"Found at IndyFringe

Sometimes comedy is serious as a heart attack. I was reminded of this recently at IndyFringe, the festival of alternative performance art on Massachusetts Avenue. The Fringe provided a platform for a variety of artists; I found the performances that stuck with me were delivered by a couple of the comedy troupes doing their thing at the American Cabaret Theatre.

The Cool Table is a group from Chicago and Fresh Meat is a trio that hails from New York City. By and large, the players in both these outfits appear to be in their 20s. The result is that both groups tend to blast away with highly caffeinated sketches trading on the quirks and oddnesses of a generation seemingly trapped in the throes of arrested adolescence. There’s plenty of yelling, a middle school delight in cursing and an ongoing wonderment about homosexuality equaled only by a complete and stupefying incomprehension of women.

There’s nothing particularly new about this kind of schtick — in one form or another it has served as comics’ bread and butter for generations. The Cool Table and Fresh Meat use it as a way of getting in the door, establishing solidarity with their peers in the audience. The beauty of sketch comedy, though, is that it allows you to turn on a dime, to take the audience from here to someplace altogether different in the blink of an eye. In some ways, it’s an art of juxtaposition that enables artists to ambush audiences with disturbing ideas and observations. The Cool Table and Fresh Meat proved themselves expert at this. That’s why I’m still thinking about them now.

About midway through their set, The Cool Table did a bit that involved a Vietnam veteran. Naturally, he was portrayed as being an older guy; Vietnam vets are old enough to be parents to the members of this group. It was a savage caricature that seemed, in a few seconds, to wrap every fevered stereotype from that war into a depraved ball and fling it at us.

As a middle-aged member of the generation that fought and protested that war, I found myself feeling uncomfortable at first. This sketch seemed to cross a line, not just of good taste, but of a way we’ve come to regard our history. The Cool Table sketch used a brutal kind of shorthand to make serious fun of our consoling predilection for turning the people who survive the history we create into heroes or victims. I doubt an older person would have struck this unforgiving tone; I’m sure many people would, to put it mildly, consider it insensitive. But I found it liberating. We’ve spent years talking about “the lessons” the Vietnam war supposedly taught us. As current events have demonstrated — from the bitter candidacy of John Kerry to our self-aggrandizing willingness to destroy Iraq in order to save it — we’ve flunked the class. Sometimes it takes distance to see things clearly.

And then sometimes it takes being so close it feels like your nose is pressed against the windshield. Fresh Meat presented a slapstick sketch about a young woman on a job interview. She wants to be a “wardrobeal,” a high-falutin’ term we’ll soon learn is a euphemism for coat check girl. The sketch was loaded with over-the-top physical comedy — an actor literally leaping back and forth across the stage. But at root, this was a piece created by and for a generation that’s grown up hearing, as a kind of article of faith, that a college education is the ticket to a middle-class life as good, if not better than, the one lived by their parents.

The young woman is told that although she has a college degree, she is not yet qualified to care for peoples’ coats. It seems a lot of people are competing for this kind of work — she may have to go to graduate school.

The Fresh Meat sketch felt like a dispatch sent directly from the ranks of the underemployed. It begged the question: Who benefits from the fact that a college education costs more now than ever before at the same time that wages and salaries have been losing ground against inflation? According to Fresh Meat, rather than answer this question, we’ve tried to distract ourselves by childishly puffing up to “professional” status what used to be considered menial labor. This sketch could have been dedicated to every person who works for $10 an hour and carries $20,000 in student loans.

In its stark assessment of today’s so-called meritocracy, the Fresh Meat sketch was as brutal as The Cool Table’s take on our uses of history. It was telling, I thought, that neither troupe appeared interested in explaining themselves to an older generation, let alone courting their approval. Time’s up, these comics seemed say: People have been talking about things your way long enough — and things aren’t getting better. In fact, they’re not even funny anymore.




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