Every final Wednesday of each month at The Make-Out Room, Paco Romane hosts a show called The Romane Event, which features up-and-coming stand-up comedians. I headed to The Romane Event prepared for an evening of laughter and lightness, forgetting that good comedy is often quite dark.
The Make-Out Room is a long, narrow space with a full bar along one side. Spots of light reflect from a disco ball, but The Make-Out's interior is dark in more ways than one, its walls hung with antlers and the pelt of a very large bear. Behind the bar sits a well-lit aquarium filled with water, or perhaps formaldehyde. Submerged in its depths, a human head peers skeptically in the direction of the stage. On the night I attended the crowd seemed equally skeptical, and while Mr. Romane tried to warm us up we were slow to laugh, providing ragged applause.
As the evening progressed, I realized how difficult it is to make people laugh. Each comedian did his best to court the audience, to break down our reserves. I often found myself pitted between my desire (and need) to laugh and an odd resistance to doing so. If I'd met each of these comics at a party and they delivered their lines in casual conversation, I'd have been bowled over. But taking my cue from the crowd, I had a reaction more steeped in admiration than mirth. This because each performer bravely laid himself bare.
Most bare was Brent Duggan's act, in which he relayed vivid stories about the cruel tricks his brother -- and life -- played on him as he was growing up. His delivery reminded me of De Niro's character, Rupert Pupkin; NOT because Duggan is a Pupkinesque hack -- Brent Duggan's a talented and handsome man, a snappy dresser, and a riveting storyteller. It's just that his jokes seem to be about subjects that are laughable only if the listener chooses to be as cruel as the stories themselves. While most comedy is rooted in suffering, perhaps today's climate renders suffering a little too real, and the suffering Duggan refers to in his bit is not only psychological, but physical. Nevertheless, Duggan's act was weirdly compelling, and though I didn't find myself laughing, it certainly made me think.
During most of the evening, I found myself wondering about this brand of comedy. These days, it's tough to root out laughter at its source. Anything too light-hearted leaves current audiences cold, but what's real can be so shocking. Where's the happy medium?
Perhaps it lies in fiction. The night of the show, other comedians inhabited characters of their own making -- the audience warmed up more readily to this form. One man, who was introduced as The Devil, played songs backward to reveal the messages he'd hidden in them, e.g. to vote Republican, to not make the bed, and for women to bug their boyfriends about commitment. In essence, we were dethroning darkness by exposing his attempts at fooling us, and what a relief! My favorite comedian of the night, Paul Gulong, performed in the guise of an eccentric poet, a smarmy pseudo-intellectual in a shabby tweed sports coat. His shtick was to read ads from the "missed connections" column of craigslist, verbatim, using the affected enunciations and gestures of a bad performance poet. In this context, messages such as "Spoke To You At IKEA" were indeed hilarious, probably because he took what's earnest and sincere in these expressions of longing to ridiculous heights. We were really laughing at our own missed connections, and by channeling messages of longing, we could see how overblown our unfulfilled desires can be. Once again, darkness was dethroned.
Then there was Brian Malow, the most articulate of all the performers. His opening line reveals a kind of pain I think most of us recognize, and it's brilliantly worded: "I'm not a doctor," he says, "but I play one in the broken dreams of my parents." Our parents' expectations are funny because we can generally agree that they don't take into account the flawed people we are: they're a grandiose fiction. Once shattered, what's left behind is the real human laid bare, and bareness reflects a warmer, gentler light than grandiosity.
If you choose to attend The Romane Event -- and I recommend that you do -- check your skepticism at the door. Show up early and have a beer. Introduce yourself to a nice-looking stranger. In this frame of mind, you'll best be able to appreciate that the person on stage is trying very hard to make you laugh, often by turning human suffering inside-out. It's a tall order, what these comics are attempting. But it's absolutely noble.
Catch The Romane Event the last Wednesday of every month at The Make Out Room, 3225 22nd Street, San Francisco.