precious little else.
They don’t fare much better during the more conventional parts of their show. Most of their material is substandard Second City-Saturday Night Live shtick, including a rather long sketch about a man whose apartment is so small that he can only throw a party for one guest at a time, another even longer (and more tedious) bit about a health instructor who’s emotionally attached to his CPR-demonstration doll, and an extremely tiresome repeating gag about an Andrew Dice Clay-like comic who makes it big with one punch line: “Hey, suck my dick!” (Nichols and May these two are not.)
Jeske and Johnson are not above indulging in the sort of vulgar humor they knock the Clayman for. In fact, you’re not likely to find a show more obsessed with shit and piss. In one running gag we’re treated to a series of bad vaudeville acts, all built around some gross-out gag. In one of these acts Jeske plays a man with “the world’s fastest sphincter.” Before our eyes we see him chew his food, swallow it, and then magically, moments later, excrete it. Later in the show he returns as a man who demonstrates how painful urination is when you have syphilis. In a third bit Johnson plays a man who “juggles his testicles.” None of these bits is very funny. For that matter, none breaks any ground. Every schoolyard in the country has at least one fourth-grader capable of telling potty jokes more sophisticated than these.
What makes Jeske and Johnson’s dependence on gross-out jokes all the more unforgivable is that the show contains one sketch, early on, that indicates just how honestly witty and intelligent these two could be if they put their minds to it. This all-too-short bit about a pair of actors trying to form a theater company on a shoestring contains a number of very funny and biting comments about the Chicago non-Equity scene and the difficulty of doing “brutal, uncensored, cutting-edge theater” when every tiny ensemble and community theater in town is doing Pinter, Shepard, and Mamet. In a moment of marvelous satire the two decide they’ll do “brutal, cutting-edge” versions of mainstream British playwright Alan Bennett.
The mention of Bennett, cocreator (with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller) of the revolutionary British comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, gave me hope that this show was going to be different from all the other Second City wannabes. Jeske, it turns out, studied for a time at Cambridge University, where he performed with the Footlights, the university theater club whose alumni include Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Bennett. But he seems to have learned from the Brits only their absurd fascination with excretion. And he and Johnson seem to have learned nothing from studying at Second City. Their comedy sketches are so vulgar, superficial, and humorless that Second City would be ashamed to perform them. “Today everything sucked,” Johnson quips in one of the show’s wittier moments. “Including this show,” I wanted to add.