From “Book of Mormon” to “Oh, Hello”: Why Broadway needs to embrace modern comedy
June 26, 2017 Vic Shuttee Features, John Mulaney, Nick Kroll
With their outstanding two-hander Oh, Hello (based on the recurring sketch from Kroll’s self-titled sketch series) comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney are latest duo to try and save Broadway — but they’re certainly not the first.
The “Too Much Tuna” pair are a prime example of exactly the type of show that theaters should be clamoring for: an easily accessible, verbally-driven character study that doesn’t pander and offers a constant stream of laugh lines that are not simply theatre funny – they’re actual funny.
It’s not a business-as-usual money grab, and it’s also not a clamoringly cute “love letter” to the legends of old. It’s a production happy to be of this time (without lowering itself to be simply another form of quickly dated “reference comedy”), with two dedicated performers having a blast stretching their skills. There appears to be an earnest sense of real effort at play, but that makes the seeming effortlessness of their success of it all the more rewarding. Something so willing to laugh at itself should serve as pleasant reminder of what the moneymen behind Broadway’s stages oughta be expecting when they book something labeled “funny.” And sorry to say, no matter how many big name stars you may land, dusting off tired romps and dated satires are hardly what the theatre needs in 2017.
Unafraid of appealing to audiences outside Manhattan, the play was filmed and is now streaming on Netflix as Oh Hello! On Broadway – another trick limited run event productions would certainly be wise to hop on. At an hour forty-five, the one-act finds Mulaney and Kroll reprising their aging art-house dream team of George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon respectively, who are now mounting an autobiographical play in real time. It’s got surprise guests (don’t dare spoil it for yourself by Googling who), Cosby jokes, Steely Dan, an indulgent award-bait dance sequence, some good-hearted raccoon fucking and of course, Tony, a tuna sandwich that eventually grows a lettuce mustache (“to show the passage of time”).
It may sound like the best single-cam comedies of the current TV era (Mulaney’s pop-culture driven SNL roots show here, as do UCB tics reminiscent of Parks and Rec), but it also has that added oomph that only comes from a live-wire underground improv show – there’s a bit of high-flying danger with all those no-filter reactions. Thankfully, there’s hardly a quiet moment. The play boasts a polished-but-not-locked script and a freewheeling meta sensibility that makes the performance feel like both a culmination of years of development, but also just another sketch comedy shitshow.
It’s exactly the cocktail you’d dream up when you give two 42nd Street virgins a chuck of money and let them off the creatives leash. It’s uproarious, unbalanced and unpredictable – and just as funny on film as it was in person.
And Oh, Hello is exactly the type of passion project theatrical producers should be hunting down to be their next success story, because it’s that all-too-rare offering of good medicine for their art form from outsiders.
True, all this praise was certainly dumped on the last two Comedy Central transplants to try and save the Great White Way: Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The South Park brain-trust brought the fun to town with their filthy but faithful tribute to musicals past, The Book of Mormon — a box-office savior that cleaned up critically, and still remains is an impossible to ticket to nab when in the Big Apple. Yes, back in 2011, Mormon seemed to offer a sure-fire roadmap for comic minds of the TV generation to challenge what a hit on Broadway could look like.
Unfortunately, that didn’t really come to pass. While impossible to know the conversations happening behind closed doors, writer-creators of TV and film evidently ignored the call to bring inventive comedy to the stage. And the few who dared found a pretty common thread: big financial returns and glaring indifference from Broadway’s award giving body, the Tony Awards.
In 2009, Will Ferrell brought his iconic SNL impression of George W. Bush to Broadway in You’re Welcome America. Critics loved the one-man show, that broke monetary records for the space, and was later broadcast as a one-off for HBO. Despite that, the play received only a single Tony nomination (for Special Theatrical Event). Similar story for 2015’s Fish in the Dark, the Larry David vehicle that raised the financial bar (raising 13.5 million in advances ticket sales, to be exact) and earned a lauded 7-month run – all the more miraculous considering the show’s atypical 18-person cast. But despite generally positive reviews, Fish landed a goose egg when it came to Tony goodwill. David seemed reticent at the prospect of another play, and returned to his HBO stomping ground for another season of Curb.
So while the money of Oh, Hello certainly talks – the show recouped its $2.9 million start-up investment and grossed over $9 million after 138 performances – nothing matters more than the quality of the evening itself. But even among comedy legends like Ferrell and David, the young duo of Kroll and Mulaney have crafted something deeper – both a parody and a bit personal. So why are they not swimming in awards for this masterpiece? Kroll and Mulaney have every right to be screaming “TOO MANY TONYS!”
Perhaps there’s a bit of “new guys at the club” syndrome going on, and the team would have a better shot at some gold on a second or third attempt. Or maybe the powers-that-be simply missed the headlines of when the show closed its run in January, and only now are they getting wind of how good this production was on the Netflix “bingewatch.” But if the rationale is fear-based, and Broadway is skittish to turn over the keys of a few smaller spaces to some improv-trained comedy talent… well, that’s just foolish. For every film star that can occasionally carpetbag the stage to get some Tony glory (recent example include: Bradley Cooper, Bryan Cranston, Cate Blanchette, and Denzel Washington), there definitely should be room for a few pro-jokers to join them.
If we ever get to see Broadway debuts from the likes of Louis CK, Amy Poehler, or Key & Peele, perhaps we owe Faizon and Geegland a thank you sandwich.