The Fanatic Salon is a former hair salon turned comedy theatre space on the outer edges of Culver City, which for my international readers, is home to MGM Studios, where The Wizard of Oz was filmed in late 1938 and where the Munchkin actors famously debauched their way into ShowBiz sexual history, which I know is hitting way below the belt, so to speak. And, like the famed Yellow Brick Road (which has now been paved over with a Starbucks), the art of modern-day solo comedy improvisation and story-telling is guaranteed to be a twisty magical road which promises face-time with the Wizard himself, but also sometimes takes us through the dark and scary forest of WTF to get there. An outgrowth of the stand-up comedy Big Bang, diverted and influenced by the manifest destiny of Chicago-style improv (or “impro” as we say in London) from masters and former students of Second City’s legendary Del Close, and fuelled by really talented people wanting to “get up and play” – what you end up with is what could be the absolute beginnings of a brand new comedy movement, its humble seedlings first showing signs of life here on the Left Coast. A movement where literal rules rule the day and the only precept is to create something new, on the spot, both in content (within the stage walls) and in context, within the oft-barren sit-com mentality which has so infected our amber fields of comedy grain for far too long. What’s happening is a literal Comedy Jazz Age, born too out of worldwide economic oppression, foreign war, and like the 1930’s, a shifting sea-change of political identity. And just like the 1930’s, where the very rich (is there any other kind?) clink Martini glasses in high-towered New York private clubs, the great art of its day is created by the people. Working-class proven comedians, improvisers, writers and actors, who don’t have time to cling to resume, but who say right out front, in big glaring neon letters, perhaps the most heathen group of words ever uttered in Hollywood these days: “We are here to entertain you tonight!”
Top Tale is the creation of Tom Tully and Jonathan Menchin. Started in the spring of 2011, the idea is to create a story-telling competition, which is fun for all involved, including and especially perhaps the singularly ignored and forgotten part of the comedy scene: the art-form of the audience. In the “look at me!” world of too much emphasis on career and exposure, the general live comedy audience has stayed home for the most part these days and for two good reasons: The cost factor of going out and the simple fact that Variety is dead. Everything’s been segmented and divvied up. You want Hip Hop Comedy, there’s a channel for that. But with Top Tale, it’s not just a show with something for everyone, you really have to experience it in person. And with the free open wine bar and easy parking, you can’t lose. Being in the audience for this show is so much fun, you’ll wonder how you got lucky enough to get the job. The packed house at the intimate Westside theatre feels like you’re onboard a cruise ship, as co-creator and well over six-foot tall producer Menchin gently tickles the electronic ivories like Lurch at church, telling us casually with feeling he likes songs that tell stories, which leads into his introducing singer-songwriter Dale LaDuke, a New Wave John Denver, who’s romantic homage to Los Angeles was truly moving, windswept and spiritual. Then, BURSTING into the room with high powered energy is our host for the evening, co-creator of Top Tale, Tom Tully. Tom, co-founder of legendary LA improv troupe Off The Wall (whose original members include George Wendt and Robin Williams) is a shaggy slightly shorter Art Linkletter in a tux, and is perhaps the best host of any LA comedy show this reviewer has seen so far this year. Tom is all about everyone having fun as he then explains the rules to us. The idea is that six pre-chosen contestant story-tellers will come out and each tell us a one-minute story, then a five-minute story, and towards the end of the night, 4 will be eliminated, leaving two story-tellers to compete in a 2 minute story, the winner being the Top Tale of the night. The evening’s set up also includes 3 celebrity judges, a “feather tickler reminder person,” (the lovely Miranda Shane, who quietly waits to see if anyone goes over their allotted time) as well as a built-in heckler, located actually within the audience and played wonderfully by Off The Wall vet Andy Goldberg.
Our first story-telling contestant was Kevin McGeehan, who in Round One hinted at how low the evening might go (but never did) with his tastefully handled confession of having sex with a drunk girl, which given that Miranda, the Feather-Tickler, sitting slightly behind, looking at her stopwatch, seemed approaching salacious. When Kevin finished, the audience applauded, while the judges (yet to be introduced) nodded and conferred like Munchkin Town Hall. Next up at bat was lovely Deana Barone, an orthodox raised actress, who in her photo-negative of a SWF git-up, released an all too personal and metaphoric saga of “Looking for love through the stratosphere of sewage,” reminding us all that bodily function can indeed be an artistic attribute. Following her was Guy Jackson, whose story of “Offering Leo a chip” and was himself a character out of Of Mice and “Menchin”. Then it was Carl Kozlowski, whose story of narcolepsy and driving was a real smash. “Claire Thomasina J”, an English byrd drifted us off into a snowboarding as a kid story and finally, Josh Filiposki told a great story of coming home to a hot apartment, steaming with frustration and anger, but how things soon turned a wrinkle, with his wife and he getting it on, whilst the ironing was being done. Our inimitable host Tom then instructs the contestants to all please leave the stage and now it’s the judge’s turn, and he does it all with 1950’s quiz show anticipatory panache. This is where one of the funniest of the evening (heckler Andy) awoke from his mysterious slumber and batted them out of the park with his defacto on-stage straight man Tully, who was forced to multi-task as he tried to introduce, “our celebrity judges”.
