“WHAT PASSES FOR COMEDY” Makes World Premiere at NYC’s Chain Theatre: A Review

What Passes For Comedy, the brilliant new play by G.D. Kimble directed by Rick Hamilton, kicks off with a live reproduction of “America’s favorite nightcap”: The Jackie Harrod Show!  It’s a top-rated late-night talk show set in the “golden age of live TV”.  The audience is treated to jokes like “It’s 11PM.  Do you know where your bartender is?!“, delivered by the larger-than life host and “cool cat” Jackie Harrod (Michael Filisky). Harrod’s announcer/sidekick is Bunny Brown (Ryan Brooke Taylor), a popular African-American singer.  And yes, there are also special guests: Sean Connery! Yogi Berra!  And… French chanteuse Isabelle Aubret, presumably to satisfy 1960’s America’s tastes for the “exotic”. Of course, the show is filmed in front of a live studio audience!

As expected, the humor of this vintage late night talk show is B-R-O-A-D, and the style is formulaic. But make no mistake: This was, indeed, what audiences were used to seeing in their living rooms in the Kennedy era of the 1960’s.  (It may help to remind everyone there were only three channels at this time…).  As it turns out– perhaps unsurprisingly to modern audiences– neither the star of the show nor his second banana Bunny are making up their own jokes as they go along. That job goes to the shows three writers: Adam “Zep” Beber (Jordan Elman), Tory Browne (Alain Pierre), and Will Holly (Andrew O’Shanick).  Overseeing the three young writers is Jerry Schaal (Rory Lance), who later in the play aptly describes his role as “putting out fires before anyone smells the smoke.”: As the play progresses, the audiences learns that if What Passes For Comedy is about The Jackie Harrod Show, then the titular late night talk show host is, in fact, a secondary character in his own story. Harrod doesn’t have as much creative control over his own show as one may think. The story shifts from corny jokes and wide Pepsodent smiles to a far more serious tone when the host tells a joke which manages to insult both Irish Americans and Jews. (It involves the word “kike”.) The reaction is fast: One of the guests walks off.  Complaints start pouring in (via telegram, not e-mail…). Advertisers pull out.  Rumor has it that even the FBI gets involved.  At IBC, the escalation of the scandal goes all the way up to the top: At the climax of Act 1, the trio of writers are visited by Bob Borden (Stan Buturla), the Founder/President/CEO of IBC.  (To show just how important this man is, an issue of Time Magazine with his image on the cover hangs prominently in the background.)  Borden proceeds to give his employees a combination of lecture, pep talk, fatherly scolding, and a reminder that audiences will only laugh if they feel “safe”– all during an almost uninterrupted 14-minute speech. Oh, and Borden also gives them, uhm… an “ultimatum”.  Act 1 ends with the equivalent of a Stereophonic mic drop.  In fact, if What Passes For Comedy had ended on this note, it would have successfully made its impact:  A starkly realistic, often darkly funny exposé of how TV was a carefully constructed medium which believed that success was best achieved, ironically, by staying “behind the times” even in a rapidly changing world.   

The ethnic “joke” at the beginning of What Pesses For Comedy may have set the spark for the drama– but as it turns out, tensions in the “writer’s room” had apparently been escalating for a while… and this is exactly what is explored in Act 2.  Being set in the 1960’s, it is useful to remember that Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the American South, and many private clubs had exclusionary polices towards blacks and Jews– both phenomena of which are brought up in the play.  Taking place entirely in the smoky writer’s room of IBC late at night, much more comes out about the relationship between the three young writers– Zep, Tory, and Will– as the play progresses.  While they are alike in that all three are struggling to find their own unique place in 1960’s New York City, they all have distinctly different pathways.  Whether they like it (or believe it…) or not, ethnicity, religion, and class play a huge effect in their wary friendship as they attempt to meet deadlines over stale coffee and dusty sandwiches.  Zep and Tory share their provocative stories about growing up Jewish and black, respectively, in an increasingly ethnically mixed New York City.  Tory wants to write more serious material as opposed to, as he puts it, “Bunny’s County Coon Cavalcade” which dumbs down African-American issues.  The exploration of conflicts in What Passes For Comedy goes beyond black and white, however.  The changing mores of society result in high tension between the older generation (as represented by Bunny) versus the new generation (as represented by Tory) of Black America.  This high tension turns explosive in Act 2.  G.D. Kimble’s script combined with the intense performances by Ryan Brooke Taylor as Bunny and Alain Pierre as Tory make this tension very palpable, without ever becoming heavy handed or having the audience be forced to “choose sides”.  Both men have important stories to tell; likewise, it’s also impossible not to get moved by the personal revelations of Jordan Elman’s Zep and Andrew O’Shanick’s Will.  Ironically, some of the funniest moments in the play (as judged by the laughter from the audience) come when the weary writers let off some steam by doing impersonations of the celebrities at the time (JFK, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nixon).  Intentionally or not, these segments hint at how much funnier TV may have been if the writers were “allowed to be themselves” rather than being forced to create the canned comedy that would be, in the words of big boss Bob Borden, “safe enough” for audiences.  

The acting by this entire ensemble cast is superb.  Michael Filisky is just fine as the superficially charming talk show host who lets his “true colors” show in a big way when the camera turns off.  Stan Buturla makes an appropriately imperious presence as Bob Borden.  Rory Lance has many comedic moments as long-suffering Jerry– once again, adding some organic humor which is likely so much more authentic than what ’60’s audiences would have heard on TV.  The Set Design by E.A. Frank deserves a special shoutout: With its meticulous attention to detail, we the audience really feels like we’re looking into a 1960s TV studio writer’s room– right on down to the tiny TV on which the writers watch their final product in all its black-and-white grainy detail.  Debbi Hobson also deserves kudos for Costume Design: All the men’s wardrobe selections are spot on.  

As entertaining as it is provocative, What Passes For Comedy packs a wallop into its two-hour running time.  It may require some suspension of disbelief for audiences to accept that one of the characters makes such a huge gesture of self-sacrifice towards the end of the play– but while it may be hard to believe, it’s also hard NOT to believe, given the trajectory of America’s treatment of minorities in the decades which followed.   The final scene is indeed a real stunner: It is challenging to watch… but even with our 2022 hindsight, it’s impossible to watch and not be truly riveted.

What Passes For Comedy continues through Saturday, November 19, Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. (November 12 and 19 also at 3 p.m.), and Sundays at 3 p.m. The production is produced by Christina Perry, features scenic design by Em Frank, costume design by Debbi Hobson, and lighting design by Michael Abrams. Greg Russ is the sound designer, with original music by Robert Pound.  Allie Goldhammer is the stage manager. Publicity is by Katie Rosin/Kampfire PR, and production assistants are Grace Loeb and Anna FitzGerald-Larrison.  Tickets are $25 and are now available online at www.ChainTheatre.org or by calling (646) 580-6003 . Tickets may also be purchased in-person at the theater a half hour prior to the performance.

Photos by Reiko Woo.

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