Ellen DeGeneres had a pretty hot year in 1987. The comedienne was fortunate enough to make it into the career-confirming aura of "The Tonight Show" and was one of the stars in HBO's "On Location: Women of the Night," a special on top female comics.
Such coups can fine-tune confidence, which was apparent from DeGeneres' gig Wednesday night at the Irvine Improvisation, where she continues tonight through Sunday. The pudgy, blond comic brought a self-assurance to the stage that gave an easy flow to her mostly wry, sometimes bizarre observations that are melded with a rather detached delivery--for the most part.
The set had its uneven passages, but all in all, DeGeneres showed what some polish can do.
DeGeneres occasionally hits on the big laugh but prefers playfully milking themes until they begin to resonate with a shared point of view. She's best at taking ironic looks at her experiences (particularly ones that get her a little cranky) and then drawing the audience into her way of thinking.
For instance, DeGeneres isn't thrilled with hunters and hunting. There's something about a grown man skulking through the woods and killing things, then mounting their heads, that sets her off. Obviously an animal lover--many of her jokes center on pets from "small, ratlike" Chihuahuas in sweaters to bored aquarium fish--DeGeneres just doesn't find any sense in hunting animals.
Now, shooting a burglar who has violated your home and mounting his head, that makes sense to her. When faced with the hunter's explanation that trophies are beautiful, she considers mounting her mother. A friend observes how nice Mom looks that way, and DeGeneres says, "Yeah, she had beautiful legs, too. They're in the next room."
DeGeneres doesn't break any new ground with her material on airplane flight--a staple for many comics--but she does manage to massage the usual elements in amusing ways.
DeGeneres is amazed by how we covet "those six little peanuts" that are tossed at us during snack time. In a theatrical moment, she fondles them, picks at them, devours them with the fever of a condemned murderer having a last meal. And those poor flight attendants. She meanly asks a particularly done-up one, "How small is your head really without all that makeup?"
DeGeneres is most fun when she accelerates into goofiness--when her structured, often over-rehearsed delivery is humbled by simple silliness. Ever thought about pasting tiny toupees on tiny lizards? DeGeneres has. She thinks it would be a fine way to confuse their families and, ah, just make 'em look better.
But a telephone dialogue with God is painfully derivative of the stale situational comedy that might have come out in the late '50s or early '60s (God tells her some bad "knock, knock" jokes and she politely goes along). And a long, punny story that starts out on "gum disease" and ends up near a lake in Guam is paralyzingly labored.
She also bogged down when the show veered into more vulgar areas. A bit on bad smells left in an airplane toilet wasn't, well, very fresh. Other gags just go on too long without sustaining the humor or providing a satisfying resolution.
Opening for DeGeneres was Tim Bedore, a promising comic who cleverly commented on a range of topics from the harmonic convergence to freeway terror, particularly last year's rash of shootings. He's most effective, however, with political/topical satire: a host of news makers from Ronald Reagan to Dan Rather to Oral Roberts all took some on-target blasts.
Ellen DeGeneres appears tonight at 8:30 and 10:30; Saturday at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.; and Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Improvisation in Irvine at 4255 Campus Drive. Tickets: $5 to $8. (714) 854-5455.