Like Crazy, Like Wow

Like Crazy, Like Wow
Like Crazy, Like Wow

If seasonal affective disorder has you down, be aware that 1812 Productions is once again presenting a holiday offering of cheer and laughter with nary an ounce of schmaltz or sentiment. Like Crazy, Like Wow: ’50s Humor with a Holiday Twist looks at an era when comedy made the transition from the “bah-da-BUM” of vaudeville to the syncopated rhythms of the jazz crowd and the longer storytelling stylings of improvisation. With a mission to educate through comedy, the Philadelphia-based theater company offers in this world premiere production a fun (and funny) history lesson.

Past holiday offerings at the theater have paid homage to the vaudeville circuit, so it is not inappropriate that this year’s show begins by acknowledging that television offered opportunities for vaudeville stars to continue their craft — but those are not the folks who take center stage in Like Crazy, Like Wow. Artistic director Jennifer Childs, who conceived and directed the show as well as being a featured member of the ensemble, focuses on the pioneers who set off boldly in new comic directions. She is joined by Peter Pryor, Scott Greer, and Tony Braithwaite, all of whom offer nearly flawless performances.

While recognizing the contributions of vaudevillians who found some fame on TV — including Rose Marie, who gained renown on The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961 — the show is more about nightclub performers. As the company puts it, “television comics of the day were revolutionizing television but the nightclub comics were revolutionizing comedy.” So Like Crazy, Like Wow lauds such talents as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Shel Silverstein, Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman, and Second City entertainers like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Comic bits and sketches are interspersed with video montages that capture the spirit of the era and provide context. The performances are not impersonations so much as tributes that capture the essence of the comedy legends and their quirky styles of delivery.

Early on, the show contrasts the domestic routines of the king and queen of one-liners, Henny Youngman and Phyllis Diller, with the more cerebral comics who followed them: The dueling one-liners of Youngman and Diller are followed by a quartet of performers capturing the essence of Woody Allen, rattling off jokes about metaphysics and remarks like “My grandfather was so insignificant that, when he died, his hearse followed the other cars!”

A highlight of Like Crazy, Like Wow is Pryor and Braithwaite’s recreation of the classic routine “One Leg Too Few” from the British comedy show Beyond the Fringe (the work of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett), in which a one-legged actor wants to audition for the role of Tarzan. Also hilarious are a rendition of the Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired Tom Lehrer tune “The Elements” and a deliciously deadpan performance of Nichols and May’s skit about a man who calls information and finds himself lost in an impersonal crowd of phone company operators.

Celebrating improvisation, which found popularity in the late 1950s and ’60s as an end-product rather than just an exercise or a method, the show concludes with an improv scene. Here, the audience becomes directly involved in the proceedings — and it was quite clear on opening night that the performers had as much fun stumping each other as the theatergoers had stumping them.

This isn’t to say that the show is perfect. Some of the material hasn’t held up well over time. While a number of observations from the ’50s are still surprisingly relevant, many others are not — and, more importantly, they aren’t even interesting. The humor of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Lord Buckley, presented together almost in the fashion of a musical trio, fails to elicit much laughter and seems to slow down the fun (although this sequence does demonstrate the influence of jazz rhythms on comic delivery). A Bob Newhart skit about a children’s television show host also falls flat. Still, the instances of pure comic genius far outnumber the duller moments, enough to add merriment to this holiday season.