The Brady Punch

Improv comedian Wayne Brady hits softly with his genial variety show

Let him entertain you. With a double-wide grin and a vaudevillian's longing to please, Wayne Brady can make you smile. Whether he can make you laugh is something else. His solo venture, The Wayne Brady Show, is the kind of good-natured variety program that nobody has scheduled since the mid-Seventies--which probably explains why it's stuck temping rather than holding down a fulltime slot. And its small pleasures and small failings reveal why nobody will follow up this experiment anytime soon.

On the improv showcase Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Brady wins the talent contest every time: He sings, he dances, he warps his body into whatever the game demands. His unscripted live show, which plays Saturday, April 13 at Minneapolis's Historic State Theatre, is probably his natural environment. With an album and talk show due in the fall (both to be cross-promoted, no doubt), he has gone on record with his distaste for angry comedy. So light bulbs must have switched on instantly: What better way to rebut charges of institutional racism without nudging the sponsors even a little? Brady moonlights, the network polishes its diversity profile, and the show matches the low-end costs that make Whose Line? such a bargain.

Fair enough. It would be poetic justice if the Wayne Brady Show won itself a regular slot. But it won't, for the same reason it's on the air in the first place: Wayne Brady. Improv comics allude, riffing on hot topics in new contexts--e.g., big hairpiece equals Monica Lewinsky. Their quick-reference guide to contemporary society derives its humor as much from mere denotation as from insight. Brady's Whose Line? cohorts, sex fiend Ryan Stiles and choleric Colin Mochrie, are great improv comics, but too one-note to carry a show on their own. Wayne Brady isn't a great improv comic. For one thing, his humor lacks that vital meanness. Brady never hits below the belt; he genially taps your funny bone. In one skit, a close-talking boss keeps getting in Wayne's face because she's a close talker. Eventually, Wayne jumps out the window to escape, and the oblivious boss...gets in someone else's face.

Great variety shows careen into danger zones (R.I.P. Uncle Miltie), but Brady is supremely controlled--a crucial supporting player, not a star. Still, he is a master vocal copyist. With a pliable voice that accommodates James Brown's screams, Michael Jackson's coos, and the smooth stylings of classic black pop (not the "smoove" pelvic cold-calling of today's R&B), he can either parody his models or honor them. On his own show, Brady has sung an entirely straight duet with Ben E. King, and Brady opens each episode with an honest-to-goodness song-and-dance number. He also has mastered the almost impossible task of creating lyrics--and delivering them in the style of innumerable musical genres--off the top of his head, a talent that awes me no matter how many times I've heard him pull it off. Wherever else his live show sags, it will showcase his genius in this area.

On an early episode, Brady held together a boy-band improv that both celebrated the talents of Brian McKnight and Justin Timberlake (beatboxing, no less!) and made his straight men looser than either seems on his own. A funny recurring skit features Brady as the leader of Posse-Toi, "Canada's No. 3 boy band," which croons about lactose-intolerant girlfriends, among other topics.

All of which means that Brady provides oceans of bonhomie but not much direction: Funny bit follows lame bit follows dance. What you're left holding is Brady's plasticity. For all his skill at impressions, this comedian seems to have nothing distinctive to say beyond his generalized goodwill. Fair? Probably not. Ray Romano has nothing in mind either. While I wouldn't argue that identity politics has relegated comics of color to specialty niches, Brady's sweet assimilationism resonated better 30 years ago than it does now, when he feels more than a little, er, washed out. Compare him with D.L. Hughley or Bernie Mac, whose sitcoms clue white folk into what journalist Ellis Cose has called "the rage of a privileged class." Yet the one poster on the show's ABC message board who questioned Brady's parodies of black celebrities (which culminated in calling Brady a "100 percent Uncle Tom") got slammed 20 times, so maybe crossover actually is back in vogue.

Where pointed comedy is said to "kill," Brady seems content to inflict a flesh wound. Brady's skit about "BroJack," a theft-location system for "your African-American friends," seems not to know what its target is. (Black criminals? The police?) Elsewhere, Brady does impressions of his Caribbean grandmother, which made for an especially sweet my-boy-has-made-good moment on the first episode. (Grandma, sitting in the audience, was clearly abashed and pleased.) Since then, the skit has become directionless and bland: The idea seems to be that letting Wayne-as-Grandma vamp on something shouted out from the audience (most recently, kitty litter) guarantees nonstop fun. As a result, The Wayne Brady Show hobbles from punch line to impression, revealing cracks you would prefer not to notice. Wayne's Michael Jackson sounds a lot like his Prince, and somebody should inform him that James Brown once an episode is plenty. While I'd love it if this show stayed around, I won't mourn it when it goes. Wayne Brady needs somebody to stir him up: Given just a twinge of anger, his enormous comic range could expose all kinds of racial fault lines. Right now, he's skipping over the cracks.

 
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