Tom McGillen's act unfolds as a freewheeling collection of impressions, sketches and observations, but because most aren't rooted in any particular viewpoint or attitude, they often wind up as free-floating bits of comedy--footnotes in search of a thesis.
That he rarely latches onto anything illuminating--he's not big on revealing much about him or us--and traffics in some fairly generic areas of stand-up didn't prevent him from turning in a generally effective Wednesday at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach.
Rather, since we're in the midst of "Pilot Season"--that time when comics are showcasing like crazy in hope of being cast in a new TV series--it's particularly apparent where McGillen's engaging presence, rubbery face and gift for assuming assorted characters would best serve him: in a sit-com. Or, with the advent of Tracey Ullman's frequently fine sketch show, maybe a skit-com.
Fact is, much of his act played better as an audition for an acting role than as an incisive, self-contained stand-up set. He certainly would have scored high marks for shifting into a variety of voices, particularly well-known ones. In a neat local reference to John Wayne airport, he did the Duke coming in for a landing ("Get the . . . out of the way").
He also cooked up some couch-potato delights, from a brief, running Beaver Cleaver impression to a "Star Trek" set piece that, alas, probably has fewer things going for it (a well-drawn scene, dead-on voices for most characters) than against it (an overlong take on an overdone, dated subject).
One senses that McGillen isn't all that prolific at turning out new material. Otherwise, he might have dropped or at least trimmed "Star Trek." That same concern applies to the musical part of his presentation. Shortly after he picked up his guitar, he eased into a Neil Young impression, singing altered versions of three Young chestnuts--after which he mentioned that he " was going to drop that bit."
He should listen to his instinct. Song parodies quickly obey the law of diminishing returns when they're not updated and kept fresh. This problem was compounded a few moments later when he performed the Police's "Every Breath You Take"--now 5 years old--as a series of all-too-common impressions, starting with Jack Nicholson. One way to evaluate an impressionist: take them seriously if they don't fool with Nicholson, which just about anyone with vocal cords and eyebrows can do.
On a fresher note, during one of his infrequent steps into observational territory, McGillen nicely evoked the embarrassment a boy experiences around his pals when his dad trots out a series of bad jokes and puns; he punctuated the bit with a snippet of cartoon character Sylvester the Cat's son: "Oh, father, you've disgraced me," doubly effective because it's an uncommon voice and it served the joke.
In a section on women and sex, he thankfully made only a brief stop along the way at condoms (rapidly approaching fast-food joints and 7-Eleven stores as one of stand-up's most overexplored topics).
Later, he moved into an all-too-brief section on animals and insects--which, given his absurdist's eye and acting flair, is a rich vein he should mine more thoroughly. During it, he mentioned that he recently bought a hamster, complete with the standard cage and wheel setup, which he left in front of the TV for a couple hours. When he returned, the hamster was "spinning the wheel, going 'Come on--a thousand!' "
McGillen closed with the tour de force that has long been a centerpiece of his act: his send-up of Japanese monster flicks. This piece occasionally gets criticized on racial grounds, which begs--and pretty much misses--the point. McGillen isn't jabbing a nationality, he's spoofing a film genre that practically invites the barbs.
Indeed, there are a handful of funny folk in stand-up working the same premise, but McGillen's version is the best, largely for the uncanny way he delivers the dialogue completely out of sync with the movements of his mouth.
Considering that much of the humor and success of the segment derives from this visual business, it was curious that McGillen chose to perform it last week when he opened for Jay Leno at the Bren Events Center. At that cavernous venue, a good three-fourths of the crowd couldn't even see his mouth--and, therefore, fully get the joke.
No such problem Wednesday. Everyone could see, and nearly everyone was laughing hard right away. It started to kill so early in the piece, in fact, that McGillen lamented in an aside: "I should have done my whole act this way." He resumed the bit, seguing into a nifty Mr. Ed impression (as he always does), but also worked in callbacks of Beaver Cleaver, his Dad-as-corny-jokester and Jack Nicholson.
As he left the stage, big laughter and big applause swept the room. Rightly so. If Wednesday's show--or at least the closing segment-- had been an audition, McGillen very likely would have bagged a pilot.
Headlining a strong bill that also includes Bill Kalmanson and Jebb Fink, McGillen continues through Sunday at the Laff Stop.
Tonight, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8, 10 and 11:45 p.m.; Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach
$6 to $8
Information: (714) 852-8762.