Second to None
Caeti and Bills make middle-America fresh and funny
How curious that what makes us laugh is automatically considered lowbrow. It’s a conspiracy for depression.
There hasn’t been anything but nervous laughter at the big festival since David Sedaris and David Rakoff read here in 2001. And the more one tries to sell the brilliance of Piccolo performers like Frank Caeti and Jen Bills, the more it sounds like a desperate attempt to champion the lower-brow Piccolo festival as “big time.”
But these guys are big time, not only in credentials (both went through the Second City crucible, Caeti is a star on MadTV), but also in their confident and quick stage presence. And if champions of the little festival smack of desperation, the fact is nothing of Caeti and Bills’ performance smacks of effort. These guys are pros, in their element.
The bare-bones show starts with a sketch pad and suggestions from the audience. Names of corporations, adjectives, places, stage directions, things that start with D and J.
A tenet of improv is the “yes and,” meaning you always take what your collaborator gives you and add on to it. When weak suggestions come from the crowd (throughout the course of the show, one lady suggested “bathroom,” “outhouse,” and “condoms”), Caeti and Bills continually play by this rule, rejecting nothing, and it was rewarding to see them make good on what seemed lame.
The show uses pre-planned sketches and characters to provide a frame, with audience suggestions (and the audience members themselves) filling in the details. It’s a premise that allows one to forget what is planned and what is improvised, meaning you can just let the laughter come, not be a nervous fan rooting for the players’ quick wit.
The first sketch was a Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler-style send-up of a corporate retreat, with the two sales cheerleaders giving a pump-up speech punctuated by clips of The Karate Kid montage-song “You’re the Best.”
Bills tells the rest of the sales team we might have already gotten word of some big news on our CrackBerrys.
“I’m not mispronouncing it,” she says. “I’m saying it for a reason. You’re like drug addicts and I love you for it.”
Other sketches included an Italian husband-and-wife interrogating a young couple in the front row, and a VH-1 Behind the Music of a Spinal-Tap-esque band, with two audience members wearing blond wigs on either side of Caeti.
The closer, when Bills brings up a “girlfriend” from the audience to commiserate with her break-up, was a killer.
“He’s coming over to get his stuff,” she says. “Play it really cool, play it like you were coming over anyway, like we were going to do a stitch-n-bitch.”
Sure, Second City’s hometown of Chicago is a big city, but it’s right there in the middle of America. Bills and Caeti’s greatest strength is their ordinariness. Like Garrison Keillor, they’ll polka around the avant-garde or freaky, but they’re gong for the (much harder to get) “funny ha-ha” laughs, not funny-weird.
The shy theatergoer might be turned away by the threat of becoming involved. Based on Sunday’s riled-up audience, there seems to be plenty of Piccolo people willing to jump in first.
And since the audience is part of the show, it’s only fair to review them as well. If you go, and you participate, you’re funnier when you too don’t try to hard. Be awkward, be ordinary, and let the pros do all the work.
Caeti and Bills • Piccolo Spoleto’s Piccolo Fringe • (1 hour) • $15 • May 28 at 3 p.m.; May 29 at 8 p.m.; May 30 at 8:30 p.m.; May 31 at 9:30; June 2 at 10 p.m. • Charleston Ballet Theatre, 477 King St. • 554-6060