Howard Be Thy Name | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Howard Be Thy Name


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Big Fun

at the Roxy

Warning signs for comedy revues, or you know the act's in trouble when it contains:

(1) More than one sketch based on television commercials. How much imagination does it take to caricature something that's already absurd?

(2) More than one sketch that finishes with a character pulling a gun and shooting everybody--ditto pulling knives and stabbing people, and large explosions, nuclear or otherwise. This sort of wrap-up is only slightly more sophisticated than the giant hammer that materializes out of nowhere in cartoons.

(3) Any sketch based on daytime television programs. Going to the theater in the evenings is "work" for actors but "play" for audience members, most of whom "work" during the day, and therefore don't watch these programs often enough to understand the jokes.

(4) Any sketch based on the "Frankly, I don't give a damn" speech from Gone With the Wind--particularly when the sketch consists of the same gag repeated until the indispensable gun appears.

(5) Any character who breaks into loud, hysterical weeping (the louder and longer the weeping, the greater the trouble the act's in). Even worse--several characters screaming incoherently and simultaneously. (The end of a promising sketch about a sabotaged automobile computer was completely lost to the audience in this manner.)

(6) Allowing females to initiate humor--as opposed to being the objects of humor--only in sketches built around love or marriage. (A particularly insidious example was the sketch in which an advertising copywriter is haunted at her retirement by her past creations, who chide her for choosing career over hubby 'n' kids.)

(7) A program that lists members of the company as, for example, "The skinny one," "The fat one," "The 'leading-man' one," "The one with the receding hairline," and--the two female members--"The blonde" and "The other blonde."

None of these shortcuts will, by itself, cause audiences to grit their teeth or check their watches. Howard Be Thy Name contains some good and funny ideas, not to mention some extremely innovative effects combining video with live action. But these flashes of inspiration are just that--flashes--crippled by easy outs barely tolerable when done extempore, and inexcusable in a long-running scripted show like Howard Be Thy Name.

Writers Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb seem so anxious to get to the yuks that they never stop to question the plausibility of their premises: What summer camp is it where a child's first task is to plant a virus in his father's computer? What kind of father discusses the contents of a skin magazine with his small son under pretext of reading him a Dr. Seuss story? For that matter, how many fathers gather to giggle over skin mags? (Teenage boys do that, because usually they can afford only one magazine together, but heads of households can surely ogle in privacy.) If "The Satirist"--a hero a la James Bond--can defeat terrorists and bank robbers by poking fun at them, why does he dispatch two illiterate muggers with (you guessed it!) the trusty gun? How did a weary Jesus Christ get hired as a personal servant--excuse me, savior--to a ditzy female who can't make the smallest decision without consulting Him? And did any child reciting the Lord's Prayer ever really say "Howard be thy name"? Or is that something an adult gag writer thought sounded cute?

The invitation to Howard Be Thy Name promised "exciting scenes which have something to say about the serious side of life," and which would be more than "the standard choppy Second City revue [or] the intellectual tundra of the standard amateur revue . . . from 'comics' who stumble out of the Players Workshop and into the Roxy, quite satisfied to pretend they're at Second City without bothering to put in the equivalent thought and effort." The Big Fun company have set themselves noble goals, but based on their accomplishments so far, they look down on their colleagues from no loftier a height than that from which college freshmen regard high school seniors.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.

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