- Pedal pushers: Last Call's Mike Polk, Keith Carr, Aaron McBride, and Chad Zumock (from left).
Writing and performing original comedy is so difficult, it's understandable why comedians and sketch groups tend to rely on the familiar "A" material they know will keep the chuckles rolling. Henny Youngman kept getting applause with his "Take my wife . . . please!" bit, but eventually he became as tedious as Carrot Top or Whoopi in the center square.
To stay relevant and to grow creatively, comedians must move beyond their signature pieces and challenge themselves to leave their comfort zones. The new edition from the comedy troupe Last Call Cleveland, titled, eponymously as always, Last Call Cleveland Stole My Bike!, shows off many of the talents of this enthusiastic bunch, along with their nagging tendency to reprise shopworn material. The result is a funny 90 minutes that could be more hilarious if the players would let go of old shtick and tired premises, and pursue fresh comedic avenues.
One skit summarizes Last Call's strengths and foibles. Though little data is available on this topic, it can be fairly conjectured that fart jokes have been around ever since the first caveman ate some bad Mastodon. So cutting the cheese is not exactly breakthrough subject matter for a sketch.
Still, the Last Callers manage to cadge some hysterical moments out of the tortured premise that someone is filling the White House with noxious flatulence. The funniest part is when a secretary, having heard the suspect blasts, listens to an audio lineup of various trouser trumpets in order to finger the perp. Eventually the President admits that he did it, after his unique soup cooler is identified by its tendency to sound as if it has a question mark at the end.
When the company combines a fresh idea with its manic performance chops, the effect is almost always a hoot. In one such bit, a hyper TV-infomercial guy promises men that he can make them rich. All they have to do is agree to take a bath with him.
"Will you touch me?" asks one hesitant prospect.
"Of course not," replies the huckster.
"Will you masturbate?"
"Absolutely!" says the happy host. And then we see a video of some of the tub encounters. Aaron McBride, as the bathtub pervert, is funnier sitting still and vibrating than most people are nailing punch lines. Here's hoping that McBride gets an audition with Saturday Night Live, because he could almost single-handedly lift that show out of its doldrums.
True to Last Call style, the show is about equally divided between live scenes and video clips. This works well when two TV-station staffers are called onto the carpet for their less-than-successful public-service announcements. In one, children are apparently being instructed about not talking to strangers who pull up in cars, until the announcer cheerily says, "Get in, kids! You'll never know how much fun you'll have till you try!" And inside the SUV we see a clown, balloons, and party favors.
Other material never quite comes together, such as a look at the trends of February 2005. Let's face it: Red Bull, iPods, and 50 Cent just aren't very amusing yet. And apparently, the boys in this comedy frat house (no women in the cast) seem to think that a Superhero Roast is the best gag idea since, well, fart jokes. Here they've recycled that idea from past shows, dragging out poor old video-game-retread Mario and a couple of generic heroes, along with Batman and MacGyver. The whole bit is forced and dull -- especially when Michael Stanley makes a cameo appearance from another Last Call production.
Even so, the cast is largely on its game, with Mike Polk laying down a smooth impression of President Bush and deftly handling a number of other characters. Chad Zumock, Keith Carr, and Matt Zitelli have softer stage presences than McBride and Polk, and fail to create any memorable characters. But each has funny moments and keeps the comedy ensemble clicking under the direction of George Ganoe.
The one all-video segment of the show is a VH1 Behind the Music-style look at Oxygen, an up-and-coming air band (that is, the band members play air guitar, air keyboard, etc.). Even though the whole air-guitar idea is fairly played out by now, the parody works, thanks to some clever takes -- the boys have air sex with air groupies -- and another spot-on characterization by McBride as a surly and egotistical Brit air drummer.
One trouble with Last Call is that it performs an air schedule -- only doing this show twice, two weeks apart. Here's hoping that the members decide to expand both their comedic repertoire and their appearances. If they're this good with so few performances, the mind reels at what they could do with more frequent chances to hone their craft.