REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
If you’re old enough to remember “The Ed Sullivan Show” (and I proudly say that I am), you will fondly recall those years when stand-up comedy monologists ruled the television airwaves. Everyone had to be able to deliver a monolog, even the singing hosts of variety shows had to do them, written by teams of writers who wrote jokes for a living. The comedic monologist dates back to the days of the Borscht Belt, the nickname for the resort hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where Jewish comedians like Myron Cohen and Rodney Dangerfield cut their teeth and developed their skills. Today, profanity has become a prerequisite for stand-up comedy and the old-fashioned comedy that you would see on TV variety shows has long disappeared, save for the topical opening monologs delivered nightly on Letterman, Leno, et. al.
Brooklyn-born Steve Solomon grew up learning dialects and accents to become a prolific writer of jokes and stories, working as a physics teacher by day while honing his act at night. “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy” was the first of several shows Solomon created that have toured the U.S. and received critical acclaim. The show is being presented at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Scherr Forum through this Sunday.
The show is a throwback to those days when comedians like Alan King and Pat Cooper would talk about their crazy Jewish or Italian families, employing a rapid fire and relentless series of stories, one-liners, and voices as they carried on conversations between themselves and their nutty relatives. Although it is promoted as a “show,” “My Mother’s Italian…” is really nothing more than an extended stand-up routine from the sixties, with actor/comedian Peter J. Fogel speaking Solomon’s words. There is no show here and no story. In fact, there shouldn’t even be a set. If you recall, all stand-up comics required was a stool, a microphone, and maybe a prop, like a cigar, but these days, people need more than that, so the Scherr Forum provides Fogel with an entire set, as if the act were an actual play.
It takes place in Fogel’s psychiatrist’s office, with wingback chairs, a desk, and a piano, none of which are necessary. The premise is that Fogel is waiting for his psychiatrist to return from lunch for his treatment and relates his family problems to the audience, but that’s about as far as any sense of a story goes. It’s merely an excuse for Fogel to deliver the usual stand-up comic’s arsenal of jokes about airlines, New York taxicab drivers, food, dogs, money, kids, marriage, and pregnancy. Alas, the audience’s biggest reactions were to potty humor, a sad sign of the times. Fogel is good and shouldn’t have to resort to jokes about peeing and pooping to get laughs, but again, he’s only performing the material he was given.
Fogel’s delivery is like Bob Hope’s: a rat-a-tat run of one liners, gags, and stories with predictable punchlines. “I used to be decisive. Now I’m not so sure,” goes one, and you’re filling in the last words yourself before he even finishes. The jokes are mostly amusing and well delivered, and some audience members are actually in hysterics, but a lot of the humor is recycled vaudeville whose roots probably date back 50-75 years. If you think you’ve heard the jokes somewhere before, you probably have.
Not that they are not funny. Fogel’s breezy delivery, extreme likability, and knack for accents helps immeasurably, as does a good sense of timing. A failing is that he doesn’t engage the audience or read their reactions like a Johnny Carson would; he talks at us rather than to us, and it seems likely that he would do the same routine in the same way if the auditorium were completely empty. It would have been interesting to see how he’d handle a heckler, although there were none at this particular performance. After fifteen minutes, he finally got around to talking about his family, the typical ethnic stereotypes: the money-conscious Jewish father, the food-obsessed Italian mother, the nagging wife, and on and on and on.
The problem with this show as that we aren’t hearing first-person comedy; we are hearing Fogel reading a script written by Solomon about HIS family. The genius of comedians like Alan King, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor is that they make us believe that their experiences really happened to them. With Fogel, it’s merely a front, and he never really makes that personal connection with the audience.
Still, it’s a darn sight better than most of the unfunny, insulting, offensive garbage we see on Comedy Central, so if you want a taste of what stand-up comedy used to be like, go see this show. But bring your own rim shots. You’re gonna need them.
“My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, & I’m in Therapy” concludes its run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Scherr Forum this Sunday. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.