You know the one about the 55-year-old son whose parents are flatulent and loud and annoying in public, and who no one enjoys except their kind son, who would visit them more frequently except he’s too busy lamenting his own descent into eternity, and so he unloads on you about how he can’t stand his life with them, but deep down inside, he really loves his parents because although lacking social graces, at least they love each other and at least they’re funny, despite their radically, astronomically different ethnic backgrounds?
Steve Solomon knows that joke, and he knows you know it, too. He’s counting on you forgetting how funny it was the first time you heard it. In 1955.
Solomon’s third incarnation in his globe-trotting franchise, “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, I’m Home for the Holidays,” is now at the Shea’s Smith Theatre. It is Solomon’s triumphant return here, having performed “… I’m In Therapy” to enthusiastic response two years ago. (An upcoming debut in South Africa was announced from the stage.)
Solomon is a shtick guy. His is a Borscht-Belt bit, and like many great Jewish/Italian/Overtly Ethnic comedians before him, his sole job is to riff on the universal language of embarrassment. Poking fun at yourself assures you that it won’t hurt when someone else pokes.
It is as patently guilt-laden as his audiences are familiar with, which explains his routine on perhaps a molecular level. Clichés are poignant because they’re true; and if they can be laughed at, they must be OK.
But is it actually funny?
That depends on a few things. Do you find fart jokes funny after the seventh time in as many minutes? Are you amused at the misfortunes of others, particularly if they’re hard of hearing, or, in the eyes of this “old-fashioned” set, Judeo-Christian-challenged? Is it funny to laugh at other minorities just because you’re a minority?
Some of those questions are rhetorical. You can decide which.
In terms of performance, Solomon is most akin to Jerry Seinfeld, a “performer” and not an actor. He’s best when stammering through his family tree, nodding in dismay and shrieking in terror at Uncle Bernie’s lewd remarks, or Aunt Carla’s chin stubble. Like Seinfeld, Solomon’s is not a convincing display as much as it is an affirming one. We’d shriek, too.
Most of the time, Solomon feels like the trustworthy guy who sold you your snow tires. Or the fella who held the door open for your grandmother at the restaurant the other night. He’s a bona fide mensch, a good fit on him.
The material is the real dead weight here. Jokes rust before your very ears, enticing the thought of retirement. Punch lines practically announce themselves before their setups, and though they spark billow upon billow of laughter, it’s reasonable to assume it has nothing to do with wit. Personal discomfort – or, perhaps, relief from it – is reason enough to laugh. But that still doesn’t justify an onslaught of uninspired gags.
“Everybody Loves Raymond” worked with these parameters far more effectively, planting the universal truths of everyone’s weird, wacky families in the shoes of real characters. If Marie and Frank Barone made your skin crawl, it was not just because you had a couple of in-laws in your family portrait. It was because they were people worth caring about and, if so, be embarrassed by.
But Solomon goes for something else here, something that’s ultimately lazy and condescending. It’s no mystery why laughs aren’t a problem. We love to laugh at ourselves. But which selves are we laughing at: the prideful people we are, or the caricatures we insist on perpetuating?
Sometimes a fart joke just isn’t funny enough.