As Seen on No TV

Idiot Box channel their twitchy comedy into a live stage show

I don't often get the feeling that I should approach a sketch-comedy troupe in a bar and clap them on the shoulders, heartily shaking their hands and crying out, "What a really...well...just stunning Web page you have." With Idiot Box, however, that urge is irresistible. Their site (www.idiot-box.org) is shockingly well put together--slickly designed and easy to navigate--and it offers a comprehensive look at the seemingly dozens of cast members in the troupe, along with several Real Player videos of their work. Idiot Box primarily satirizes television, and each of the three videos on their site parodies commercials. One, a garishly colored and oddly jerky cartoon, sells a confection called "Yummy Mummy," a "desiccated candy." "I got a scarab," cries out one happy child, holding up a chocolate-covered insect. Another child, this time wearing a turban, reveals his decaying prize: "I got a human finger," he declares, delighted.

I was so excited by the Web site that, following this past Saturday's performance at Bryant-Lake Bowl, I actually did clap cast member Charles Hubbell on the shoulders and tell him how much I liked the troupe's Internet presence. "Thank you," he responded, seeming genuinely pleased. "We're trying to get more movies up onto the site.

"But," he continued, "how did you like the show?"

A confederacy of dunces: TV satirists Idiot Box
A confederacy of dunces: TV satirists Idiot Box

Well, somewhat less than I liked the Web site. Television parody always seems to work best on a small screen--television or computer, it doesn't seem to matter. Without the tight edits, grainy image, and such advertising flimflam as voiceovers and talking-head testimonials, Idiot Box's comedy loses some necessary verisimilitude. Thus, when cast member Heidi Fellner stands onstage to pitch a variation of Survivor to a television executive, the actor seems to be attempting to squeeze comic blood from an already compressed and pulped thematic turnip. One applauds her efforts, particularly when her pitch involves letting loose a murderous mummy on the island (never before has a comedy troupe made such extensive use of embalmed bodies for comic hijinks), but you can only be so funny when you are squeezing a turnip.

When the theater's lights go down, however, and a video projection reveals Fellner unhappily complaining of having gotten a horrifying case of monks--she produces a tube of ointment called "Monastery A.D. (featuring Thou Be Gone)" to remedy the infestation--the comedy works perfectly. The video has exactly mimicked the form of a commercial, cutting repeatedly to images of the monks accidentally smashing Fellner with their miters. Simply performed onstage, the skit might have drawn a few uncertain laughs at best. Without the advantage of pressing up close to a subject, as a camera does, we might have missed seeing the havoc a few uncontrolled miters can produce. Onscreen, we clearly witness each tiny impact and hear the muffled sound of metal hitting fabric, as well as hearing Fellner's tiny, frustrated yelps of pain.

But even when the video projector shuts down and the stage lights come up, Idiot Box offers some real pleasures. Hubbell, for example, possesses a sort of uncanny physicality. A long, narrow man with a pointed, wide-eyed face, he is equally interesting to watch onstage as onscreen. Playing a Viking berserker live before the BLB audience, Hubbell twitches with such intense, lunatic energy that one feels sure he will fall off the stage. Then, with a noisy clatter, he would continue to skitter across the floor and out of the theater, stopping only when he reached a bar. I would have followed him out to buy him a beer and clap him on the shoulder, declaring that the Web page is good sport, but the lunatic twitching is amazing.

 
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