at Zanies

Pity the poor stand-up comedian. Plying his trade at smoke-filled dives in no-name towns, he’s saddled with the entertainment of whiskey-sodden audiences who’d sooner kick his ass than laugh at his jokes. And now that the 1980s comedy boom has turned into a 90s comedy fizzle, his chances of making it to the Tonight Show are even slimmer. Facing indifferent or downright antagonistic crowds who heckle even the jokes he makes at his own expense, a stand-up comic teetering on the verge of oblivion might just be inclined to pull a gun.

One school of thought defines comedy as the socially accepted expression of hostility: the performer wants to “break up” his stone-faced audience, “cut down” hecklers, and “kill” audience members with his jokes. One unfamiliar with stand-up might well venture into a comedy club and assume, after witnessing the comedian confront his insecurities about his weight, sexual desirability, and genital size, that these are the last desperate words of a sociopath poised on the brink of self-destruction.

Ross Bennett, a stand-up comic portraying himself (sort of) at Zanies in his play Stand-Up Hell: A Comedian, a Heckler . . . and a Gun, follows in that tradition of yuppie angst and self-effacement. Approaching 40, having never made it big, unsuccessful in his relationships with family members and significant others, Bennett spills his guts in the standard patter of autobiographical anecdotes and one-liners that mask a wrenching inner pain. His talent lies not so much in brilliant wit and humor as it does in mimicking the precise comic timing of other, more successful comedians: they know that to succeed you have to begin your act with “How’re you doing?” conclude with “Thanks very much, good night,” and insert the word “dick” somewhere in between.

When his jokes misfire and a heckler shouts him down, Bennett takes the action many comics only dream of: he reaches into his suitcase of props and pulls out a gun. And when the heckler doesn’t relent, Bennett shoots him, handcuffs him to a chair, and threatens anyone who tries to leave, call the cops, or otherwise interrupt his routine. Audience and heckler both are held hostage, as the comedian continues to perform his material in front of a captive crowd.

It’s easy to see what might have attracted Chicago comedy guru Del Close to direct this project. Working with ImprovOlympic, he’s acquired a reputation for consistently energizing stale improvisational techniques with new approaches. In Stand-Up Hell, he has the opportunity to revitalize yet another tired formula by constructing a play around a generic comedy monologue, examining the comedian’s motivations and his relationship to the audience.

Bennett’s comic-pulls-out-a-gun premise is far from original, but there are some rather witty moments in this brief two-character play. Taking Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy to the next logical level, Bennett forces his bleeding hostage to play the role of Johnny Carson, introducing him to an imaginary TV audience. And since the gun-wielding comic has now conquered his fear of hecklers and apathetic audience members, his talents shine through as he offers occasionally amusing impressions and rapid-fire wit.

But never for a moment does the premise seem even slightly believable. Less a play than a series of jokes shoehorned into a flimsy plot, Stand-Up Hell is certainly watchable, but despite its pretensions, no deeper than most stand-up routines. I don’t want to be an old crank, but the plot defies the willing suspension of disbelief. Wouldn’t a manager or audience member try to quiet the heckler before he approaches the stage? And would even the drunkest heckler try to disarm a gun-toting comic (a la Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music: “Give me the gun, you’re not going to hurt anybody”)? And after he was shot, would he get caught up in the comic’s routine, neglecting his own wound? Would the comedian really go on with his act? And if we do manage to take Bennett’s gunplay as an artistic catharsis that finally allows him to confront onstage all the issues he’s been repressing, wouldn’t you expect something more than scanty descriptions of an abused childhood thrown in with a couple of dick jokes?

A further problem is Rich Talarico’s performance as the heckler. Forced to play straight man even after he’s been shot and unable to overcome the improbabilities of his character, Talarico delivers a thuddingly wooden performance. Bennett comes off better; after all, they’re his jokes, and he certainly convinces us that he’s the sort of comic who could snap at any minute. Yet he remains more comedian than actor, as unbelievable in moments of crisis as his script is. And despite Close’s direction, the interactions between Talarico and Bennett are stiff and mannered.

At first Stand-Up Hell seems to break down the fourth wall: we feel ourselves part of the action, participating in Bennett’s routine. But when the heckler arrives we shift from active participants to passive observers. What ultimately cripples Stand-Up Hell is that Close and Bennett can’t seem to decide whether this is absurd fantasy or gritty reality. If they intend a weapon-wielding comic and bleeding heckler to cause us genuine anxiety, the implausibility of the situation destroys any suspense. And if the play is intended to be implausible, it’s not nearly hilarious or outrageous enough. Stand-Up Hell remains a concept in search of a play–not at all real, and not very funny.