Bruce Baum's appearance this week at the Irvine Improvisation calls local attention to the Great Prop Debate that rages in stand-up comedy. (OK, maybe it doesn't exactly rage , but it does exist.)
One side, certainly the majority, looks down its collective nose at prop comedy, dismissing it as an easy, bastardized form of stand-up. The attitude is that performing with props is akin to the way Rosie Ruiz runs marathons: You arrive at the punch/finish line, but it's kind of like taking a bus to get there.
The other side counters that it's a perfectly valid form, that if it entertains people and makes them laugh, nothing else should matter.
A lot of it, of course, comes down to individuals: How bright and creative is \o7 this\f7 comic's use of props? There is a cream of the prop crop: Gallagher, Rich Hall, Steve Martin (in his stand-up days), Gary Mule Deer and precious few others. Baum clearly used to belong to that group. But his show Wednesday at the Improv raised serious questions about whether he still does.
For one thing, he performed for exactly 40 minutes, about the bare minimum for a headliner. And there were a few occasions when you could almost hear the bottom of the barrel being scraped.
You couldn't help but feel that he was coasting: Many of Wednesday's bits have been in his act for several years, and some of the musical references and parodies were quite dated.
Letting your act get stale is dangerous in any form of stand-up (any form of entertainment at all, for that matter), but if you are specializing in prop routines and/or song parodies--which have an extremely short shelf life--it's deadly. This problem was evident even during Baum's straight monologue material, and it was telegraphed as early as his opening piece.
Addressing his irritation with advertising, he pointed to that commercial where Mark Harmon is standing in the middle of a Rocky Mountain stream: "He's standing in the stream, going 'Hey, only Coors uses the finest of Rocky Mountain spring water.' (I'm thinking) 'Get your feet out of my beer.' "
Even if that were a lot funnier, there would still be a nagging question: How many years has it been since that spot was put on the air--or, more importantly, taken off?
Similarly, he later held up a cassette player that blared the Cars' "Shake It Up." Then, over the instrumental break, he proceeded to sing "Monster Mash," making the implicit point that the tunes are the same. It was a neat observation, though it might have seemed more inspired if the newer song wasn't 8 years old.
Perhaps all this would have been less disappointing if Baum hadn't once seemed to be one of comedy's more innovative performers, or if there weren't hints Wednesday that he \o7 still\f7 could be quite inventive, verbally and visually.
When working as a straight monologuist, many of his better bits involve a clever switch, usually a last-second maneuver away from the punch line that you think he's heading for: "When I was younger, I got this girl in trouble--I framed her for murder," or "Anybody here into hunting at all? I've been getting into nonviolent hunting: I only go after lemmings, cause all you need is a cliff and a bucket."
As for sharper prop stuff, he used a globe to punctuate this confession: "I couldn't kill a fly. I couldn't even hurt a fly, though I don't mind (messing) with their heads. Matter of fact, what I like to do is, I like to catch a bunch of flies, hold 'em above a globe of the world and watch 'em all go '\o7 Ahhhh! I'm way too high\f7 !' "
But this kind of inspired whimsy was offset by some weak visual business. Explaining, for instance, that "the doctor told me when the lights are this bright, I should be wearing my prescription glasses," he held up eyeglasses with prescription bottles for lenses.
Even things that seemed to bode well got away from him. He revealed that he was considering going into ventriloquism, but without a dummy, using an eyelid--which he called "Wilbur"--instead.
Both the premise and the execution were wonderfully ludicrous. Then he turned ventriloquism further on its side when he announced that he would sing a song while Wilbur drank a bottle of contact lens solution, inviting song requests from the audience. But one guy's shouted request--"I Can See Clearly Now"--was probably the single funniest moment of the evening.
It was that kind of night: It not only bolstered the position of the anti-prop comic faction, but--for the moment, at least--eliminated Baum from that group of funny folks performing prop comedy exceptionally well. Say it aint' so, Bruce.
Headlining a bill that also includes Frank King and Stan Sellers, Baum continues at the Irvine Improv through Sunday.
\o7 The Improv is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Showtimes: 8 and 10 tonight and 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $8 to $10. Information: (714) 854-5455. \f7