Los Angeles Theater Review: SKETCHES FROM THE NATIONAL LAMPOON (Hayworth Theatre)

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by Paul Birchall on February 20, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

YOU CAN SKIP THESE SKETCHY SKETCHES

Those of us who are of a certain age reverently remember the National Lampoon as being one of the great humor magazines of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Yes, the film Animal House essentially brought the Lampoon “brand” into the mainstream, but prior to that, the ribald humor and edgy sensibility were treats for the well-educated and the discerning lover of often snarky and edgy comedy.

Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema review of SKETCHES FROM THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, Hayward in Los Angeles

The National Lampoon was infamous for crafting a style of comedy that was so brittle, you almost were unsure as to laugh or be offended.  Kids would read Mad Magazine until they were mid-way through high school.  They’d read the National Lampoon from then until they were through college.  At that time, the mag was so edgy, it made the Onion look like a Hallmark greeting card.

Back in the day, my very favorite National Lampoon piece was a meticulously crafted mock comic book, in the style of those Golden Key history cartoons, which purported to tell the tale of Jesus’s sister “Jessica” Christ, who did all the same things that her sibling did, but had huge fluffy Farrah Fawcett hair and gigantic breasts.  The comic concluded with Jessica, hands stigmatized on the cross, gigantic boobies billowing in the breeze, as she moaned, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!”  It was a ludicrous spectacle.

Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema review of SKETCHES FROM THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, Hayward in Los Angeles

Then there was the spoof of a self-help manual about interpreting body language entitled “What his gestures really mean,” which contained photographs of a slick-looking salesman making banal motions, like winking, or cocking a gun with his index finger.  Off-color translations of what the gestures really meant appeared in the box underneath the photo.  “I want to jack off on your shoes,” said one translation, showing the man smiling and clapping his hands.  Trust me, it was hilarious.  And, in the pre-AIDS era of the 1970s, ferociously edgy and free-spirited.

I only mention these examples of humor from the Lampoon’s Golden Age to indicate how far the company’s latest play, a set of depressingly flimsy skits written by former writers from the great magazine, has to go before actually regaining their past glories (writers include Michael O’Donoghue, Doug Kenney, John Hughes and PJ O’Rourke; original songs are by Richard Levinson).  So great is my childhood affection for the National Lampoon, that I am reluctant to spray snark over their latest show.  It is all too easy to whiningly opine about “the obvious debasement of their brand,” a critique which would strike anyone as being unkind, particularly since the National Lampoon in recent years has fallen on hard times and is striving desperately to regain some momentum.  Sadly, this scattershot collection of bland comedy skits is not the vehicle to drive Lampoon to its former greatness.

Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema review of SKETCHES FROM THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, Hayward in Los Angeles

The show is billed as containing “sketches from the National Lampoon.”  This is somewhat of a stretch, as at least one of the skits channels the CNBC anchor-gal Maria Bartiromo, a denizen of the post-millennium if ever there was one and seemingly a sperm during the Lampoon’s era.  In another gag, a mother warns her daughter to behave “less Sarah Silverman and more Sarah Palin.”  But, if one charitably suggests that the title refers to material generated by writers working for the present incarnation of the Lampoon – well, that’s a bit of a shame, as much of the material is poorly thought out and awkwardly structured, not to mention unfunny.

Sketches include a young man (John Milhiser) coming out as gay to his dad (Harry Dittman, channeling Homer Simpson), who then takes off with the son’s boyfriend.  There’s a repeating, overlong shtick involving a schlep (Jesse Merlin) whose friends, one by one, tell him they slept with his wife.  And there’s some really tired material from a news anchorman (Pat Towne) cracking wise with Winchell-style bon mots that play like Prime Time Rip Torn from the 1970s.

Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema review of SKETCHES FROM THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, Hayward in Los Angeles

That the skits, in director Towne’s crisply paced production, are zippy and cheerful isn’t debatable.  What is, though, is whether the gags are funny or merely just labored.  Many of the sketches frankly wouldn’t pass muster at a Groundlings audition cattle call – and the viewer is constantly forced to confront the inescapable feeling that subsequent comedy companies, from the Groundlings to the venerable Saturday Night Live, have all but eclipsed this type of humor.  The vignettes here are peculiarly lacking in edge and bite, while also coming across as possessing a sensibility that hails from another era.

Performers often manage to rise above the material, hinting that the evening might actually work better if it were completely improvised by the cast, with no reliance on the creaky script.  Milhiser is charmingly gamine in a sketch where he pretends to be Wolf Blitzer having his eyes poked out.  Erin Matthews, better than the writing she’s given, amuses as a useless Sarah Jesse Raphael-like advice columnist.  David Haverty drolly channels a bearded, shaggy John Belushi-like goofus in a requisite Lampoon toga party sequence.  It’s just a pity that the show is such a tepidly involving comeback for the once legendary comedy organization.

photos by Shaela Cook

Sketches from the National Lampoon
Hayworth Theatre
scheduled to end on March 17, 2013
for tickets, call 323-337-1546 or visit Brown Paper Tickets

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