Alexander Rubin Gets a Whiff of the Wham City Comedy Collective
Baltimore’s Wham City Comedy took over the Metro Gallery last weekend, bringing their charmingly morbid, Powerpoint-driven sketch comedy back home for two nights in a row.
The group —at its core- is a trio consisting of multimedia artists Alan Resnick, Robby Rackleff and Ben O’Brien whose formal studio and filmmaking backgrounds are offset by a predilection for macabre humor.
Saturday and Sunday night’s shows were the last of their “This Tour Has People On It” tour, a three-week, 16-city jaunt celebrating (& named after) their latest video creation for Adult Swim, “This House Has People In It”.
Having only their YouTube videos as a reference, I was unsure how successfully Wham City Comedy’s Michael Haneke-meets-Mister Rogers vibe would translate to the stage. Before I could find out, two opening acts, Stavros Halkias and Cricket Arrison, set the scene.
Stavros Halkias— sorrow wears a smile.
Halkias is an NYC-based comedian whose brief, warm-up set consisted primarily of self-loathing. He poked fun at his short stature, his weight problem, his male pattern baldness, and his failures at romantic relationships. Despite this material feeling like default derogatory stand-up fodder, Halkias put a fresh, funny spin on tropes that easily could have remained as dull as they were depressing. Instead they were just depressing— but dignifiedly so.
Cricket Arrison stretches her wrists.
The second act, Cricket Arrison, was more experimental. In a deadpan Andy Kaufman or Ana Gasteyer-style, she took to the stage wearing aerobic apparel and assured us that she would not be telling jokes. Instead, she discussed the merits of exercise.
Arrison launched into a full bodied workout routine wherein she stretched, lunged, and jogged in place while riffing off free-associative condemnations of anything impertinent to exercise. Arrison’s sarcasm, physical stamina, and convincing portrayal of a borderline personality were hilarious as well as disconcerting. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or worry for her— the perfect conflicted state to be in when it came time for Wham City Comedy to take the stage.
Wham City Comedy in full effect
Wham City Comedy’s show was unlike anything I had seen before. It wasn’t stand-up and it wasn’t improv. It wasn’t exactly sketch comedy but it wasn’t quite theater either. Rackleff, Resnick, and O’Brien perform what I would call “vaudeville of the aughts”, a MacBook-accompanied comedy revue, where a giant Keynote presentation provides all audio, visual cues, and set changes while the players perform a peculiar millennial slapstick in the foreground.
The first sketch involved nixing the show altogether and, instead, putting on a torrented copy of 2002’s Minority Report. The screening was interrupted by an irate Rackleff who discovered — and then brought to our attention (with futuristic remote control gloves, duh)- that Resnick and O’Brien were in the movie, as extras, and appeared to be getting engaged. Resnick and O’Brien confirmed Rackleff’s suspicions, a development that thrust the show and troupe into awkward waters. It was a silly, technologically impressive way to start the show and one that dictated the absurdity still to come.
The next few sketches focused primarily on unconventional characters, moreso than premise. At times, O’Brien and Resnick’s roles brought to mind those from the heydays of SNL or MAD TV, while Rackleff was in a category all his own. O’Brien’s strength is playing flawed alpha-male characters such as Coach Scoop, a pitiful sports instructor who just might be a pedophile, or Earth Universe, a politically incorrect New Age spiritual guru & cult leader.
Officer Cranberry (Resnick) brings his A-game.
Resnick, on the other hand, specializes in Chaplinesque personas, mangy yet adorable tramps who’d make for perfect entertainment at a child’s birthday party if they didn’t seem so contaminated.
Rackleff is Wham City Comedy’s gentle giant. Instead of characters, he utilizes awkward, heavily chromakeyed video art presentations that satirize academic lectures and chain store advertising. Or, he’ll come completely out of left field with an impassioned, severe, original monologue, harkening back to his days as Wham City’s Blue Leader.
Rackleff’s Impassioned Deathbed Monologue
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Metro Gallery show was, despite the popularity of their Adult Swim videos, Wham City Comedy made no attempt to recreate their “hits” live. What they were able to recreate was a “This House Has People in It” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear’s” Blue Velvet-ish sense of dread, an impending doom that, no matter how lighthearted a sketch seemed, so that it was always rotten from the inside out.
Wham City Comedy, like Kids in the Hall, Stella, or Tim & Eric, seem more intent upon challenging our preconceptions of what “comedy” is than they do taking traditional or cheap routes to evoke laughter. The last sketch of the night, for example, brought O’Brien and Rackleff to stage dressed as New Jersey gangbangers, whose hair-trigger personalities could only be curbed by Memime, a buoyant, mummified mime played by Resnick.
So smitten were Kid Napkins (Rackleff) and Creg Entertainment (O’Brien) by Memime that they invited audience members to the stage to guess what gestures Memime was acting out. When each participant failed to do so, O’Brien shot them in the head with a gun, or rather, the shape of a gun he was making with his fingers. After the last guess failed, Memime committed pantomimed suicide, plunging Rackleff to Memime’s side and sending O’Brien into hysterics, ending the show.
Unlike previous sketches that night, the conclusion brought with it no definitive punchline. Instead of completion or exhilaration, I felt guilty, possibly at having gotten any amusement out of the night, now that I’d witnessed Memime’s demise.
Afterwards, I revisited Wham City Comedy’s Adult Swim videos. I found that here too, the only “comedy” is in just how un-comical they are. Absurd? Yes. Creepy? Yes. Funny? Yes-ish. Instead of seeing this as a failure on the group’s part however, it’s a skillful, conscious decision made by three naturally funny individuals to provide certain expectations and then completely transmogrify them. Their videos’ production value attests to the organization and intentionality of their vision. Meanwhile, their YouTube play counts and Adult Swim airtime demonstrates Wham City Comedy’s embodiment of that rare occasion when an artist’s (or artist group’s) unique vision coalesces with a receptive audience.
Personally, I find it as refreshing as I do surprising that there is such a large demographic for Wham City Comedy’s unconventional work. It demonstrates that not all people are as intellectually numb, emotionally dead, and therefore, inherently doomed as Wham City Comedy would like to have us believe. Maybe it is in their calling of our attention (via video and performance) to the digitally-induced, widespread aloofness of our present day age that we are able to acknowledge and exorcise it within ourselves.
With that presence of mind we can then ask “wait a minute, is this actually even comedy at all?” One we realize it isn’t, then understanding that’s the biggest joke of all.
Alexander Rubin lives in the suburbs and loves in the city– Baltimore city. He is a composer, filmmaker, & writer, like, duh.
This review was made in conjunction with Brineblog, a collaborative JHU & MICA Arts and Culture project.