Mort Sahl, who was puncturing political balloons when Bill Clinton was still a toddler, has come up with one of the year's wittiest definitions of the difference between a liberal and a conservative.
As the last of the four comedians to appear in "Comedy Tonight," a variety show that opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last night, Mr. Sahl takes a Swiftian look at abortion rights, entitlement programs and political persuasions and finds inhumanity everywhere. "Liberals are against anybody being born," he announces. "But if you are, they'll take care of you from the cradle to the grave. Conservatives don't mind your being born if you promise them you won't live long enough to collect your Social Security."
This level of barbed philosophizing, alas, is in short supply in a show that throws together four wildly dissimilar comedians -- Mr. Sahl, Dorothy Loudon, Michael Davis and Joy Behar -- and hopes that the friction between their styles will generate entertainment with the breadth and vitality of a good vaudeville show.
"Comedy Tonight," which runs two hours without an intermission, trots out one performer after another in half-hour sets. Except for a group curtain call, they don't interact or even acknowledge one another. Each reflects a different branch of the comedy tree. Ms. Behar represents stand-up and Mr. Davis a more physical style. Ms. Loudon stands for musical comedy and Mr. Sahl is political. If their combined acts added up to a collective point of view, the show might have had a theatrical raison d'etre. As it stands, "Comedy Tonight" is a variety program with no direction and no center.
It doesn't help that much of the material is recycled. Except for some Newt Gingrich jokes, Mr. Sahl's set is a shortened rehash of the one-man show he presented last April at Theater Four. Since then, the Republican sweep of Congress has rendered his liberal-baiting jokes stale. The centerpiece of his set is a description of a Barbra Streisand fund-raiser for Mr. Clinton's Presidential campaign that skewers the pomposity of Hollywood's liberal elite. Although this sequence scores an occasional point, it also smacks of envious finger-pointing by an entertainer whose celebrity is not what it used to be.
Ms. Loudon's half-hour is a vaudeville-style rags-to-riches version of her musical-comedy career that follows her from dreary clubs in upstate New York to Broadway glory as Miss Hannigan in the musical "Annie." Along the way, she ventriloquizes "Play a Simple Melody" with a look-alike doll and sings dry comic versions of standards ("Making Whoopee" and "Let's Do It") and modern show tunes ("Broadway Baby" from "Follies," and "Fifty Percent" from "Ballroom."). Ms. Loudon, like Mr. Sahl, exudes a self-importance that exceeds her celebrity to the point of seeming inappropriate. And her gift for acidic zaniness cannot transcend limp jokes about the mispronunciation of her last name.
Mr. Davis, an affable comic juggler, does amusing things like spitting little balls high into the air, catching them in his mouth, then sticking them in his cheeks and imitating Richard Nixon. In his self-effacing affability he suggests a vaudevillian answer to Bob Newhart. But in his technical skills and humor, he doesn't hold a candle to the Flying Karamazov Brothers, who also happen to be playing on Broadway.
Ms. Behar's stand-up routine, which opens the show, is a polished, joke-laden stream of patter that begins with her imagining Hasidic Jews as fashion arbiters and ends with her fantasy of Lorena Bobbitt telling stories to her grandchildren. Engagingly gabby without taking any risks, Behar is at her pithiest when musing on marriage and divorce. "I want a man in my life," she says, "but not in my house."
There is a show at the Lunt-Fontanne, but there isn't much life.
Four comics, no waiting.
Veteran producer Alex Cohen originally assembled three comedians -- New Vaudevillian Michael Davis, singer Dorothy Loudon andpolitical satirist Mort Sahl -- and one new song from Kander and Ebb called "Three" for the Rich Forum in Stamford, Conn., which he runs. In New York, standup comic Joy Behar has been added to the roster and the song dropped, since "Three" would be an odd thing, indeed, to open a show featuring four performers. Instead, an onstage quartet peppers the intermissionless evening with musical quotes from Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight," from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
It's hard to imagine what the earlier incarnation was like, since Behar steals what can only very loosely be called the show (though Davis steals it right back, only to have Loudon and Sahl promptly lose it forever). There's no reason why a comedy revue shouldn't be able to find an audience on Broadway, but then again, I'm the guy -- possibly the only guy on record -- who liked "Andre Heller's Wonderhouse" a few years back, and by the time I got to "Comedy Tonight" shortly after its official opening, the closing notice already had been posted for Christmas Eve. The ushers at the Lunt-Fontanne seemed to take a perverse delight in telling patrons the show was on its deathbed.
At any rate, for the first hour, which is given over to Behar's shtick and Davis' antics, "Comedy Tonight" is pretty funny, in its own completely conventional way.
Behar confides that while she's often taken for being Jewish, she's actually Italian, and much of her 30-minute routine is about Jews and Italians from the Brooklyn neighborhood in which she grew up or, more generally, about women like her today: This is someone for whom the term "natural childbirth" means no eye makeup, no lipstick and just a touch of blush, and whose advice to men confused by feminism is, "You still have to pay, andkill the big bugs in the kitchen."
Davis is a very funny juggler and, in the case of his bit with three black helium-filled balloons, anti-juggler. Other flying objects include bowling balls mixed up with eggs and several large, extremely scary-looking bladed instruments.
Loudon stretches mightily to fill her half-hour -- which culminates with Alan and Marilyn Bergman's "Fifty Percent" from the 1978 "Ballroom," a Michael Bennett failure in which she starred. The material written for her by Bruce Vilanch is terrible, and of the four performers, the show generally does her the biggest disservice.
Only slightly better is Sahl, whose rambling delivery misses more targets than it hits and, worse, smacks of self-satisfaction. He does, however, refer correctly to Ray Klausen's scarlet-and-gold set as "the Hunan Garden on Mott Street."