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THEY'RE SINGING FOR LAUGHS : Ventriloquist Taylor Mason Joins Parodist Mark McCollum for 'A Comic Rock Opera'

July 15, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Comic ventriloquist Taylor Mason is getting back to his musical roots in a big way at the Brea Improv, teaming up with song parodist and cartoon-voice whiz Mark McCollum in a show dubbed "A Comic Rock Opera."

"It's a theatrical show," Mason explained from his home in Thousand Oaks last week. "I'd say the show is 60 to 70% music. It is song parodies done in a rock-opera style, but it's not just rock and roll--there's blues, reggae, some country and sing-alongs."

The newly minted musical comedy duo also serves up original songs such as McCollum's "Rabbit Slayer," in which Elmer Fudd is a heavy metal rock-and-roller. And, Mason said, "there's (stand-up) comedy and stuff with the puppets."

The "puppets" are Mason's dummies, Romeo and Juliet: Romeo is a young man with an "attitude" who complains that there are no good puppet jobs--except one "and Al Gore's got it." Streetwise Juliet is a gospel singer "from a rough area of Toys R Us."

But the emphasis of the show, as Mason says, is on music. (Even Romeo and Juliet do a scat song together.)

In one segment, Mason and McCollum do "The Flintstones" theme song as sung by 20 different rock and pop music stars--from the Rolling Stones to Harry Connick Jr. The piece ends with McCollum singing "Phantom of the Flintstones Rock Opera." (Instead of wearing the famed phantom mask he wears a similarly cut-away Fred Flintstone mask.)

Another song is about growing up on a farm.

"I always hated spinach," Mason said, "so Mark sings a song called 'Reggae Popeye,' the premise being we're going to make spinach exciting."

Another song is called "The World's Worst Blues Song."

It's called that, Mason said, "because I'm a very happy person, so for me to sing the blues doesn't work. It's like 'I got a house in the mountains. I got a beautiful wife. I got two kids and a dog. I love my life. I got the blues . . . ."

Mason and McCollum--both high-energy, entertainment-oriented comedians--were teamed to do the musical show by Brea Improv owner Mark Anderson; the two-week run ends Sunday.

The two comics have more in common than music: They're both $100,000 "Star Search" grand prize winners (McCollum in 1987, Mason in 1991).

Mason, 37, began dabbling with ventriloquism as a kid growing up in suburban Ottawa, Ill., about the same time he was taking piano lessons.

While majoring in both agriculture and communications at the University of Illinois--"I always tell people I can talk to the animals"--he began playing in a piano bar, where he incorporated his childhood ventriloquist puppet into the show and eventually started doing stand-up comedy.

Mason, who joined the Second City touring company, where he did everything from writing to acting to serving as musical director, continued performing while earning his master's degree in advertising at Northwestern University.

"I was basically moonlighting as a student," he recalled. "My education (cost) $23,000, and what I learned was how to make people laugh. I graduated in '83 and have been doing my act ever since."

Mason's "Star Search" win in 1991 led to appearing on a Showtime special with Ed Begley Jr. called "Comedy on Campus," and also to appearances on "An Evening at the Improv," "Comic Strip Live" and other shows.

He hadn't done much TV before that, Mason said, "and I haven't done much since." It is, he said, something of a self-imposed exile.

"My feeling is there's so much (stand-up comedy) on television that there is no sense in my going on," he said. "It's almost as if you're not doing the show for yourself but for 'Evening at the Improv' or 'Comic Strip Live': You don't stand out. It's very generic. Artistically, I just don't feel comfortable with that anymore."

Mason said his goal is for the "Comic Rock Opera" show "to really blossom the two weeks we're here at Brea. I'm hoping it kind of takes off. It's very different; it's not stand-up comedy."

For Mason the show is the perfect antidote for jaded comedy fans who have grown tired of traditional stand-up comics both on TV and in clubs.

"It's not a guy standing with a microphone and telling jokes or spewing off observations," he said. "This show is more energy, fun and laughter."

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