Confrontational, in-your-face comedy never seems to lose its attraction -- and for good reason. We're all so saturated on a daily basis with bloated political and corporate lies that it's refreshing when our cultural shibboleths are stripped bare. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous bus-mounted warning not to shake a baby. Now, no one of right mind would ever question the wisdom of that admonition, yet anyone who has ever cared for a wailing infant knows that shaking is an almost irresistible urge (which, happily, is rarely acted upon).
Thus, the first comedy bit in Last Call Cleveland's performance of Never Never Shakes Your Baby is a meeting of a fathering class at the Y, in which none of the males in attendance can grasp the downside of baby-shaking. Their reactions range from incredulity to desperate rationalizations ("What if my baby shakes me first?") and culminates in a song and dance in which a baby doll is dangled, twirled, and tossed from pillar to post with abandon.
This bracingly offensive, infectiously funny skit tees up an evening of live sketch comedy performed by Last Call's six-man troupe, which performs periodically onstage, but prefers to work in the video medium. In fact, they are teetering on the brink of a contract with WUAB-TV Channel 43 for their own show -- a prospect much to be wished for, based on their lively performance on the Second City stage. Although some of their material is tacky and tasteless, with a few jokes made at the expense of defenseless targets deservedly falling flat, some intriguing comedic takes and a few stellar performances ultimately make the enterprise a success.
Three actors -- Aaron McBride, Mike Polk, and Jef Etters -- perfectly capture the crisp, instantaneous characterizations that fuel this breed of comedy. McBride, who looks like a distant cousin of the banjo boy in Deliverance, has a magnetic presence and a seemingly unlimited repertoire of facial expressions and body postures. He even makes a stale skit about a porn star seem fresh, as he proudly admits to being afflicted with a wide range of occupational diseases: "Yep; if it itches, burns, or swells, I got it." He also is inventively hilarious as a homeless woman and tormented TV weatherman. The tall and rangy Polk is a Phil Hartman-style utility man, who can fit seamlessly into any sketch. He is particularly funny as washed-up Michael Stanley, playing a medley of his hit as a clueless DJ on WNCX. Due to low ratings, Stanley's teamed up with the station's terminally perky morning man (McBride again), who drives him to desperation with corny sound effects and repeated playings of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" The slightly hefty Etters, who somewhat resembles Al Franken, is strong in all his bits, but is downright endearing as the ever-smiling Mario, of computer-game fame.
Also in the cast is Chad Zumock, who could pose for a dead-on Tom Cruise-in-sunglasses snapshot (although he can't sustain the impression). The rest of Zumock's characters share a similar clenched, uptight energy and suffer from that sameness. In addition, Keith Carr does a nice falsetto turn as a female TV-news anchor, and Jeff Pesho fills in some small parts.
Last Call's penchant for video is demonstrated with a number of prerecorded skits, which are shown on Second City's monitors. The most successful of these is a cliché-riddled takeoff on those cheeseball trapped-people movies (such as Towering Inferno), except that in this instance, the people are marooned, horror of horrors, on a stalled escalator. Another video segment is a mock ad for Pestikid, the handy exterminating service for parents who are fed up with their progeny. While that bit stretches the envelope in an amusing way, other attempts only make one cringe -- such as the Homeless Awards Show, which features real and exploitative video of two of Cleveland's hapless street people, and another skit built around a supposedly retarded actor.
The group's largest misstep is saved for last, an extended Superhero Celebrity Roast of Robin, Batman's sidekick. After all the boundary-stretching that had come before, why would these young guys decide to send up such an exhausted format, which conjured up its last laugh when Nipsey Russell was poking fun at Jimmy Stewart's slow drawl? Besides, all the jokes about Robin being gay -- delivered by curiously chosen "superheroes" Zorro and Knight Rider -- have already been done with a ton more wit and graphic courage in SNL's cartoon "The Ambiguously Gay Duo."
The concluding bit aside, Last Call Cleveland shows great potential to be our area's next hip-comedy combo. And whether or not their Channel 43 show hits the airwaves, it would be nice to see them refine and polish the stage version -- perhaps even adding a woman or two in non-gratuitous roles. Because, when their outrageous sensibility sparks in front of a live audience, it casts a lovely glow.