EVERYTHING GERALD FORD touches seems to turn into the bland and mediocre. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all inspired savage and often brilliant satire, but Ford-based humor seems hardly able to rise above the level of Hellen-Keller-of-the-mind jokes. Perhaps it's too early to tell, but The Laughingstock, anyway, seems pretty much on this level--a collection of more or less political jokes instead of a satirical revue.
Some of The Laughingstock's targets, like Kissinger's foreign policy and forced busing, for example, are serious enough to demand a high level of wit and political awareness in their treatment, instead of one-joke situations that never delve beneath the surface lies, not to mention the deeper ones. Some of the other things The Laughingstock makes fun of--French chanteuses, mystical gurus, and throwing up, for example--are on a completely different level but get the same treatment. The Laughingstock never makes more than one satirical point per situation, and that one isn't always so hot. Kissinger reveals that the "secret" of his success is convincing foreign governments that, as a German, he hates the U.S. as much as they do.
Even a more promising comic situation than this--Ford's advisors instructing him in the basics of economic theory--is reduced to a single, simple joke. Three people play different sectors of the economy and hand over play-money to each other. Predictably, the business sector gets it all and the whole thing winds up being slightly less funny than an Ec 10 lecture. Some skits are more successful, but don't seem particularly original--the one about the guru who celebrates "the banal and the obvious" sounds a lot like the National Lampoon's Craig Baker series, for example, and "Euclid's Elemental" is second-rate Tom Lehrer.
THE LAUGHINGSTOCK performs in the basement of a restaurant in the Square and does manage to create a cabaret-like atmosphere of informality. The cost of all this sophistication, though, is high: aside from a $3 or $4 cover, depending on the day of the week, you'll be required to buy a drink (the beer, for example, costs $1--only Schlitz is available). Somehow, whether it's the atmosphere or not, the songs come off better than the a cappella routines. The music is fun and even if the lyrics have even less political depth than the skits, well, it's some compensation.
The cast, too, was spirited. Jon Spayde was particularly good; Debby Freedman and Ken Schiff only slightly less capable and energetic. They did their best, and The Laughingstock is certainly a well-meaning, ingratiating show. It's just that it has no cutting edge, no point of view to make it satire instead of a collection of better-and-worse gags. There is nothing in it that could possibly offend the comfortable businessman in from Brookline for a wild evening in the Square. Perhaps the funniest bit is about a youngman who takes his incredibly uncouth date to a fancy French restaurant. Even honest gross-out humor like this (it ends with her throwing up) seems funnier than "mild" political satire. During the Ford routines, for example, we're laughing at a stupid man, any stupid man, and the fact that he's President of the United States--and that that's the funniest thing of all--is hardly touched upon or used to give an added dimension to the jokes. The Laughingstock has brought a promising, talented group to the Square, but they'll have to take a few more risks if they ever hope to be more than just warmed-over Smothers Brothers.