April 8, 2005

Comedy duo skewer Mr. Bush, remind us of Mr. Show

Competitive Awesome is comedy duo Aaron Gingrich and Mychal Utecht, and they currently dispense a tight, intelligent sketch show at Improv Olympic. Clocking in at about 45 minutes, the show, entitled The Story of Joseph King, consists of an introduction and 11 short scenes, blended together with the seams well hidden. Fans of Mr. Show, the late, great HBO comedy, will be familiar with the format, as Competitive Awesome attempts to fuse the political with the absurd, and they certainly don't mind if you're offended or confused by what they do. Theirs is well-intentioned comedy that falls just short of its ambitions.

According to their biographies (check out, Gingrich and Utecht are both accomplished comedians, each having graduated from the Second City conservatory. Utecht earned a B.A. in Acting from the University of Minnesota, and has worked in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Gingrich got his BFA in Acting from Emerson College in Boston, where he founded and worked with improv group "Second Hand Smoke" for several years. As Competitive Awesome, they are touring extensively with their two-man show; after the conclusion of the current six-week run at the minimalist Del Close Theatre, the comedians have dates lined up in Toronto, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles.

The beginning of the show sets an eclectic tone. Wearing white button-downs, black ties, and black slacks, the tall, burly Utecht and the diminutive Gingrich hold acoustic guitars and mime strumming them in time to music heard on the theater speakers. The music heard cannot possibly be played on just two acoustic guitars, and the performers seem to indicate that they realize this, too. Utecht and Gingrich's darting eyes and anxious gestures express the futility of their imitation.

The show is not lacking for imitations, and they are, fortunately, much more accurate after the opening salvo. The first scene presents George W. Bush discussing matters political and apolitical with Dick Cheney. As always, W is hapless and childishly malevolent, and Cheney is the one with brains. Despite the covering of this well trod comedic territory (with nothing new added for timeliness), Gingrich's impression manages to buoy the scene and save it from embarrassment.

The first few scenes fall into the same trap as the Bush scene. Although they are based in reality, they have nothing new or incisive to say about this world. After Bush, Gingrich launches into another impression, this time of former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Brokaw is visiting with the network psychologist, and trying to emerge from his journalist personality, but Brokaw retired last December, right? Who cares about him now? While I'm on this tangent, Moses getting caught in call-waiting hell while talking to God could be more topical, and Hitler as a grade school principal is kind of a weak joke. These scenes should be insightful and punchy, but they were mostly flaccid and ridiculous, which is never a good combination.

However, the show soon picks up and rides this momentum to a fine conclusion. Instead of simply illustrating a gag, the second-half scenes are more thoughtful and fleshed-out, allowing Utecht to shine. He plays a derelict and evicted Winnie the Pooh to Gingrich's landlord Christopher Robin, and then a fruit-loving phone-sex customer. The next three scenes feature great physical comedy from Gingrich and Utecht, as they are first CEO, scum-of-the-earth joggers, then stars of a corporate ethics film, and finally Generals Grant and Lee at their most petty and childish.

The Grant and Lee scene would be the show's best if not for its finale. Featuring Utecht as Pokey Rhymes, rap's next white hope, the scene builds from the banter between Gingrich's stiff studio honcho and the defiant Pokey. Utecht actually shows genuine hip-hop skill in addition to a good impression of his own—think Gomer Pyle meets Vanilla Ice. The scene brings us to a hilarious climax, and then suddenly ends, along with the show itself. Just a simple bow from Utecht and Gingrich ends a fun night of smart comedy, with only a little filler to seal the cracks.