Two Comics Walk into a Bar 

Only Kidding! explores the anxieties and egos of comedy practitioners.

Move over, meatpackers; your job might be the most physically hazardous in the country, but when it comes to emotional distress, comedians should be drawing combat pay. It's stunningly ironic that the people who make us laugh seem to be the unhappiest. A cursory search of Web sites about clinical depression and bipolar disorder reveals a score of affected comedians, from Margaret Cho and Shecky Greene to Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey. Some manage with medication or meditation, some turn to alcohol and drugs, some overdose (John Belushi) or commit suicide (Freddie Prinze). The question has a chicken-and-egg quality: Do unhappy people seek out comedy to exorcise demons, or does being a comedian take that much out of your soul?

The comedy Only Kidding!, written by ex-standup comic Jim Geoghan, suggests that the answer might be a little of both. Of the four comics he offers -- three standups, one writer -- only one can be said to be emotionally stable. Of the others, one is prone to anxiety attacks while another is driven by an ugly combination of drugs and desire for revenge on everyone who ever mocked him. The world they inhabit -- green rooms and basements -- is a desperate one. Every routine could be the last good one they ever write, every new face a threat to their position. So it's not surprising that their egos are delicate, their emotions high, and their language raw. It comes with the territory. Geoghan clearly knows of what he speaks. The action and dialogue have the ring of absolute truth as his comedians jockey for the coveted opportunity to appear on the Buddy King Show.

The play opens in a Catskills hotel room where veteran comedian Jackie Dwayne is sweating over new material when youngster (and show writer) Sheldon Kelinski shows up to help out. It's not immediately clear who's helping whom, or if help is even possible, and the tension between the two men is enormous, culminating in a battle of "a man walks into a bar with a dog" jokes (one of the funniest moments in the play). "You like your work, being a joke slave?" Jackie asks dismissively. "Every Christmas, we get new shovels," Sheldon fires back.

Despite his protestations, Jackie is falling behind the curve. His jokes about gays and Poles won't get him on King's ultramodern show, and impressions of people so long dead nobody remembers them won't cut it either. He needs new stuff to avoid being just another washed-up Catskills comic. The way he gets it, in the three years that elapse between the first and second acts, is humorous and sweet -- although by his own admission, he's "wasted three perfectly good wives getting to [King's] show."

Jackie is played by Roland Scrivner, who has an unusual offstage story. Although he's been doing community theater since 1958, he went pro only recently -- after retiring from a thirty-year stint with the Berkeley Fire Department. He's great as a man trying to hide his fear of obsolescence behind bluster and bluff. Of the five characters, Jackie makes the biggest transition; Scrivner navigates the change well. Rusty Gilland makes his first professional stage appearance as young, uptight Sheldon. His first-act performance on the night I went seemed unnecessarily stiff, even for a character who literally goes rigid with fear when his childhood issues are brought to the surface. By the second act he seemed to have relaxed and his character was more believable.

In the second scene of the first act, Jerry Goldstein and Tom Kelly (Raffi Kondy and David Hern) have a good thing going as a comedy team. They're creative, they're tight, and they enjoy working together. However, they're still working "toilets" in Brooklyn when Sal D'Angelo makes them a seductive offer: Let him be their manager, and they'll be on the Buddy King Show. There's the small matter of his sizable commission, of course, and Tom has misgivings about Sal's business associates: "A little mobbed up?" he asks incredulously. "He named his first daughter Jimmy the Weasel." David Hern is lovely and dignified as stable, laid-back Tom, clearly the brains of the operation. He's the perfect foil for Kondy's manic Jerry, who is an engineering marvel of two-facedness -- having discovered that "if you talk like a fag," the answering service doesn't put you on hold. Kondy gets to cut loose here as a man who will do anything for success, no matter how distasteful.

Jerry also raises a theme common to Playhouse West shows, that of men struggling with what it means to be Jewish. After the Fall, Visiting Mr. Green, and Sight Unseen all come to mind, to varying degrees. This time it's Jerry tossing off "I'm poor, ugly, and Jewish -- it's a fucking hat trick" as he tries to explain his great anger to Irish-American Tom. Later he'll tell Jackie that "nobody has to change their name anymore," a nod to the need many early "ethnic" performers felt to assimilate. It's worth noting that historically many of the funniest people in show business have been Jewish; one theory suggests that some make themselves seem less threatening by performing the particular self-abasement that easily translates into humor.

Tom and Jerry's scene is interesting because it delves into the process of making something funny. When the two men riff on Jerry's "hat trick" and show Sal a fresh bit they haven't yet done onstage, we get a glimpse into the way performers who trust each other's skills can play together and come up with something new. It's the opposite of what happened in the Catskills where Jackie and Sheldon were like magnets repulsing each other, and one of the most unselfconscious moments in the story.

In the second act, set three years later, the dancers switch partners and everything comes together in the green room of the Buddy King Show. It's a big night, with a major pop diva and two comedians. But is there room for all those egos? Sharing the twists would spoil the fun (and it is fun, even if a couple of the characters are real creeps). Suffice it to say that like the first act, the second is salted with so many good lines it's easy to lose track. My favorite is probably "I like the way you put on your makeup -- with staples."

As a comedian, playwright Geoghan was deeply disappointed that he was turned down for the Johnny Carson Show. Imagine his reaction years later when Carson's head writer approached him for playwriting advice. Only Kidding! was his answer, and was a big hit off-Broadway. This play is proof that sometimes the karma wheel comes around faster than we expect. Karma plays a big part here, a point made abundantly clear in the second act.

It's a mark of Geoghan's skill that a play featuring plenty of fighting, an oily mobster, and a potentially lethal briefcase can still be very funny. Only Kidding! is perhaps the rawest thing artistic director Lois Grandi has put up at Playhouse West -- a decision she stands by, even as she plasters the theater with warnings about the play's "adult language" -- but it's also an incisive and fun look at the side of comedy most audiences will never see unless it hits the tabloids.

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