What is it? The slightly dysfunctional but oh-so-proper Fowler Family present their weekly radio show highlighting all of our favorite Southern stereotypes. Their 2007 show was a hoot. There's something about taking six southerners and refining them in Chicago, then letting them come back down to pick on our ways. Maybe we should be offended, but it's pretty damn funny.
Why see it? Think Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion on uppers and alcohol, set in the Titwhistle Theater ("The Tit"). Play their game show and get edumucated on fine Southern words like "swampmeasles." Enjoy grandma Essie May Leonard's baton-twirling tribute to the Henley High Rebels football team. And last year, they had top-notch bluegrass act Town Mountain playing interludes, so the music ain't too bad either.
Who should go? Drunken Confederates and squeamish Yankees. Anyone who gets a kick out of backwoods manners, ambiguously gay cowboys, and picking fun on our "heritage." As for you and your family, bring the kin old enough to buy beer. (Stratton Lawrence)
PICCOLO SPOLETO • $15 • 1 hour • May 23, 24 at 7 p.m.; May 26 at 6 p.m. • American Theater, 446 King St. • (888) 374-2656
No Escape: The Fowler Family remembers
For the cast of The Fowler Family Radio Hour, there's no place like home.
So when they return to Charleston for this year's Piccolo Festival, the Chicago-based comedy group will find itself in familiar territory.
The cast mainly hails from the southeastern United States, but they perform regularly in Chicago. Their performance is a meandering series of characters and music and dance balled into a single radio hour, which broadcasts from the fictional southern town of Henley (state unknown).
For Southerners transplanted to the Midwest, the true exercise is drawing on their individual experiences and applying them. For the most part, the content seems to resonate well with the improv community at large, as the Fowler Family has performed regularly since their debut show three years ago with the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Certain demographic quips, along with banter inherent to particular locales in the southeast region, form the base of this show's script. Include wily characters, some old fogies with foggy memories, and you've got a cocktail to sip with Momma's home cooking.
The genius of stereotypical comedy is its ability to sink beneath the thickest skin. Say you're a liberal Yankee. Wouldn't it be pleasant to laugh at your southern neighbors' expense? And what about those who live here — is our sense of humor liberal enough to laugh as we're derided?
If only we could generalize.
But obviously, the response is left to the individual.
"The audiences in Charleston last year may have appreciated our characters' southern accents more than Chicago audiences do, but in terms of laughs, audiences in both cities seem to get the humor," says Robert Cass, writer and performer. "Funny is funny, but at the same time comedy is subjective, so not everyone will laugh at the same things. We just pray they'll laugh at something."
All right, then.
"Everyone has a family, and every family has its quirks, so I think any audience can relate to what they see the Fowlers going through onstage," Cass says. "Your family reminds you who you really are. Sometimes you wish they wouldn't remind you, but that's just part of life."
But how does material rooted in memories and exaggerated stereotypes remain fresh, especially as opinions change, cultures shift, and attitudes toward what's funny get redirected?
The Fowler Family responds with a quick-on-your-feet improvised element. Using wits and instincts to anticipate an audience's mood is the golden key of live comedy. When successfully managed, a performance can transcend even its own intended scope.
Keeping this in mind, the Fowler cast sifts through personal stories that audiences can relate to — almost like a universal whoopee cushion.
"For us, the initial brainstorming sessions in 2005 involved a lot of reminiscing about where we grew up, but it was just a jumping off point to create the town of Henley, which is where the Fowlers live," Cass says. "You can definitely limit yourself with 'Remember this?' moments in a show, but it's pretty common for anyone to have gone to a high school whose football team lost one game after another. That's the sort of memory we exploit in the show for the sake of comedy."
Therefore comedic tides may change, but our reactions — based on our own experiences — keep the Fowlers relevant and funny.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Cass says. "And no matter where you end up in life, your past and your roots and your family inform who you are. You can't escape, so you might as well embrace all of them."