at Victory Gardens Studio

Some say our thumbs are what distinguish us from “lower life forms.” But I think it’s our sense of humor: it takes a set of pretty complex mental operations to transform the raw material of tragedy–busted-up marriages, unhappy childhoods, vague personal and philosophical discontent–into long, loud laughter. I mean, how many cats think back on the mice they’ve failed to catch and snicker? How many dogs make other dogs laugh by barking about bitches that blew them off for bulldogs with better coats?

Moreover our society makes a social contract with funny people that goes something like this: You can tell the truth (within reason), and we not only won’t kill you, we will roar with pleasure. We grant comedians a slight margin of safety, and in return call their truth telling “comedy” and insist it not be taken seriously, however correct it may be.

Naturally, the more cleverly a comic castrates himself, using his license to tell the truth on only the safest topics, the more successful he’ll be. Which is why David Letterman earns millions masturbating the medium, acting goofy and obsessing about whatever trivial item is in the news that day–Bill Clinton’s hair, Joey Buttafuoco’s name, Lorena Bobbitt’s scary but effective cure for spousal abuse. And why a man like Jimmy Tingle gets banned from The Tonight Show for telling a few mildly barbed jokes about the Reagan administration.

This apparent contradiction in the comic’s role–tell the truth, but don’t tell us you’re telling the truth, and for God’s sake don’t tell us anything we don’t want to hear–has been the theme of countless works from Plato’s Apology on, including movies like Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight and Bob Fosse’s Lenny and Trevor Griffith’s hard-hitting play Comedians. It also underlies everything the characters say and do in Bark Like a Comic, a semiautobiographical play by Bill Gorgo, A.J. Lentini, and Jimmy Rhoades. In this backstage and onstage drama, callow Andy Campbell will literally do or say anything for his shot at stardom, while graying stand-up veteran Sal Montone is just the opposite: everything he says onstage comes straight from the heart. Fourteen-year loser Joe Pope falls somewhere in between–he isn’t sure he wants to lose his soul, but he certainly hopes to gain the world.

Watching these three maneuver on- and offstage in this slice-of-life play is fascinating, but unfortunately Gorgo, Lentini, and Rhoades–who also star–get so caught up in the particulars of their story that they lose sight of the hard-hitting question they first ask: How much will a comic sell out for success? Instead they focus on “issues” that are much easier to take: isn’t it awful, for instance, what struggling comics have to put up with–bad coffee, hecklers, difficult colleagues?

That’s a shame, because Gorgo, Lentini, and Rhoades, all veterans of the stand-up scene, seem to have a lot to say about their profession. And the play, set in the present, comes at a fascinating time in the comedy world: following a nearly decade-long boom. At its peak anyone with a couple dozen jokes could find a gig somewhere, and anyone with a liquor license and an excuse for a stage could call themselves a comedy club. (Jeff Garlin talks about playing one “club” that was really a disco with a platform in a corner.) Today, when the market is saturated, clubs are closing at an alarming rate, and it’s looking more and more like most of the comedians who haven’t made it already, who aren’t making bongo bucks, just aren’t going to.

By virtue of their diminished career expectations, these three can afford to tell a bit more of the truth than they could have when they thought they might be snapped up any second by MTV, the Comedy Channel, or Saturday Night Live. The truths they get around to telling, however, are thin, paltry–ambitious people are assholes, nervous comics aren’t as funny as relaxed ones. And all too often they’re cliches: funny people are unhappy, happy funny people are deluded, “tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Yet the show is entertaining. I laughed more often watching it than I did the last four times I went to the Improv combined. It helps that Lentini, Gorgo, and Rhoades steer clear of the easy dick, television, and McDonald’s jokes that make up 90 percent of contemporary stand-up routines.

It also helps that the more or less serious scenes in the green room give the show a heart, allowing us to see (however briefly) the pain behind the jokes. In one of the show’s strongest moments, Montone jokingly regrets that he allowed his marriage to fall apart. An hour into the show, he builds on this moment during his very funny shtick about pussy-whipped husbands: you suddenly realize how much he misses his ex and wishes he, too, could be a p-whipped spouse.

But such moments of insight are few and far between. Ten minutes after I left Bark Like a Comic, I was hungry for theater again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.