Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s The Complete History Of Comedy (abridged) has arrived in beautiful downtown Toluca Lake, the latest from Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre, and if there aren’t nearly as many chuckles, giggles, titters, and guffaws as audiences might wish, more of its jokes hit the mark than fizzle.
Did you know that everything you ever wanted to know about comedy can be found in “the single most important artifact in the history of mankind,” a tome recently discovered in a small dusty trunk hidden in the corner of the San Francisco Public Library?
The artifact in question turns out to be Chinese writer Ah Chu’s 2000-year-old The Art Of Comedy, whose twelve surviving chapters get explained, annotated, and elucidated over the course of eighty-five minutes (plus intermission) by our evening’s guides Zehra Fazal, Marc Ginsburg, and Mark “Jake” Jacobson.
Chapter titles like “Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?,” “To Learn What Is Funny, Study What Is Not Funny,” and “Comic Vocabulary” allow our trio of hosts to a) show how chicken jokes have evolved over the centuries (e.g., Shakespeare’s “To cross or not to cross, that is the question.”), b) provide a list of The Top Six Least Funny People Of All Time (among them Germans, Adam Sandler, and Kellyanne Conway), and c) demonstrate terms like “the take,” “the slow burn,” “the double take,” and “the double take slow burn” … and that’s just Chapters One through Three.
Elements that hit the mark include any physical comedy involving smacks, pokes, jabs, or wallops (with accompanying slap-stick sound effects), a bunch of apparently authentic critics’ pans (one reviewer zapped a now iconic Abbott and Costello sketch as “doomed by its weak premise” because “nobody has the surnames Who, What, or I Don’t Know”), a strobe-light sequence straight out of Keystone Cops, and seeing Jake convince Marc that mime is indeed an art by miming him inside an invisible box.
Fizzlers include corny jokes about pies (“Pies don’t pie people. People pie people”), a sequence featuring dirty blasphemous monks discussing “The Word Of Guffaw,” and anything relating to a certain Rambozo including duds like “Find your inner Rambozo” and “To save the world, we need an army of Rambozos.” (What would Rambozo do? Cut all references to “the clown whose name was whispered around the land.”)
As for a Supremes’ Greatest Hits musical number about the United States Supremes, what might have worked when the show debuted in 2013 bombs in 2017 now that deceased justice Antonin Scalia no longer sits on the court.
The Complete History Of Comedy (abridged) is at its best when at its loosest and most improvisatory, as when cast members interact with unsuspecting attendees, or one of them quips “Need more time?” when a joke doesn’t get an immediate laugh, or when a pair of audience participants get invited up to provide voiced sound effects (doorbell, car horn, etc.) for an improvised scene based on a couple of audience suggestions. (At the performance reviewed, it was Harold And Maude at a morgue.)
Director Jerry Kernion could not have come up with a more multitalented trio of performers than Fazal, Ginsburg, and Jacobson, and if their scripted patter can seem, well, scripted, whenever they play characters of various nationalities and types or show off musical gifts (whether vocal or in Fazal’s case, on the ukulele), or ad-lib with the audience, they merit every laugh and cheer they get.
The Complete History Of Comedy (abridged) looks and sounds terrific thanks to scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s old-fashioned vaudeville-ready set, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s archetype-defining costumes, sound designer Mark McClain Wilson’s burlesque comedy-style effects, and Warren Casey’s hilarious array of props including Groucho glasses, a whoopee cushion, and an actual funny bone, all of the above lit with abundant pizzazz by Jared A. Sayeg.
Dale Alan Cooke is stage manager. Ginzburg doubles as fight captain.
Casting is by Sandi Logan. Artie O’Daly, Angela Sprinkle, and Wilson are understudies
Hit-or-miss as its jokes may be, The Complete History Of Comedy (abridged) provides more than enough of them to make it a laugh-getter, if not if not the nonstop laughfest its title might suggest.
Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Through April 23. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 4:00. Reservations: 818 955-8101
March 31, 2017
Photos: Sasha Venola