It’s probably not easy to bastardize stand-up comedy and rock ‘n’ roll in the same performance, but Mark McCollum pulled it off rather effortlessly Tuesday at the Improvisation in Irvine.
The 1987 $100,000 “Star Search” comedy champion, McCollum builds his act around rock parodies, sprinkling the set with impressions of cartoon characters and of three-dimensional figures from Yoda to Jacques Cousteau, a bit of stand-up material and some shameless hucksterism. (We’ll get to that later.)
On paper, that might sound like McCollum stitches together an unusual, colorful audio-visual tapestry. And he does. But he does sew in a fairly indulgent manner that panders to the audience and lacks the wit, insight and sophistication we have a right to expect from someone operating at the upper level of stand-up.
Given how animated and musical his presentation is, there’s no doubt that McCollum would be hard for another comedian to follow. But there’s considerable doubt over whether his act is inherently headliner quality.
Early in Tuesday’s performance, after strumming his guitar while hopping around the stage like a man who might be missing a marble, he confided: “Hey, I get paid for this.” There are actually a handful of pieces for which he should be well paid. Anyone who ever enjoyed (or still enjoys) classic cartoons would’ve been tickled to hear McCollum’s dead-on impressions of Daffy Duck, Snagglepuss, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Popeye and Olive Oyl and Foghorn Leghorn, as well as some more obscure characters.
And his pop parodies took on a more inspired edge when he combined them with the cartoon impressions: Porky Pig singing George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” Elmer Fudd performing U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).”
But without that kind of twist, a few rock satires go a long way--as anyone who has experienced homicidal urges upon hearing the latest reworking by “Weird” Al Yankovic can attest. And at least Yankovic stays current. With precious few exceptions, McCollum spoofed music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, given his stuff a moldy, dated feel.
His attempts at doing straight monologue material were somewhere between weak and pathetic. Some were both. At one point, he asked: “Does anyone know where I can get the Cliffs Notes to life?” When the line got no response, he made the universal gesture for a joke going over the audience’s head. What immediately came to mind was comedian Ritch Shydner’s bit where he ridicules that gesture, saying “Oh, we got it--it just wasn’t funny.”
Even less funny was the way McCollum framed his act with a sideshow pitch for puppet-like alligators he uses on stage, then sells after the show. This broadens a tiny but disturbing activity in stand-up, also practiced by Vic Dunlop, who peddles weird plastic eyeballs after he closes his shows with a segment extolling all the practical, oh-so-funny uses for them. The word around comedy circles is that Dunlop earns another $20,000 to 30,000 annually pushing these things.
That’s a tidy sum of money to make on the side--but at what cost? Yanking down the level of class and sophistication otherwise present at most comedy shows? Transforming a teller of jokes into a seller of snake oil? The people upset over the increasingly blurred line between entertainment and advertising in children’s TV programming ain’t seen nothing until they’ve witnessed Dunlop--and now McCollum--in action.
McCollum opened his show singing a ZZ Top number, “accompanied” by these alligators. Little did the audience know this was planting the first part of the pitch. He followed up later by ticking off the rock charity events (Live Aid, Farm Aid, etc.) held in recent years--and proposing that the next one be “Gator-Aid,” punctuating the suggestion with another appearance by his little gator friends.
Finally, he closed the set with an out-and-out sales presentation, citing all the swell things about having your very own hand alligator. Pretty unseemly stuff. If he insists on selling the gators, he really shouldn’t hawk them from the stage. His act is lowbrow enough without inadvertently doing an impression of some pitchman from the Home Shopping Network.
Headlining a bill that also includes Peter Gaulke and Joel Maddison, McCollum continues at the Irvine Improv through Sunday.
The Improvisation Comedy Club and Restaurant is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8 and 10:15 p.m. Thursday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission $8-45. Information: (714) 854-5455.