3:59 PM CDT, June 18, 2012
If you find yourself pulled out of the audience at a comedy show and dragged up on stage like a performing seal, the most you can generally expect is flop sweat, a T-shirt and a Polaroid. Not when Vince Vaughn is running things. Nope, when Ward Boss Vaughn and his testosterone are in town, you get 500 bucks in cash, pulled without effort from Vaughn's well-tailored and well-prepared pocket, as if he were a reincarnated Midwestern Sinatra, tipping the valet while running the entire City of Chicago.
Five crisp Benjamins are what one mostly clueless kid got Sunday night at the Chicago Theatre — payment for re-enacting, badly, a scene from "Scarface"as part of "Vince Vaughn's Comedy Showcase," in the company of Vaughn's self-created little improv-repertory company of mostly big, middle-aged dudes. He survived being drenched by water pistols and falling on cue into a plastic swimming pool. Colin Jost, Angelo Tsarouchas, Faizon Love, Steve Byrne, Bill Burr and Owen Benjamin, manly comics all and relentless enforcers of the Vaughn world-view fired up the Super Soakers as if this were some regressively macho hazing ritual where the pledge got paid off at the end. What, one wondered, did this have to say about the state of comedy in America? And what was Peter Billingsley, the Gayle King of the Vaughn universe, doing in all of this?
That last question isn't easy to answer, but the Sunday show certainly was a reminder that men always will be boys. On a subtextual level, it was also one of Chicago's favorite celebrities indulging in a little expression of raw clout, which always plays well in Chicago. Sunday night's closer of the TBS Just for Laughs festival sure cleared out all the Sarah Silverman post-feminist detritus from the previous night, and offered an interesting (and intermittently amusing) meditation on flailing manhood.
Burr, an acerbic, slightly unhinged type, did a set based on his desire to buy a weapon. Byrne (who started out very well but then got carried way at this frat party) managed to get 3,000 people chanting a demand that a certain female audience member partake of a particular sex act at some point in her future. Tsarouchas spoke of the perils of having a young girlfriend who's into hip-hop when you're into IHOP.
Burr suggested that the world needs some pairing down: "Go into any Denny's," he said, "and find a soul worth saving."
Joseph Stalin, meanwhile, was described as "the Jeff Beck of mass murderers" ("album after album of evil genius and nobody cares"). If all that weren't enough manly fare, the finale consisted of big-bellied shirtless men leading the audience in a karaoke rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'" All we needed was some brews and beer-can chicken in the lobby; perhaps Vaughn could have come up with some more bills for that.
The Vaughn show was not typical of the many shows I saw this last week at Just For Laughs, a well-organized and important festival that offered an array of diverse programming and some very impressive combinations of local talent with national names, often on the same bill — but is not yet acting enough like a festival. There are two main problems there: the venues were too spread out for there to be an exciting hub, and the lack of any common ticketing (you have to buy through the venues) means that the audiences felt individually distinct. Ideally, some of Vaughn's dudes would also have found their way to Silverman or Stephen Merchant's shows (not that he was much good). Cross-pollination is a crucial part of the festival experience. There's not enough of it yet.
Of the roughly 40 sets I saw this week, not one person discussed politics in any kind of meaningful way (although a couple of my Tribune colleagues had different experiences). That does not bode well for the democracy. One could, though, detect a new freedom about race and sexual orientation; the topic has been defanged for the young(ish) people who dominate comedy audiences, and thus more creative freedom is afforded when it comes to mining difference. Even a white guy can safely do jokes about black folks now, which is reflective of a change for the good. Gay comics, who were amply represented, are now less likely to be delivering gags about camp sexuality (live extensions of their 1990s sitcom personas) and far more likely to be playing the kind of straight, central, commanding role that Vaughn assumed during that old-school Sunday night show. That's another quiet, cheering sea change. It's the fat, middle-age, hetero white dudes who now are more like to playing the clown as a means of justifying their tenuous existence.
Almost everybody, though, had something to say about social media. If you really wanted to understand how much Facebook and Twitter have changed the landscape, you just had to sit and listen to these comedians. Again and again and again they came back to the topic. Yet social networks are double-edged swords for live comedians — they need to talk about them because comedians playing big theaters have to grab hold of that which unites their audience and, as with Jost's paranoid rant about the damage just one annoyed mistress can do to a poor guy's entire life on Facebook, the new centrality of such sharing can't be ignored. On the other hand, social media threatens live performers. It steals their material, is hard to monetize, reduces their personas to stereotypes, gets them into trouble when drunk, sets off flashes in their on-stage eyes, and, most disturbing of all, has changed the behavior of their audiences. Boy, has it ever. There have always been hecklers, but they used to be combative drunks. Now, they're just ordinary dudes who think they're watching YouTube.
That deep ambivalence could be seen in almost every show this year: Facebook, you'd think, is far more important than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or what they plan to say, or Tweet. And like critics who used to like pontificating from a mountaintop, comics now are finding that they're constantly in a two-way conversation, whether they want one or not.