When people hear the word “pantomime” they immediately think of “that guy in whiteface makeup acting pretentious,” laments stand-up comic Greg Glienna. But what Glienna dubs his “pantomime comedy” routine is actually a throwback to the old days–when laughs came from watching the comedian act out a situation with funny motions rather than just standing there cracking jokes.

“Red Skelton and Sid Caesar are my idols,” says Glienna. “Those guys came from vaudeville, just like the silent-movie comedians. What they did–and I still marvel each time I look at old TV clips–was visual. But these days audiences seem not to have patience for their kind of setup. To wait for the payoff.”

Nevertheless, Glienna is betting his brand of comedy is about to make a comeback, especially among young people jaded by the flood of yapping comics. So far it seems Glienna may have tickled the right funny bone, at least on the big screen. Believing his visual humor naturally suits the movies, Glienna put loads of it in Meet the Parents, a 70-minute black comedy he cowrote and directed four years ago. Much of its shoestring budget was raised by fellow comic Emo Phillips. The film–whose plot centers on a straight-arrow young adman’s hapless journey to Indiana to meet his fiancee’s folks–earned enthusiastic notices from local critics and quickly became a midnight cult item at the Music Box.

That success prompted Glienna and Phillips to query Hollywood studios about doing a remake. “I thought of more deadpan visual stuff to add to the script, to make some scenes even darker in tone, like in a Jacques Tati film,” he says. When Steven Soderbergh, the director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, signed on, Universal commissioned a script from Glienna and his cowriter, Mary Ruth Clarke. But then the studio, wanting more romance, dropped the black ending. “I hope it will still end up a nightmare comedy,” says Glienna. The feature is expected to go into production later this year, and Glienna may even strut his stuff in a supporting role. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of film school in the early 80s.

Glienna now wants to venture into your living room. “What I do–and Skelton did–is theatrical and rooted in the golden age of TV comedy,” he says. A contemporary, more subtle example is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, a BBC show now aired Sundays on Channel 11. “He hardly utters a word,” says Glienna, “yet he’s devastatingly funny in his pantomime that slowly builds up a situation to a climax often using sound effects and lighting.”

Despite Glienna’s large- and small-screen aspirations, he isn’t ready to leave the stage. He’s been working on new routines, and now he’s ready to try them out live. “After all, that’s the only way to find out if a sight gag works,” he says. “Besides, I need to tape the show so my manager can send a demo reel to Jay Leno and Dave Letterman.” Among the skits he’s developed is one involving a dancer trying to find a partner, and another follows the travails of a couple on a buying spree. Glienna says he doesn’t find these situations in daily life. “My kind of pantomime is not in reality,” he explains. “It’s meant to be cartoonish.”

Glienna’s one-man show, “Double Take,” will be performed at 8 PM this Monday at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont; admission is $5. For more info call 883-1090.

–Ted Shen

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