As with “genius” or “porn star,” “Celebrity” is an all-too-oft thrown about term, and although our panel kinda does fit the profile, I think Tom meant it slightly ironically. After all, in the same way Christopher Guest’s films are all about the pomposity of class, Tom is all about inclusion, not class separation. Having said that, there was certainly Showbiz royalty on the panel this night. How can you go wrong with Fred Willard? From his film-stealing role as the enthusiastic out of touch Colonel on the military base in This is Spinal Tap, to his as clever as the host second-banana on Fernwood Tonight, Mr. Willard proves he’s much more than a famous rat. Nobody working today can create and deliver in the moment, accurate within context super-funny commentary like him; and yet he gives you the feeling that he’s just happy to be invited to something he secretly believes he’s way overqualified for. Like all of Fred’s roles in Guest’s masterpiece catalogue (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, The Mighty Wind), Fred remains the wise-cracking naïve for this show as swell.
Sitting next to (and behind) Fred was Leigh Morgan Koechner, mother of 5 and talk show host from everydayfamily.com., who was unceremoniously interrupted by Andy, who was now sounding a little bit fake drunk, “You know, you’d have a lot less people on stage if you had one guy telling a six minute story!” This got a telling laugh from the crowd and of the one minor problem this show needs to work out. And that is the universal fact that sometimes a story being told is not all that spellbinding and when following another story which was rip-roaringly funny, can lie a bit flat, making you wish Top Tale would take a step they’re probably not willing to take: Let Andy heckle the story-tellers too, which might serve to keep them all on their toes at all times, including the judges. We, the audience, are essentially children at the end of the day and we want to constantly be fed with funny. But, we also want to participate. And, though Andy the Heckler does act as our proxy, I would’ve loved it for a real audience member to join in too. If Top Tale was held in a private home to invited guests, of course drunk Aunt Margaret would interrupt a story of any quality or length, just as Buddy or Sally would interrupt and heckle not just easy target Mel but also dearly loved and respected colleague Rob Petrie. Heckling is often overlooked as a supportive gesture. Even if a story is a good one and the teller is good and the audience is rapt with attentiveness, introducing Heckler Andy at the beginning of the show and then only reserving him for inter-staff ribbing and poking, is kinda like holding out red meat to an audience of jungle cats ready to pounce at the first sign of dead-air. Having said ALL that, all of the story-tellers were of a certain vetted quality, possessed and displayed their own quirkiness, and all did excellent jobs doing the most important thing: Keep the show moving, even if and when their stories didn’t quite get all the laughs, they or we may have hoped for. Rounding out the panel of celebrity judges was stand-up stalwart John Mendoza, whose out of nowhere off the cuff quips acted as perfect summation to this Marx Brothers-ian comedy supreme court. Top Tale’s Mendoza as Supreme Comedy Court Justice.
Towards the end of the night, when you could tell the vacation from reality was reaching its climax and the judges coalesced their votes, Tom led us all in a big group hug as we all sang-along an Irish-seeming pub song. “A story…a story…why don’t you give it a twist. A story…a story…we’re hoping that someone gets kissed!” The winner was announced. It was Carl with his story, “My Mother The Superspy”. And, just like that! Like a Viagra commercial on a TV that spontaneously combusts, the show was over. I left the Fanatic Salon feeling like I may have just witnessed the middle stages of something potentially very big. I loved Top Tale and recommend you catch the next one. I just kept wishing, we would’ve heard more from the judges throughout the show, more from Andy the Heckler, and more of a chance for the audience to participate in the voting process, other than to only judge the finals with applause. But these are minor complaints about an already great live comedy show envisioned by Tom & Jonathan, and performed like ballet by all the cast and players. Wife and husband Jane Morris and Jeff Michalski, veteran Second City legends, and venue owner Tommy Mitchell have created a great space in the Fanatic Salon for one of the greatest rides in the Comedy Amusement Park, located close by where The Lollypop Guild did their strut. I just can’t wait to ride it again.
I give Top Tail @ The Fanatic Salon 7 out of 8 Menorahs.
Enjoy the veal!
Steven Alan Green
Note: Next week is the second half of this two-parter: A Tale of Two Spontaneities with my review of Paul Provenza’s Set-List.
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Reality game show idea. Contestants compete for the prize of most vain. If they win, they get cosmetic surgery. If they lose, they have to donate an internal organ. Show is called Makeover Island and is hosted by the corpse of Joan Rivers.