Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire

Die Hanswurste

at the Chicago Fringe

and Buskers Festival 1996

Klown: The Children’s Show

Die Hanswurste

at the Chicago Fringe

and Buskers Festival 1996

Richard Roper, Richard

Christensen, and Alburt Williams Are Big Fat Idiots

Die Hanswurste

at the Lunar Cabaret

and Full Moon Cafe

By Jack Helbig

The Chicago-based comedy troupe Die Hanswurste will doubtless go down in theater history for the hoax they pulled off two years ago, when they pretended to be a German company trained in the secrets of “German clown work” by a mysterious, publicity-shy director named Veidt. But given their success what could these guys do for an encore? Perpetrate another hoax? Who would believe them? Who would even dare cover them? Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, who fell for the trick when she reviewed Klown, ended up printing a correction several days later, admitting that she’d been fooled by the disinformation in the press materials. When do you think she’s going to go to another Hanswurste show? Soon after hell turns into a giant Slurpee is my guess, but I’ve been wrong before.

What perfected Die Hanswurste’s hoax was the fact that Klown was a wonderfully funny show, if a bit cruel and dark–just the sort of fine fringe show by a small local company that’s routinely overshadowed by big-budget productions and shows with snob appeal, like those by La Compagnie Philippe Genty.

How do you follow such a debut? Well, Die Hanswurste has created two shows. One is based on the idea of lying to the press, stirring up trouble, and generally acting like a bunch of spoiled, publicity-starved actors: Richard Roper, Richard Christensen, and Alburt Williams Are Big Fat Idiots. The other is based on the recognition that crying wolf is a trick you can pull off only once and that Klown was a success–it ended up running off and on for more than a year–not because it embarrassed anyone but because it was great comedy.

The better of the two shows, Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire, is performed by Dan Griffiths and Joel Jeske in full clown costume, including greasepaint. Like Klown it’s essentially an evening of related comedy sketches expertly executed by a team who clearly understand how to entertain an audience and who enjoy performing together. As in Klown, most of the comedy is based on character. Again and again Jeske’s sloppy, childish, ne’er-do-well Oste wins laughs with the awkward way he fouls things up even though he’s working hard to please Griffiths’s vain, authoritarian character Oper. And again and again we see Oper, who’s both easily angered and very concerned that he seem unruffled, blow his stack while trying to maintain his cool.

From the start, when Oper and Oste’s graceful entrance is marred by Oste not being able to open his door, we know we’re in the hands of professionals. The scene that unfolds–involving many variations on the theme of one clown, then the other, tugging at a door and getting furious or terrified–is worthy of the great ones of silent comedy: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, each of whom is given a nod in the show. Lloyd’s trademark round, black-rimmed glasses show up in the silly dance that gives Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire its name: Oste and Oper do an eccentric tap dance with their shoes and top hats ablaze. The show ends with a comic turn from a Keaton movie, which I won’t reveal for fear of ruining it. And Chaplin’s sweet, mischievous spirit appears throughout, in the precision and economy of Griffiths’s and Jeske’s physical comedy, in their expert use of music (one song even quotes from Modern Times), and in their willingness to leaven slapstick with a touch of sentiment and humanity. Like Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton, Jeske and Griffiths know that the little things in life are what power comedy: the doors that refuse to open and the sheet music that won’t fold right and the many tiny tics and foibles that drive other people crazy.

Jeske and Griffith test how well they know their comedy when they perform an expurgated version of Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire at the Fringe festival, Klown: The Children’s Show. Though it’s performed without flaming footwear and other potentially dangerous items–like the routine in which Oper and Oste consume two bottles of liquor and get falling-down drunk–this kinder version of the show is nevertheless sophisticated enough to keep parents laughing even as it pleases the children.

Not that kids are necessarily a clown’s toughest audience, cliches to the contrary. Kids readily identify with clowns, especially silly, childish ones like Oste who are constantly being corrected and punished by parentlike martinets like Oper. At this show the kids sometimes got the jokes faster than the adults, especially when they revolved around getting caught doing something wrong, as when Oste kept interrupting Oper’s serious song with funny sound effects. But the adults eventually laughed too. It just took them longer to warm to Jeske and Griffiths, as if they’d been benumbed by a thousand bad children’s shows and couldn’t believe they were actually seeing one worth watching.

Die Hanswurste is also capable of creating brain-rotting theater. Three days after seeing Richard Roper, Richard Christensen, and Alburt Williams Are Big Fat Idiots, a mean-spirited evening of pointless satire and failed comedy, my brain still hurts. It’s beyond me what Kevin Sherman, Brian Potrafka, and Michael Werner thought they were doing when they wrote this hour-long exercise in audience torture.

What is clear is that they tried to reprise their hoax of a few years ago by spreading rumors that the three local journalists whose names are misspelled in the show’s title had filed a “class-action civil lawsuit” against Die Hanswurste for calling them big fat idiots. Die Hanswurste even went so far as to leave a message on Albert Williams’s voice mail at the Reader announcing that they understood he was suing them (he’s not). And reportedly they sent a copy of papers they said related to this lawsuit to Chris Jones at New City.

Big surprise, no one snapped at Die Hanswurste’s bait. By showtime, all they’d accomplished with their flurry of press releases was to totally confuse the press about the title. In some releases Roeper, Christiansen, and Williams’s names were spelled right, in others wrong, while still others substituted other critics’ names. I’ve even heard there’s a release out there referring to “Richard Helbig,” though I never got that one.

Basically Richard Roper, Richard Christensen, and Alburt Williams Are Big Fat Idiots is just one more Second City-style comedy revue with two differences: no blackouts separate the scenes, and no laughter interrupts the hopeless material.

The “highlights” of the show include the routine “Twenty ways to tell if you’re a redneck,” in which a stand-up repeats the question “Are you stupid?” 20 times; a pointless jab at elementary-school art classes; and a bland sketch about a husband-and- wife team of chauffeurs who drive their boss to and from work and resent his power over them, though they don’t do anything about it. The only bit that works happens to involve Joel Jeske, in one of only two brief appearances here. He coughs out an impassioned, Hitler-esque speech in German (perhaps another reference to Chaplin, this time The Great Dictator) before running out of the theater screaming. Though this routine would have seemed rather bland in Hats on Fire, it’s positively brilliant in the context of this show.

The only sketch that relates to the title is a gratuitous attack on Williams and on Roadworks Productions. In this childish, badly written bit, an actor impersonates Williams (poorly) as he goes through a fanciful hard day’s night in the theater: introducing a show at Roadworks, announcing to the audience that the Reader’s supposed “board of directors” have anointed Roadworks as the next theater, watching a god-awful production (a parody of chamber theater that’s as dismal as everything else in this show), and then hanging out, basking in the production’s afterglow and chatting up and fawning over the lead actress.

I suppose that as public figures we critics are as ripe for parody as anyone. But such dull-witted work hardly counts as satire–for one thing, it doesn’t come close to the truth. By comparison Sean Abley’s pointless, baffling slash at critic Lawrence Bommer in Second City Didn’t Want Us seems positively brilliant. Nor does the rest of the material in this small-minded show, which inspired only the most forced laughs from a crowd of less than 20 friends on opening night, count as comedy.

By the end of the evening it’s obvious who the idiots are–and they’re not the critics listed in the title.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Blair.