Parody, once a popular comic style, has in recent years fallen on hard times, a victim of its own success. How can anyone hope to equal Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, the Rutles' TV special and album, and the countless marvelous send-ups published in the National Lampoon during its golden age (the early to mid-70s)? Even Mel Brooks can't equal his earlier work.
For a time the folks at the Annoyance Theatre seemed to find ways to make this old form do new tricks. Co-ed Prison Sluts, The Miss Vagina Pageant, Manson: The Musical were all parodies with more bite than the films of Brooks or Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams. Even The Real Live Brady Bunch was a parody of sorts, though so mild that it easily slipped into its current more lucrative mode, the Brady homage.
Unfortunately, many of the most interesting parodists in the Annoyance collective--among them Ben Zook, Tom Booker, and Jill and Faith Soloway--followed The Real Live Brady Bunch to NYC and then to LA. Those who stayed behind seem less interested in pure parody than in creating vivid extreme characters.
But like their brothers in improvisation the New Criminals, the folks at Metraform don't always seem to know how to show off their skills. Which explains the pair of lukewarm parodies I saw at the Annoyance last week, both amusing in a fashion but neither breaking new ground or persuading skeptics that there's more to the Annoyance style than a fascination with bodily fluids and shallow early-70s sitcoms.
Part Nashville, part Hee Haw, part This Is Spinal Tap, part Pump Boys and Dinettes, Chiggers is a parody of a pay-per-view cable-TV show, telling the story of Lynneal and Lucille Chigger, a mother and daughter country-western team. Like the Judds, the Chiggers were forced to stop touring at the height of their fame a couple years ago when Momma Chigger came down with an awful terminal disease; happily, again like the Judds, they have begun touring again because, as the first song in their show proclaims, "Momma's in remission."
Like The Real Live Brady Bunch, Chiggers walks carefully, at times too carefully, along the line between parody and homage. It pokes fun at country music for its most obvious excesses--big hair, garish clothing, twangy speech--even as the Chiggers' band, the Calamine 9 (led by Lisa Yeargan), gets into the music. (In fact, the Calamine 9 so enjoy performing that they continue playing an eclectic mix of country, blues, and rock and roll long after the show ends.)
As Lynneal and Lucille, Esta-Joy Peters and Annie Watson perfectly embody the ambivalence at the heart of the show. One minute they mock country music's tendency to dwell on the hardships in life--much is made of Lucille's battle with cancer and her miraculous "cure"--and the next minute they sing an original song that complains of life's hardships without irony. Their outfits may be a bit too K mart to pass at Broadway and Belmont, but they wouldn't be out of place downstate.
One problem with the show is that there's such a broad streak of flamboyant self-parody in country music (listen, for example, to the work of Homer and Jethro) that it's hard to make fun of the form. A second problem is the excess of tired comic bits (such as Susan Messing's send-up of Bible-reading programs advertised on Christian stations). An even bigger problem is that the company members don't fully commit to the show's most original feature--the strong, angry feminist slant Peters, Watson, and Yeargan bring to a comic form that's dominated by men. In song after song they touch on topics Second City will never have the ovaries to honestly explore: abortion, codependency and abusive relationships ("Every time you strike me, I know it's 'cause you like me"), eating disorders and the beauty myth ("I'm starving for a man. . . . Here I am on my knees / How else is a girl supposed to please / praying and puking for my main squeeze").
Listening to these wonderful radical lyrics, I found it hard not to wonder why so much time was wasted between songs beating dead horses.
Goombahs!, a much sillier and less ambitious show than Chiggers, aspires to be nothing more than an 80- minute comedy sketch written in the spirit of such Carol Burnett classics as her send-up of Sunset Boulevard.
Like all great comedy sketches, Goombahs! is based on a single premise; in this case it's "What would happen if gangsters ran restaurants the way they run their underworld activities?" The result is a world where waiters carry guns and promise pizza delivery in "thirty minutes or less or we kill the delivery boy."
Directed by Eric Hoffman, Goombahs! shamelessly steals bits from GoodFellas, Miller's Crossing, all three Godfather films, and even, believe it or not, Billy Jack, twisting them just enough to make them funny. The trigger-happy psychopath Carmine (Dan Wachtel) replays the scene from GoodFellas in which Joe Pesci threatens a man by asking over and over "Am I fucking funny? Do you think I'm funny?" The sequence ends with Carmine acting hurt when everyone agrees that, no, he's not funny. "Fuck you," he whines. "I'm funny." And then fails for the next ten minutes to make anyone laugh.
Tony Dicosola, playing the don of the Ratzolli family, steals as much from the half-mad, poetry-muttering Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now as from his Don Corleone. "We'll give him a philosophy he cannot refuse," Dicosola threatens at one point. At another he admonishes his son to act "like a knife that cuts but cannot cut itself, like an eye that sees but cannot see itself."
Funny stuff, really, though only rarely does Goombahs! surpass the middlebrow plane of The Carol Burnett Show.