Monday, June 1, 2009

Spinal Tap Unwigged: Can somebody explain the joke?

By Evan Rytlewski
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In his infamous roast of Bob Saget, Norm MacDonald did a ballsy routine he'd later describe as having "no jokes and no delivery, only context." It was a remarkably incisive experiment, but sure enough, even with the worst material and the worst delivery possible, he made people laugh. Because that's what you do when a famous comedian performs. You laugh.

Last night's performance at the Riverside Theater from Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as part of their "Unwigged and Unplugged" tour, in which the out-of-character comedy trio played songs from their fictional bands Spinal Tap and The Folksmen (from 2003's A Mighty Wind), was MacDonald's experiment in reverse. They had jokes—kind of—and they certainly had delivery, but there was no context.

In parodying of rock 'n' roll excesses, Spinal Tap was largely a visual gag. Once you strip away the hair, the costumes, the stages, the demonic iconography and, most illogically, the electric guitars, you're left with a set of ever-so-faintly silly songs. The joke is still buried in there somewhere, but without context, it isn't funny. The acoustic treatment Sunday night even made the Spinal Tap songs sound like The Folksmen's folk-revival homages. Was that the point? Where we supposed to take the Guest/McKean/Shearer songbook seriously? It was hard to tell.

Of course, the audience laughed, but I'm not sure why. Maybe they have bigger imaginations than I, and were able to fill in the set-up to these jokes that the trio didn't bother too include. Maybe they were mega-fans simply charmed to be in the presence of some of their favorite actors. Or maybe they laughed because three funny people were on stage, even if they weren't being funny. And that's what you do when funny people are on stage. You laugh.

Photo credit: CJ Foeckler

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