August 16th-25th (21:20)
Never have I seen as blistering an opening 20 minutes of stand up as I witnessed at The Underbelly this evening. Entering the upper cavern of Belly Button, Yacht Rock and dry ice fill the packed room. I’ve queued for a full ten minutes to get in and the buzz is as thick as the artificial smog drifting over the eager crowd. There is a real feeling that something truly special is about to occur. I’ve been a fan of ‘anti-comedy’ ever since I came across Andy Kaufman’s ‘Tony Clifton’ persona in the biopic Man on the Moon. An aggressive, washed up Las Vegas lounge act who made his name by being so obnoxious to the audience (often ‘plants’) that he would end up in fights, and screaming incoherent obscenities. So enter the stage Jack Tucker, a Noo Yoik Tony Clifton for our current day. He staggers on, dripping with coke sweat, eyes rimmed red from one Coors Light (or smoke machine effect) too many, and he launches his vice-like grip around the audience.
This is very knowing stuff. If Donald Trump possessed any self-awareness, or basic business acumen, he would be milking his moronity in precisely the manner that Tucker does. He rants about “Winners!” and “Losers!” he screams “Fake News!” as he is informed that his audience size is a touch less than the 900 he claims. The capacity is 200. His nods, winks, hand sniffing and pratfalls are tossed out like Miles Davis trumpet riffs, surfing on waves of the audience’s adulation. For we all understand that this is an act. It is, however, very much a double act. His incredibly talented Director, and Tech, toys with him through deployment of sound effects, with surgical comic precision. Initially employing them, literally, like a machine gun to punctuate every bad taste gag and improvised one liner. As the show progresses we notice our unseen performer toying with Tucker by delaying the honks, guitar riffs and ‘Whammo’ noises more and more. This is improvisation as high art, they are having fun, but it is all for the audience.
It’s not all visceral microphone assisted blowjob jokes, faux hack chat and trite observational comedy about the Weather Channel though. Around 20 minutes in he throws out two casually acerbic lines which prick at the hypocrisy of a Bojo ruled Britain retaining its sense of superiority over Americans having the President that they do. These are so subtle, and finely crafted, that unfortunately they seem to be lost in the cloak of clowning chaos he has cast over the audience. It’s around this point where the issues with the show begin to creep in. He has us so tightly wound, so ready for his onstage rock bottom implosion, which he has left us salivating for, that the middle section of the show starts to drag somewhat. He doesn’t up the stakes with his antagonistic behaviour, and he doesn’t start to throw out the snippets of humanity that are essential for his dénouement to work. So when it does inevitably come, after 10 minutes of circling that feels flat and repetitive rather than character developing, the pathos of the back story to this revolting beast feels forced. There has been no sense of increasing desperation, no shift in energy to the increasingly manic, which should come before he breaks down and gives us his sob story. Which is not to say that ‘The Sob Story’ itself is not incredibly well delivered. An astonishingly brave audience member lends the video camera on her phone to support a performance of, what I can only describe as, the most upsetting rendition of Happy Birthday I have ever partaken in.
This might seem like a minor quibble, but the essence of clowning is to be absolutely, and all, of the character. The mid set dip exposes a hole in the suspension of disbelief required for the audience to really commit to such an unpleasant character, and it almost defeats the purpose of the whole venture. Sob story cast aside, he jumps right back into bad ol’ Jack mode and has the audience in his sweaty, beer drenched bosom again. The show finishes on an incredible high and the obligatory standing ovation, for an hour of pure energy, is duly delivered. I laughed heartily, and the men in the row in front of me spent large portions of the show using their T shirts to wipe tears from their eyes. But I wonder if Jack would have had the courage to finish his set with the purely anarchist spirit of his erstwhile fantasy mentor.
As Andy Kaufman’s agent George Shapiro famously told him “You’re insane, but you might also be brilliant”. On this evidence, Tucker is just a hair’s breadth away.