WASHINGTON — Obviously the success of a one-person show depends on the appeal and durability of that one person. Cable TV has been perfecting this program format, one the commercial networks avoid, and the results have been occasionally rewarding.
Then there is "Liza in London," starring Liza Minnelli, which is showing this month on Home Box Office and which is not merely rewarding, but rousing. It's an all-star revue. Liza is all star.
At first, it seems a little ordinary. Minnelli, after a prefatory dressing room scene, materializes with a whoosh on the stage of the London Palladium, where the concert was taped March 20, and where she shared the bill with her illustrious mother Judy Garland in 1964. She sings old songs ("Blue Skies") and relatively new songs ("I Get Excited") and it's all quite nice, if hardly electrifying.
But it builds. Rather masterfully. After such superblasters as "Some People" (from "Gypsy"), Minnelli settles down for a few intimate ballads. The camera gets closer, and the closer to those big brown eyes, the better. She changes outfits from the red spangly top and black tights that make her look almost topplingly bosomy (like a cross between Margaret Dumont and Tina Turner) into a raffish suit and tie, the kind of thing her mother wore for the poignant numbers.
Before an exquisite "He's Funny That Way," Minnelli makes a brief reference to personal ordeals, which have included treatment of an alcohol dependency, when she says to the crowd, "I feel wonderful. I'm strong. I'm happy. I've never felt better in my whole life." Well, that's all they had to hear. From that point on it's not just loving Liza, it's rooting for Liza.
Is this maudlin exploitation of real-life melodrama--the kind of melodrama that surrounded her mother's career in its later, slightly frightening, years? Who cares, it works.
She soon enough gets to "New York, New York," and wow wow wow, goose pimple time, no matter how one may try to resist. After a brief appearance by Lorna Luft, Minnelli's sister, Liza closes with a socko "The World Goes 'Round," which is no "Over the Rainbow," but then what but "Over the Rainbow" is?
By this time, one may find oneself hopelessly vulnerable to Liza's wide-eyed vulnerability. Half-tearfully she tells the cheering crowd, "I'll remember this my whole life!" For a while at least, you'll probably remember it, too.
("Liza in London" plays again on HBO Monday at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., and next Thursday at 7:30 p.m.)
At the other extreme in the category of one-person shows, HBO is also currently featuring "The Howie Mandel North American Watusi Tour." As an actor, Mandel plays one of the problem doctors on the "St. Elsewhere" show. As a comedian, to stretch a term, Mandel specializes in the overbearingly childish, which he serves up to audiences at a hysterical witless pitch. It's the blitzkrieg school of humor, designed for those who like their comedy loud and cheap.
Mandel's piece de resistance involves pulling a rubber glove over his face, a labored knee slapper that is a comedic descendant of the world famous lampshade-on-the-head routine immortalized by innumerable Saturday night drunks. Watching Mandel on HBO is like inviting one of those drunks into your home. He arrives half stewed and proceeds from there to full slosh.
The special makes a graphic contrast in particular to "Jay Leno and the American Dream," a far superior humorist's comedy essay shown recently on Showtime, HBO's chief competitor. Leno is an inspired and original monologuist and with this special he extended himself into a kind of roving Andy Rooney role, looking for comedy in ordinary situations on the American landscape. Where Mandel is boorish, Leno is cleverly irreverent.
In one sequence of Mandel's special on HBO, he hauls a fellow out of the audience, installs him in a chair on the stage, and proceeds to humiliate the guy by pelting him in the face with several of those ever-ready rubber gloves. The poor chap sits there and takes it; the audience howls.
Later, Mandel jokes about bathroom functions, genitalia, and other sophisticated topics. Kids in a playground could come up with zingier nifties than he does.
Steve Martin portrayed himself on stage as a lovable jerk. Mandel settles for drooling imbecile. There's nothing intriguingly conceptual going on in his act, the way there is with Pee-wee Herman or the brilliant Stephen Wright, both of whom have had their own HBO specials in the past.
As you watch Mandel, you don't just wonder why the audience laughs; you wonder why they don't rise up as a mob and overthrow this petty tyrant who is insulting and demeaning.
(Mandel's program is on HBO's schedule again at 1:35 a.m. tonight, and at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday .)