It's a pity that Dave Allen had but two nights to show his stuff in Los Angeles (he closed Tuesday at the Canon Theater, where Jackie Mason runs the rest of the week). Allen has been unofficially introduced here as the British equivalent of Johnny Carson, but the well-intended reference is misleading: Carson bombed in England. Allen has gracefully leaped the cultural gap.
That's not an easy thing to do. Stand-up comedy is the most perishable of international commodities, and aside from Jasper Carrott and Benny Hill (who hasn't done stand-up here), the work of most other British comedians doesn't touch the American sensibility, such as it is--the social and cultural pressures that inform British life and its illusions of propriety don't take here the same way and can seem precious (it requires the considerable energy and imagination of the Monty Python troupe to circumvent for us the impression of British stagnation and pokiness).
Allen is a personable, graying, attractive figure who appears to be in his late '40s or early '50s (that in itself is a rarity in a field that venerates the old, coddles the young and offers a wasteland for anyone in between). Allen is Irish, which is his saving grace; it's his gritty iconoclastic Irish temper that lends an underlying tension to his suavity and self-assurance.
Allen brings a sturdy Irish challenge to a lot of our assumptions (early on he offers a list of alcohol's effect on liver, kidneys and brain and then notes "so why do we say, 'To your health'?"). And he bundles his themes instead of scattering one-liners over the heads of his audience.
His material has the feel of having been carefully worked up over a period of time so that it appears more painted than sketched in. It has a sense of overall construction. And there's a build, from cigarette addiction through a remarkable segment on the absurdity of an impatient adult trying to teach a child how to tell time ("When the skinny hand points to the one, it isn't one, it's five; and the six is 30"); through a sardonic and very wry look at Christian teaching ("God is the father of Jesus?" the child asks the imposing Carmelite nun, "and Mary is his mother? And Mary is married to who? Joseph? " The child's look here acknowledges the odor of scandal); through a comic horror of nuclear bomb shelters ("include a dust pan and brush so you can sweep yourself up as you disintegrate").
Allen has scouted his audience--one of his pieces has to do with the sociology of driving--but his underlying theme, fed by his Irishness and his keen memory of childhood, would play anywhere. Allen has an ear for what is said as opposed to what is intended or actually described (when discussing flatulence he quotes his grandmother as having asked, in that dire moment between discovery and incrimination, "Whose bottom squeaked?"), and he takes his sense of the euphemistic disparity everywhere ("A 727 doesn't 'put down' in the water. Leaves put down. Duck down puts down. Seven-twenty-sevens smash!") .
There's no substitute for the true comedic mind and its ability to spot the loopholes everywhere in our social contract, when through habit we come to assume that its terms are ironclad and understood by everyone the same way. Allen has that mind.
His principal desire is to entertain, which he does with casual elegance. But there's also a touch of grit in his observations. The British have tried to put something over on the Irish, adults are always putting something over on kids, but neither compares to how much we wind up putting over on ourselves. One of the pleasures of Allen's performance is that he can offer up some of the ways we do it without his taking up the role of the superior commentator. He knows we're all in the same state.