COMEDY REVIEW : Not-So-Alternative 'Character' Still Makes for a Fun Night


Time for a moratorium on the word alternative as it describes forms of entertainment. Just as alternative rock albums routinely top the charts, the burgeoning "alternative" comedy movement is simply comedy with a cool tag when much of this material would be perfectly at home in the mainstream. Focusing unnecessarily on attitude more than substance is a shame, because its exclusionary label could sway people from seeing some genuinely funny stuff.

The press release for "Character Assassination," presented Saturdays at Highways in Santa Monica, promises "electrifying comic moments from fearless comedians set free from the confines of industry showcases and brick-wall stand-up marathons."

Well, no. I failed to take note of any "electrifying comic moments" or fearlessness, though the material tended to be a little smarter than what you'd hear in an average evening at a comedy club. But the material was consistently amusing--even the weaker performers earned some healthy laughs.

Participants delivered monologues in the guise of mostly dysfunctional or clueless characters. The funniest bits came from Brett Paesel, who offered brief scenes from a one-woman musical about Vietnam that was only slightly more bathetic than "Miss Saigon," and Taylor Negron, whose arrogantly vapid and paranoid Eurotrash neighbor was the evening's most fully realized characterization.

Close behind were Jackie Beat playing a corpulent, self-absorbed male model and Margaret Cho's Irish rocker fleeing her homeland for New York City. Others--Jill Soloway as a sex-oriented performance artist whose "work" had devolved into mere suburban drudgery, Terry Sweeney as a profane old woman reading from diaries that leave Bob Packwood's in the dust and Rene Hicks as a union representative tremulously speaking on behalf of her fellow slaves--were inspired ideas that didn't quite hold the weight of an entire monologue.

Only Beat and Sweeney actually risked improvisation by taking questions from the audience (Sweeney was so good, you half-expected the queries to be plants). And it might have been nice if the program had exploited the unique variety of comic sensibilities it had gathered by getting the comics to do some work together. But the show promises to evolve, with an assortment of performers each week. (Nora Dunn, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, Bobcat Goldthwait, Beth Lapides, Judy Toll and Scott Thompson are a few of the other names promised in coming weeks.)

So you may not qualify as cutting-edge hip if you check out the show. But you should be grandly entertained. And which is more important?

* "Character Assassination" will be presented Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. through Nov. 18 (except Oct. 21) at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets $6. (213) 660-8587.

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