Joined by the Hip

at the Roxy

Despite its title, TV or Not TV doesn’t offer the viewer a choice. (And you thought you’d left the tube safe at home.) Television-generated humor is what mostly fuels Joined by the Hip’s comedy revue, which includes over 20 video segments. If nothing else they prove how far video has come since the early 80s, when the Practical Theatre Company stuck film segments into their Evanston productions. Now shows like White Noise’s The Book of Blanche (which also plays the Roxy) smoothly integrate video sketches into their story lines–the action shifts constantly from screen to stage, as if to test whether people become more real to an audience when they lose a dimension. (For comics, video is also great insurance against an off night.)

These six Hipsters really need their TV hook, because little else links their material–unless it’s the cynical premise behind the opening and closing scenes, where Linda Wylie plays an altruist who eventually cools out and becomes, yes, a selfish yuppie. Graduates of the Second City Conservatory, the Hipsters have apparently agreed to steer clear of any harsh satire (unless you count the takeoff on legal eagles who hammer out predate agreements–examples of love in our no-fault society).

Perhaps they’re smart to cling to this popular niche–television humor seems to be the big ticket for comedy crowds nowadays, a guaranteed, seemingly inexhaustible lode to be mined for cross-references, spoofs, in-jokes, updates, nostalgia, and hilarious hybrids. Couch potatoes, it seems, are a lot more ambulatory than their image would suggest.

The hybrids supply TV’s best stuff. A recruiting ad for nuns comes complete with a hideous sister doing tricks with a ruler–under the slogan “He Wants You.” “Donet,” a confectionery version of Dragnet, oozes with shameless gustatory puns. More anti-ads include one for a 900 number that passes out safe-sex information–especially intended for those in the middle of a date-and a baldness commercial for “Chia Head,” a really disgusting hybrid. A clever bit–until the running joke halts and flops–is the Home Shoplifting Network: broadcasting direct from a home invasion, burglars try to fence hot items on the air–very quickly.

The most elaborate TV update brings the Petries into the 80s. Stranded by the writers’ strike, Dick Van Dyke (a well-aimed Michael O’Brien) gets mad when bored Laura (continually hysterical Tracy Thorpe) develops her own character (Mary Richards, of course). This sketch lives for its takeoffs, among them Mike Dempsey as little Richie grown up, now a 30-year-old boozing moocher.

With the exception of a sharp sketch in which a bratty brother and sister argue Stealth bomber technology and abstruse foreign-policy matters with their doting dad, the non-TV skits feel generic; character work is too often subordinated to the premise. A running sketch about college kids on a cross-country trip (playing car games, fighting over the radio and where to eat, arguing over Road Runner cartoons, smoking pot, and ending up in Highway Hell) becomes as tedious as the real thing. A video segment on the latest trend, Chicago’s caring cops, never gets funnier than its setup. Better in its delivery than its concept is a well-timed bit in which Army guys with rhyming names blurt out impenetrable jargon.

The one theater-inspired sketch is yet another hybrid. The Hipsters, in a hillbilly version of Romeo and Juliet by the very in Appalachian Theatre Company, here pick an easy target–bad acting–and keep it strictly Gomer Pyle. And where would we be without a smack at Elvis? This one, an Irrational Geographic video special called “The Search for Elvis–Dead or Bigfoot?” has explorers taking samples of the King’s footprints and catching a tantalizing glimpse of their elusive prey fleeing in a spangled white jumpsuit. The worst stab at comedy has CTA commuters, in shock over seeing a man run over by the el, agonizing over whether they should have called the police, the fire department–naah, they finally decide, it should have been Walter Jacobson. The Hipsters’ idea of real life is just as dumb as tube life.

The ensemble does fit well together. Mike Dempsey’s big-baby persona is good at grabbing sympathy, Linda Wylie wittily combines and contrasts the frazzled and the fragile, and Tracy Thorpe accurately targets everything from brash bimbos to brainy sirens. Easily the best singer, Jock Hedblade has a sharp antismoking ballad, which he sings with a backup chorus of wheezing addicts. Michael O’Brien brings a rapid patter to all his scenes, particularly the Army cacophony, and Joe Howe twists his face into some amazing characters.

Bob Colton has assembled the taped musical support. Anne LaPorte’s crisply edited video portions include such esoterica as a vintage commercial in which the Flintstones hawk Winstons; a test signal announces the intermission. Well, if you’re gonna do TV, ape it to the max.