Comedian Bobby Slayton doesn't directly ask you to examine your feelings about racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, but much of his act ends up forcing you to.
And if you know much about comedy, his show Tuesday at the Irvine Improvisation forced you to examine the way he constructed his set. The points are not unrelated. At times, his hourlong performance was wildly unfocused and, probably not coincidentally, the roughest Slayton set we've seen in some time.
"Roughest" meaning that all types of folks--Jews, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, homosexuals, men, women and others--got slammed more vigorously than usual, often with language as raw as you'll ever hear in that room.
So while everyone had a chance to be offended at least once by this Gatling gun of gags--this raspy-voiced, rapid-fire monologuist could talk circles around Chick Hearn--Slayton had two key things going for him.
Number One: many of his observations and bits were rooted in some element of truth. Two: more than occasionally, he was very funny.
This is where, perhaps unwittingly, he requires you to think hard about those attitudes: You find yourself laughing at comments that in another setting would prompt you to vehemently object, or at least excuse yourself from the discussion. When Slayton is performing, it's not unusual to laugh in spite of yourself.
Nonetheless, his act clearly isn't for everyone, and parts of it Tuesday probably weren't for anyone. Toward the end of the show, acknowledging that he had been particularly mean, he partially addressed this issue with a sort of statement-of-purpose comment that neatly summarized his style, punctuated by a representative racial barb:
"There's a place (in stand-up) somewhere between Henny Youngman and Sam Kinison; I'm a little closer to Sam. . . . Sometimes I'll get off stage and (think) 'I was such a jerk to that person.' And then I think 'That's kind of what we do.' . . . You gotta kill or be killed. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Unless you're Filipino; then it's a Filipino-eat-dog world. . . ."
Or to put it another way, he obeys the comedy credo that he always cites before he leaves the stage: "When it comes to comedy, if you can't laugh at yourself--make fun of other people."
Actually, another Slayton saving grace--that places him closer to Kinison than, say, Andrew (Dice) Clay (who, despite being red hot at the moment, is merely offensive for offensive's sake, and remarkably unfunny)--is that Slayton is capable of poking fun at himself.
He periodically allowed that he can be an insensitive clod, whether he was evaluating his act or some of his less-than-enlightened behavior toward his wife.
But throughout the evening he kept peeling off on tangents, some thematically related, some unrelated. In fact, he kept interrupting himself so much, that he practically had difficulty getting a word in edgewise. And he was far more successful at starting new stories than finishing the old ones.
There were some moments of clarity and focus, such as when he launched into his classic bit about taking his wife to New York to meet his family, a large Jewish clan who opted to go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
Early in the anecdote, he created some nice, and more thoughtful, humor from relating the way the "old Jews" in his family and the Chinese employees interacted and communicated--or didn't. Then, he hit on an amusing idea that had more to do with clever observation than race:
"How many Chinese in the world--a billion Chinese? . . . You know what that means? That means if somebody says to ya, 'Hey, Mr. Wong. You're a great guy. You're one in a million,' there's still a thousand guys exactly like you."
Shortly after this, he staged the kind of scene that he said occurs frequently because many Chinese waiters don't understand English and simply agree with everything you say.
Slayton: "It says chicken with vegetables. What type of vegetables?"
Chinese waiter (in guttural voice): "Oh, yeah. Yessir. Chicken with vegetables--yeah."
Slayton: "Are they spicy vegetables? Are they sweet and sour?"
Waiter: "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. All kind of vegetables--yeah."
Slayton: "Are there crayons in this?"
Waiter: "Oh, yeah. Crayons, yeah. Crayons, vegetables--yeah . . . "
Slayton: "Your head's on fire."
Waiter: "Oh, yeah. Head on fire. Yeah, yeah, yeah. . . ."
And so it went--an insult for every occasion. But at a time when many comedy fans are decrying the growing number of comics without any kind of edge, Slayton certainly doesn't have that problem.
Moreover, whatever problems he did have Tuesday--keeping in mind his statement that "you gotta kill or be killed"--it's important to note that Bobby Slayton did indeed kill.
Headlining a sharp bill that also includes Henry Cho and Carlos Alazraqui, Slayton continues at the Improv through Sunday.
The Improv is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday; 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $7 to 10. Information: (714) 854-5455.