Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Performance Report: Humor Abuse

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I grew up in show business — as a child actor in New York City television in the late 50s — and my first performance ever was in a skit with Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason on the Red Skelton Show on CBS a few days after my 7th birthday. Lorenzo Pisoni also grew up in show business — in the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, to be precise — hanging out in company that included clowns Geoff Hoyle and Bill Irwin, and performing and touring widely in an act with his father, Larry Pisoni.

I remember enjoying my childhood career and yet at times hating being the freak, the weirdo kid with the long hair who disappeared from school to go into rehearsal. Looking back, I often wished I had grown up “normal,” whatever that means, yet at the same time I enjoyed being special. As time passed, I forgot about it. It was another me who lived a lifetime or two ago ... though I still took pleasure in occasionally dropping the names of a few stars I’d worked with (otherwise I might still be a virgin).

Just to push the comparison a bit (and to drop another name), here are photos of me with Julie Andrews and of Lorenzo with Willie the Clown. Don’t know who that is? None other than Bill Irwin.

But I didn’t come from a show business family and my involvement was on a part-time basis. Lorenzo Pisoni, on the other hand, not only lived the circus life, not only worked season-long in an act with his father, Larry Pisoni, but actually performed as a visual clone of his father in an act that also featured a life-sized puppet that was Lorenzo’s spitting image. I can’t help but think of Buster Keaton growing up in his family’s vaudeville act, The Three Keatons, likewise dressed to match:

If that ain’t a recipe for major therapy bills, I don’t know what is.

Take a look at this slide show of Pickle Famliy Circus photos to get a feel for what I’m talking about. Can you spot the puppets?

[The usual Scribd note: click on icon in upper-right corner to view document full-screen; click again on same icon to return to blog.]

Larry Lorenzo

[A big thanks to Terry Lorant for allowing me to share those excellent photos with you. They’re from The Pickle Family Circus (SF: Chronicle Books, 1986), one of your better circus books, which Terry co-authored with Jon Carroll. Check out more of Terry’s work at his web site.]

Update (1–23-10): Last week I saw that an old 30-minute documentary on the Pickle Family Circus had shown up on YouTube broken down into several segments. Today only the opening segment was there. Hmm... Here it is:

The happy result of Lorenzo’s, er, unorthodox upbringing, is Humor Abuse, his one-man autobiographical show that just completed a successful New York run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Co-written with Erica Schmidt, who also directed, it deftly chronicles the child’s perception of a strange but wonderful world via words, slides, and re-enactments of the comic bits that defined their existence. Simply put, the show is quite well crafted and well performed, tough and sweet at the same time. It reminded me of Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, Come Sleepwalk with Me, still running in New York (through June 7th). Pisoni is a clown and Birbiglia a stand-up comic, but in essence they are both excellent storytellers whose humor serves their content. Lorenzo’s content reminded me all too well what it was like to grow up too fast, to always be in the public eye, to love and resent what you’re doing.

Although Lorenzo early on offers the disclaimer that he’s not funny, the clown pieces he does perform are top-notch and interwoven nicely with the narrative. I had never seen Larry’s sandbag routine, which he featured in his one-man theatre show, and it is quite spectacular. Wherever the clown stands, a sandbag — which gives every impression of being heavily (perhaps lethally) weighted — releases from the rafters, misses his head by what seems to be inches, and lands on the stage with a large thud. Try as he might to find a safety zone, he can’t, though of course he always escapes actual impact. The act manages to be thrilling, scary, and hysterically funny, all at the same time.

The show did, however, leave me with one reservation I can’t quite shake. Lorenzo is often critical of his father’s dictatorial ways, and depicts him as at times a lonely, perhaps even bitter man. I don’t know Larry personally, but that’s not the point. I’m just left uneasy by attacks, even mild ones, on someone who can’t be there to defend himself. Maybe I’m just worried that my son the stand-up comic will start doing a show about me! (No, we didn't perform together.) It’s like that uncomfortable feeling you get when a friend starts trashing their ex to you; you want to be supportive, but you know there are two sides to the story. That being said, the show does come across as an honest, non-vindictive attempt to deal with the past, and I think it succeeds admirably. If it ever tours to a theatre near you, be sure to see it.


OK, that's just my take on it. You can read pretty much all the reviews on it at the Critic-O-Meter blog.