The Annoyance Theatre


Live Bait Theater


Live Bait Theater

Suddenly everyone in the world is doing one-person shows. It’s not hard to see why. What with rising production costs and skittish producers and stagnant ticket sales, nothing sounds better than a show with virtually no budget and the smallest cast possible. And I suppose it helps that every once in a while a show hits the public just right and all concerned make a pile of money (e.g., Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman).

Unfortunately, as Jeff Garlin admits in the course of his That Jeff Garlin Thing, the current boom in one-person shows hasn’t fueled a boom in new ideas. The form is getting pretty played out. You have to have something pretty amazing to say–like Marga Gomez’s funny, moving take on life as a lesbian Latina daughter of an exotic dancer–to stand out in the crowd.

Or, like Garlin, you have to start taking the kind of risks onstage that only veteran performers can pull off. Garlin has taken Lenny Bruce’s perhaps apocryphal advice to Del Close in the 60s–“Throw away your act”–literally. He has no set show. Instead, he hangs around the lobby asking people as they walk in, “What do you want me to talk about?” Whatever the audience suggests he brings up onstage, even when he knows nothing about the topic, like cyberspace.

Lots of performers in this improv-besotted town say they perform without a net. But Garlin really does. I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, right. Lots of performers pretend to have no set act.”

But I believe Garlin when he says he has no act. His show is too inelegantly structured, too wildly changeable to be set in stone. He digresses constantly–sometimes in the middle of a digression–asking his audience hundreds of questions, following whatever topic comes up. In this respect he resembles no one so much as public radio’s master ad- libber, Michael Feldman. Garlin’s laughs also come at moments too eccentric to be planned. No sane comic would count on winning laughs, for example, by having the batteries on his beloved new lap-top computer–on which he told us he’d typed fallback material in case his ad-libbing failed–suddenly run down.

Besides, I’ve seen Garlin perform in more planned shows–I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, for instance, which had a more or less predictable running order–and the energy of those shows was different. Here Garlin just stands onstage, as relaxed as any performer has a right to be, engaging in what is essentially an hour-long conversation with the audience.

Wild Chicago’s erstwhile host Ben Hollis tried something very similar last fall with his live onstage talk show, but he was likable and soft-spoken and lacked Garlin’s larger-than-life personality. It takes a very funny person to throw away his act and still get laughs. I think Garlin could lead us on a tour of his most mundane daily rituals–brushing his teeth, listening to phone messages, trimming his nails–and still win big laughs.

Around the time that Garlin was attracting big audiences with I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Jim Carrane was performing his wonderful, low-key I’m 27, I Live at Home and I Sell Office Supplies at the Annoyance Theatre. He essentially showed us around the crazy mess of his life–I remember one of the big laughs revolved around his embarrassment at shouting at his mother because she’d failed to buy him diet Coke.

Since We Last Talked is a sequel of sorts. Unfortunately, almost everything that made the first show charming is missing. Carrane junks up his likable underplayed comic style with lots of cheap theatrical tricks he can’t really pull off–like imitating other people in his stories and trying to change tone for contrived flashback sequences. This unnecessary shtick is underscored by Mike Lapidus’s set design–a mouse-eye view of a judge’s bench–which lacks the pristine simplicity of I’m 27’s bare stage and adds nothing to the show.

And this time Carrane’s story, which follows his father’s conviction for white-collar crimes and explores the ways this trauma shook his family to its roots, is also considerably less funny. Now, I can easily see a good show coming from such material–Ivan Boesky’s son fashioned a passably entertaining show from his father’s financial misadventures. But the performer can’t come off as angry and full of unresolved feelings as Carrane does.

His first show had a lovable subtext: what a fool I am. This show has a considerably less funny message: what assholes my family, friends, strangers on the street all are. Even Carrane’s funnier bits, such as his story about joining a 12-step program for food addiction, are hampered by his growling delivery.

I don’t know how much of this stage anger is real anger bubbling through and how much is a misguided attempt by Carrane and former Second City director Nate Herman to add theatricality to the monologue. In either case, Carrane needs desperately to throw out his act.

So does David Sinker, whose one-person show Food, Fun & Dead Relatives, also directed by Herman, lacks even the occasional charms of Carrane’s show. Sinker’s problem is that he tries so hard to tell us his show’s a comedy that he telegraphs his punch lines, makes obvious pauses for the audience to laugh, and seems to distort the truth of his quasi-autobiographical stories to prepare the way for his all-too-predictable punch lines.

Which is a shame, because at the center of Sinker’s show is something moving and real, if not very funny: his mother’s death. Every time Sinker tells us about his mother–her stay in the hospital, her lifelong cigarette addiction, his life after her death–the show becomes absolutely riveting, the way stories with a tang of truth can be. (That was, after all, part of Bruce’s message to Close.) Even Sinker’s delivery changes during these serious sections–his voice becomes lower and more somber, his body language more natural, his gestures less calculated.

Unfortunately, the comedian in Sinker (or Herman) felt the show needed some jokes, and jokes are what he gives us. Mere momentary diversions that don’t so much emerge from the material as attempt to deny it. For instance, when he talks about a trip to the hospital he attempts to joke about having a catheter inserted in his penis by a graceless male nursing student. It’s not a very funny story, but Sinker sprinkles it with lots of sitcom laugh breaks, during which only a few in the audience (I suspect friends) managed to squeeze out a couple of chortles.

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