The Reduced Shakespeare Company kept laughs rolling in at breakneck speed Friday night at the Christopher Cohan Center Performance Arts Center (PAC), where the trio of boisterous performers owned the stage by utilizing every comic cliché in the book.
The show, entitled “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged),” quite literally used a book. The story went that Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese author of The Art of War, had a brother who wrote a little-known companion piece called The Art of Comedy, which Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) used as its guide.
Despite relying on ancient texts, RSC provided a decidedly modern take on comedy through the ages. From disparaging modern political figures (watch out, Justice Scalia and Donald Trump) to presenting multiple scenes in listicle format (Kim Davis and Adam Sandler make the list of the 10 least funny people of all time), the troupe was well aware of the liberal-minded, lighthearted audience sitting before it.
It was more than a simple recitation of a catalogue of jokes, however. Writers, directors and actors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor refused to shy away from references to touchy subjects most people wouldn’t dream of laughing about to tackle some real dilemmas as they relate to comedy.
Is gun control a laughing matter? Take, for instance, the heated debate about the dangers of the classic pie-in-the-face gag: “Pies are not the problem. Pies don’t pie people. People pie people!”
What about Abraham Lincoln assassination jokes? Enter Abe, the “inventor of stand-up comedy,” who was quick to point out his discomfort from being in a theater.
Through all the scathing commentary, potentially offensive comparisons and general goofiness, there remained a sweet genuineness that made RSC’s reverence for its genre quite obvious. In the green room post-performance, Tichenor explained his purpose in choosing to write a show about comedy specifically.
“We always try to pick a topic that people take seriously, and we realized that this is the topic that we take the most seriously,” he said.
Tichenor went on to talk about his inspiration for choosing a career entirely focused on making people laugh.
“We wasted so many years of our childhood, and our adulthood, watching Abbott and Costello movies, Marx brothers, old sitcoms and Monty Python,” he said.
Tichenor’s comments mirrored what had transpired onstage minutes earlier. In an impassioned demonstration of Chekhovian comedy, actor Dominic Conti delivered a brilliant physical homage to Cosmo Kramer of “Seinfeld” fame. That shtick was preceded by a quaintly English interpretation of Abbott and Costello’s masterpiece skit, “Who’s on First?”
Tichenor, Martin and Conti didn’t stop there with their tributes to comedians past and present. In hypocritical yet completely self-aware fashion, Tichenor walked out on stage alone with a ukulele near the end of the show and played a touching tune eerily similar to Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” mentioning what must have been nearly 100 of his comedic heroes. The final line of the song was beautifully poignant: “If I did not know how to laugh, I would cry.”
By this point in the show, there was still some work to be done. It was necessary to find a way to meld the crude and outrageous nature of comedy with its inherent value to the authenticity of everyone’s life. That task was accomplished with a clown named Rambozo, the revered, semi-divine, banana-wielding personification of comedy. It is Martin, as Rambozo, who explains to us why comedy is so important.
Rambozo really is the glue that holds it all together. Put more elegantly by Tichenor, “Rambozo and the Art of Comedy became the line on which to hang the rest of the dirty laundry of the show.”
It was Rambozo himself who taught the most important lesson of the night.
“Every day is a new chance to make the world a better, funnier place,” he said, before putting a pie in someone’s face, or something like that.