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Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 12:44 am

Faingold at Large Presents: Rocktober Part 3: John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman


My continuing Rocktober travels around the region in search of extra-Springfieldian entertainment brought me to Chicago's Vic Theatre this past Saturday for the "Sandwich to Go" tour featuring comedians Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal and John Hodgman.

The three comics are all known for combining the cerebral with the silly. Hodgman and Schaal have both appeared extensively on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, while Mirman and Schaal provide the voices of the two younger children on FOX-TV's animated hit Bob's Burgers. Throughout the night the camaraderie and mutual amusement among the trio was obvious and at times infectious

Things got nutty pretty fast during an informal introductory segment, featuring the three featured performers and a visit from NPR's Peter Sagal, host of the popular comedy quiz show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. Sagal had been charged with providing the three traveling performers with samples of native Windy City cuisine (specifically Italian beef sandwiches, in line with the name of the tour). He also provided bottles of a Chicago-brewed Swedish spiced liquor called Jeppson's Malört, which Hodgman has taken to using ironically in his act due to its uniquely "awful" taste, often providing samples to his audience. During the introduction, a typically exuberant Schaal spontaneously decided to try and pour the contents of the bottle of Malört into the open mouths of audience members in the front row, accidentally splashing some into one paying customer's eye (she continually checked in with the afflicted audience member throughout the evening, showing genuine concern while deftly milking the absurdity of the minor accident for laughs).

Over the course of the past several years, Eugene Mirman has developed a style of comedy that is unique to himself. His skewed take on the world is more bemused or disgruntled than angry, and he has a weird ability to find high humor in, for instance  mundane run-ins with petty authority. He will often share real-life letters (and occasional copy from ads he sometimes takes out in high profile publications) where he takes his perceived oppressors to task in invariably absurd ways. A true multi-platform comic, Mirman often shows self-produced short videos during his shows and shares his social media interactions with strangers, which regularly rise to the level of digital performance art - sometimes confrontational but always good-natured in tone. A highlight of his performance this weekend was an extended story of how he and Michael Stipe (singer for REM) were randomly terrorized by Mexican police officers late at night after a recent music festival. Wacky but often masking serious ideas behind his tomfoolery, Eugene Mirman gave a solidly funny set, which was also been true every time I have seen him previously.


Kristen Schaal first came to national attention for her part as Mel, the obsessive, sole fan of a failing New York City-via-New Zealand "folk parody" duo on HBO's comedy series The Flight of the Conchords from 2007-2009.  Her stage show can sometimes  be conceptual and confrontational in a mode reminiscent of the late Andy Kaufman, as in her recent Comedy Central solo special, in which she spent a good portion of the performance simulating a failed perfromance, climaxing with her being "schooled" by a little girl from the audience who commandeers the microphone to show her how comedy is "really" done. Her set tonight was free of such elaborate gimmicks, with the focus a little closer to the subversive, feminist-leaning material of her "Senior Women's Correspondent" position on the Daily Show. Schaal's set was breezy and funny throughout, with her goofy, high-energy physical presence combining seamlessly with sharp social observations and occasional R-rated verbal interludes.

John Hodgman is probably still best known for his role as the nerdy, old-fashioned "PC" in the old Mac vs. PC ad campaign. In the meantime, he has created a niche for himself as the author of a trio of books devoted to completely made-up facts (which he drolly refers to as containing "complete world knowledge"). He parlayed the first volume into an ongoing gig as the Daily Show's "Resident Expert" called upon to pontificate ridiculously on any given subject. Over the years, Hodgman's humorous persona has gradually evolved from the brainy dork armed with meticulously researched, but invariably false and fanciful, information about a myriad of subjects - to that of the "deranged millionaire"  - complete with weirdly anachronistic mustache - who uses the largely imaginary power of his financial station to enforce his distorted views on a rightfully incredulous public. 

Unlike Schaal and Mirman, Hodgman is admittedly more of "humorist" than a stand-up comedian, and his solo set at the Vic got off to a slow start, especially after the lightning-fast, tightly controlled performances of his colleagues. He meandered pleasantly for a while, affably passing a bottle of the apparently hideous-tasting Jeppson's Malört among the audience and tossing unconsumed convenience store junk food accumulated during the short, 5-city tour to dubiously grateful fans. He next told a longish-seeming story about a Florida hotel connected to a surf shop that never went much of anywhere. Things picked up notably when the 42-year old comedian recruited three teenagers from the audience to help him evaluate whether or not his pop culture references were still relatable to the young people of today. He ended his set with arguably the funniest moment of the entire evening, his brilliant Ayn Rand impression, replete with purple old-lady dress  - which he changed into onstage, a disconcerting sight I have not yet successfully willed myself to un-see. The Rand bit combined actual quotes from the late author's Objectivist philosophy, satirical extrapolations therefrom and extended references to her 1980 appearance on Donahue shortly before her passing. Hodgman ended the piece with an invented prophecy by 1980-era Rand that her philosophy would eventually take hold at high levels of American politics and shut down the government.

At the Vic on Saturday, Mirman, Schaal and Hodgman provided a highly entertaining showcase of the current state of smart, irreverent comedy aimed at a bright, educated audience. Topical but not preachy, edgy but not gratuitously aggressive, and never condescending, it was one of my most enjoyable evenings out in living memory. 

Next on Rocktober: Neko Case performs in spite of a migraine in St. Louis. 

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