3:05 PM EDT, June 15, 2012
Going into "An Evening with Kevin Smith," it was difficult to imagine Smith answering audience questions as a Chicago Theatre show and one of the centerpieces of this year's TBS Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival.
Watching the 41-year-old director hold forth for two hours Thursday night on, mostly, sex, film, weight and weed didn't do much to change that opinion.
Like the joke he made about seeing no need for a 3D version of "Clerks" — his talky, minimally produced breakthrough first feature — the show was a bit lost in one of the city's big, ornate, showcase spaces. Maybe 60 or 70 percent of the seats (top price: almost $60) were filled, and the protocol was simply people waiting in the aisles to query Smith, onstage. Behind him was the Chicago-architecture set of the"Conan"show, the last episode of which had concluded two hours earlier.
That said, Smith was an engaging enough companion, even for someone who is merely an admirer of Smith's work, rather than, like many in the crowd, a devotee. The choice to put him in a big, broad venue, rather than a more intimate space better suited to his act, was not his fault.
Falling somewhere on the spectrum between motivational speech for aspiring artists and stoner storytelling session, Smith was self-effacing, unguarded and fairly amusing. As he spoke of such matters as his enjoyment of marital relations and his wife's bad experience using marijuana as a sleep aid, the honesty of it made him all the more likable. Ditto for his ability to suddenly bring a long story back to a question that had been asked many minutes earlier, a sharpness that belied the motormouth slacker affect.
"This is my first language," he said — meaning talking, telling stories, rather than making movies. In film, he said, "My talent caught up to my content. My content started dipping low."
It's why, after "my hockey movie" (the upcoming "Hit Somebody"), he's leaving film behind, he said, and why he finds his SModcast podcasts so rewarding these days. You want to do something, and you do it, with almost no barriers to creation, he said: "I don't have to go, 'Ben, please make this movie for nothing.'"
Hannibal Buress at Park West
Of the handful of Chicago-bred comics who have since left for the coasts, Hannibal Buress seems perhaps best poised to go the distance. His deceptively mellow delivery — easy-going, unrushed and utterly in command — belies the reality that, at 29, this West Side native may be one most restless minds working in comedy today. Back in town Thursday, playing to a packed room at Park West, Buress (a one-time writer for"Saturday Night Live"and"30 Rock") showed just how skilled he has become at holding life's absurdist moments up to the light to better point out the cracks. The set shifted easily between his analysis of rap lyrics (Kanye West's dubious rhyming choices andT.I.'s inability to get himself to the DMV) and a rather sly anecdote about a recent visit to theU.K., where he unsuccessfully attempts to order scrambled eggs. The subtext of that bit touched on everything from racial tension to Buress's own submerged rage, as did the story of a drunken incident at a local White Hen Pantry a few years ago: the store called the cops, who informed Buress (who is African-America): "You've lost your North Side privileges." Smart, but just as crucially, enormously funny.
Janeane Garofalo and Kyle Kinane at the UP Comedy Club
Here was a show about fate, though not intentionally. On a whim, a coin was flipped to see who went first, and Janeane Garofalo, 47 and still making fun of sports bars and telling jokes about bathing-suit sizes and immodesty ("Your underwear is political!"), went first. Despite being the headliner, she said "I'm fine going now." But not really, and if stand-up is a raw window into a soul, her rambling, sputtery set was as telling as her frequent asides about failed auditions and self-sabotage. It was a performance without a center, though taken as a portrait of a person, it was revealing. Kyle Kinane, on the other hand, who honed his stage chops in Chicago and grew up in Addison, has had a great year or two, and it's not hard to see why. Delivered in a weary, sandpaper voice, his material is as much about disgust and the underlying politics of mundane situations as Garofalo's, only crafted with the thoughtfulness of a short story. His extended riff on a man besides him on a plane eating loose pancakes out of Footlocker bag seemed to be about so much more.
Scott Adsit and Kevin Dorff at iO Theater
The Chicago improv community is now old enough to have its own eminences grise, wise gurus (alums, in the common parlance) who jet back into town from the coasts to perform for the legions of ravenous improv students whom the city continues to attract. No unfunny non-sequitur could squelch the forced, self-aware laughter that greeted Scott Adsit and Kevin Dorff, whom I saw late Wednesday night at iO, in one of several shows they're performing at the festival in combination with various performers. For the typical outsider, I'd reckon, the piece would not have seemed especially funny (such are the risks of longish-from improv) and improvisers who entirely loose sight of the comedic goal need a more palpable Plan B than the one on offer Wednesday. Still, there's no question that Adsit, a pliable soul whose wild hair now has disappeared but whose body is forever in motion, and Dorff, a formidable intellect whose face still flushes with fear and vulnerability, are masters of their trade. The faithful gushed.
Patton Oswalt at The Vic Theatre
Patton Oswalt has mastered a weapon in the storyteller's arsenal: he knows how to crescendo. His sets never feel like a string of bits organized by theme. He starts here, goes there, then this happens, then some moment of insight, with the last punchline always an emphatic punctuation, drawing the loudest roars. At The Vic Theatre Thursday, he ticked off the Oswalt act checklist: his weight, KFC, a sweet and twisted set-closer about a prostitute in Atlanta. Even if some bits felt raw (he said half his set was premiered here), it still felt like a funny guy among friends loosely telling stories you wouldn't believe.
Stephen Merchant at Park West
The co-creator of "The Office"and an early adopter of U.K. geek-chic squeezed his 6-foot, 7-inch frame onto the stage of Park West Thursday night, spinning gently bizarre comedic yarns about his series of misadventures in the dating arena. Stephen Merchant's trans-Atlantic audience demographic is early fans of his ground-breaking show — an attempt to solicit feedback from people in their early 20s netted mostly silence from a crowd pushing middle age. His intermittently Pythonesque material, replete with funny walk, mostly lands at his own expense — he projects on the screen an early feature story in The Guardian that misnamed him and an awards-show newspaper photo that featured co-conspirator Ricky Gervais but cropped off Merchant's head, and he even proudly sports a nerd-vana gift from his doting parents, a T-shirt with their own pictures on the front. It's all reasonably jolly stuff, putt-putting along for an hour or so, like a trip on a chirpy motorboat on some surreal, suburban British pond. Alas, Merchant's lengthy shtick about guys having to pay for too much on dates stops working as soon as you start thinking about how much cash this guy must have made. He might think about embracing that particular reality and dusting off his wallet.
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