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COMEDY REVIEW : Moments of Inspired Magic Save Travis, at Swaggart's Expense

February 25, 1988|DUNCAN STRAUSS

Greg Travis' act roars along like some sort of souped-up joke express, careening from subject to subject in a hit-and-run--if ultimately hit-and-miss--manner.

Travis hit more often than he missed Tuesday at the Irvine Improv, occasionally lighting on some absolutely inspired areas, including the truly magical region he occupied for his closing piece.

It wasn't just the strength of his best stuff that helped place the set well onto the plus side, but also the speed with which he traveled from observational bits to brief impressions to full-blown sketches. Even when he was doing a weak or generic bit, you felt sure something much better--and funnier--would come along in an instant, and it did.

The pattern (tired/inspired and back) was established two minutes into his act. He broke into an impression of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" host Robin Leach, a miss if only because no one is really clamoring for yet another impression of Robin Leach.

But then Travis did Casey Kasem. True, Casey's not exactly underrepresented by impressionists, either. But Travis affixed his impression to an inventive premise: Kasem arriving home to make love with his wife ("But, before we do that . . . ").

Whereupon Travis merged a neat idea with another dead-on impression, casting James Mason as Moe of the Three Stooges ("Larry, Curly--I'm going to have to poke you both in the eye . . .").

But then he was back on the downside, segueing into some comparisons of California and New York--again, pretty stock stuff. So is sending up "Star Trek," which he also did. (There ought to be expiration dates on certain comedy bits.)

Some of Travis' pieces, while not quite so generic, were nonetheless not entirely unfamiliar. Such as why "parents wait till Sunday afternoon at K mart to beat the (hell) out of their children" or the way a spoiled kid acts at a store when he wants something sweet to eat.

But again, these lesser moments didn't significantly hamper his set because there were so many grander moments--and because Travis wasn't afraid to take chances on stage. One of the more notable chances he took came at the very outset.

Generally, comedians like to open a show with a strong, tried-and-true joke to quickly get that first laugh and feel as if they are on firm ground. They will usually save a new bit for later in the set, placing it behind one of their best jokes.

Not Travis. He opened with a piece on Jimmy Swaggart's tearful confession, which obviously was no more than 2 days old. Now, you expected Johnny Carson--whose writing troops help keep him current if not particularly funny--to rib Swaggart in his monologue Tuesday night. It's far more impressive for someone like Travis not only to already have Swaggart jokes, but to kick off his show with them. (Saying he wished the televangelist had gone into more detail Sunday, he became Swaggart to carry out the wish: "Lord, I don't know what to do. Next thing I knew I was in a motel room with a $20 hooker. Thank you, Jesus!")

Travis' gift for assuming various characters and voices extends beyond portraying well-known figures. Toward the end of his set, he donned a wig and dark glasses and became his own extraordinary creation--punk magician David Sleaze.

An English sleight-of-hand artist, Sleaze displays total contempt for his audience, punctuating most of his tricks (and sentences) with a common two-word phrase you will never see in a family newspaper.

Sleaze had members of the audience (or sometimes the crowd en masse) participate in many of his tricks and invariably said something wonderfully snide to his volunteers ("I'm fooling you, and you don't like it!").

Headlining a strong bill that also includes John McDowell and Mark Sweetman, Travis continues through Sunday at the Irvine Improv.

GREG TRAVIS

Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; 8 and 10:30 p.m., Saturday.

Improvisation, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine

$6-8

Information: (714) 854-5455

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