Sunday, June 6, 2010

Broadminded Science

An Evening With Sketch Comedy Group Broadminded

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Earlier this summer, really really far away from Milwaukee, film producer Lorne Michaels released a $10 million comedy, which appears as though it will fall about $2 million short of breaking even. One does not have to go to that kind of trouble to entertain people with a couple of hours’ worth of comedy. Comedy is people. Put the right people onstage--four particularly interesting women, for example, and you come up with something far less expensive and far more satisfying than Magruber.      

Once again, sketch comedy group Broadminded brings a remarkably precise comedy to the stage with Science and Surplus. It’s a low-impact evening of relatively high brow humor presented in a wholly accessible package. Comprised of some 16 sketches, Science and Surplus has some relatively dead moments, but there’s some really good comedy here that has a depth to it that goes way beyond what one might expect to find in movie theaters this summer.

With bigger-budget sketch comedy, there’s a kind of an unctuous desperation. Whether it’s being broadcast on network television or shot onto the screen of a multiplex, highly-paid professional comedy really, really wants you to laugh at it. It can be painful to watch. Smaller groups with far less than $10 million invested—groups like Broadminded have the opportunity to be more casual abut the humor. Stacy Babl, Anne Graff LaDisa, Melissa Kingston and Megan McGee wouldn’t be Broadminded if they weren’t legitimately having a good time with it. There isn’t that kind of professional-level desperation found in so much big-budget comedy. The Broads can afford to go for some edgier, more idiosyncratic humor. A person can go to a Broadminded show and rest assured that his or her intelligence will not be insulted at any point. This simple courtesy to the audience goes a long way. Even some of the less funny bits of comedy in Science and Surplus benefit from a level of comedian-to-audience respect one rarely encounters in higher-profile comedy. 

The science theme of Broadminded’s latest show makes for some interesting bits. Megan McGee manages a remarkably concise history of the life on Earth sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. It feels a bit stiff in places, but to be fair, even Joel’s original recorded version of the song felt pretty stiff. And, oddly enough, it’s kind of breathtaking seeing the entire history of the world crammed into 5 minutes or less with the occasional chorus. There’s a punch line here about science in the classroom that’s echoed after intermission in a brilliant little sketch referred to in the program as Jupiter’s . . .  a school board meeting between science, religion and Scientology in ancient Greece ends up being a whole lot more funny than this sentence makes it sound.

What’s really impressive about Broadminded’s style is the way they manage to render serious personality beyond the surface-level comedy. Yes, there merely characters in a sketch, but the group manages to take quite a few of these characters seriously enough to give them some level of depth beyond the framework of standard sketch comedy.

As I recall, Scientific Therapy, has McGee as a bewildered couples therapist working out a marriage between particle physics and geology. It’s a comedy of communication that ends in some rather impressive poetry. There’s an emotional center to the piece that works beyond the surface-level comedy.

The final sketch of the evening envisions the solar system as students in high school.There’s a kind of logic to the characterization that feels remarkably fresh. Jupiter and Saturn (played by Babl and McGee) are popular gas giants who shun the awkward crater-marked rock that is Pluto (Anne Graff LaDisa.) Bearing both gas and mineral, Earth (Melissa Kingston) is a little bit of both—accepted by the popular planets because of her atmosphere, but deep beneath it all she can relate to Pluto’s awkwardness because she’s got quite a bit of solid mineral to her as well . . . Earthy substance over radiant, superficial gas . . . and an exploration of people’s affection for the planet that used to be the ninth. The dance-off between Pluto and Jupiter to a certain Beastie Boys song was a bit strange, but it actually made a certain kind of sense and ends the show with the right kind of energy. (Music clips included on the show also features theme appropriate songs from Thomas Dolby, Oingo Boingo and They Might Be Giants among others . . .)

Broadminded’s Science And Surplus runs through June 12st at the Alchemist Theatre. A denser, far more concentrated review of the show runs in the June 10th issue of the Shepherd-Express. 

 

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