rick reynolds

Ph.D. in Stand-Up Philosophy

by Gerald Nachman

In his show, which just took a new risky step—from a long run at The Improv to Theatre on the Square en route to the big time at off-Broadway's West Side Arts Theater — Rick Reynolds continues to walk many thin lines: between stand-up comedy and story telling, between cabaret and theater, between farce and drama.

Reynolds, who is being midwifed to stardom by the high-profile management firm Rollins & Joffe (handlers of Woody Allen and David Letterman), makes the jump from 180-seat comedy club to 700-seat house with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of laughs.

Reynolds adroitly blurs the lines in his 90-minute show and makes it matter little what he is or does, or where he does it, the way fine singers mix pop, jazz, blues and standards and turn them into something totally their own, whether they're at the Village Vanguard or Carnegie Hall.

Let's Call It Life

Likewise, Reynolds weaves humor and pathos, cleverness and corniness into a big warm ball of something akin to, if not quite, theater but something larger than stand-up comedy—a kind of stand-up philosophy. Let's call it life and move on.

In a way, Reynolds is less a breakthrough than a throwback to philosopher comics such as Sam Levenson, Herb Shriner and Shelley Berman, and his darker side even suggests a well-adjusted Lenny Bruce, minus the bitterness and paranoia, who discoursed on personal traumas as Reynolds does.

He discusses boyhood traumas of life with three fathers (one died unexpectedly, one was abusive, one was a great guy with a penchant for bank robbing), a manic-depressive but funny mother whom he speaks of fondly and proudly, and a clan of boring relatives, all of whom he puts into a comic, artfully authentic family album.

At the start, after a peculiar, vague little prologue, Reynolds pledges that everything the audience is about to hear is real (the old Dragnet vow) but I wonder if his stepfather really did send him a ski mask from prison each Christmas, and I still wince at the show’s needless, self-congratulatory title, Only the Truth Is Funny. Maybe a better title would be ''It Only Hurts When I Laugh.''

The theatricalism in Reynolds’ show doesn't come from its quasi-set—an old '50’s rec room chair, floor lamp, coat rack and wholesome pitcher of lemonade—or the ‘50s pop tunes that welcome us into his world (''Dream,'' ''Don't Fence Me In''), but from the way he heightens and shades the anecdotes to make them more than mere one-liners.

Many Emotions

He ties jokes together—and slips in almost as asides—into a taut little emotional experience that touches on love, death, birth (his son was conveniently born during his last run providing him with a tidy new closing segment), humiliation, jealousy, vanity, tragedy, religion. It's like one of those all-night college bull sessions he says he misses now.

Despite his big ideas, Reynolds is really a born-again traditional comic but a searching one (he was a failed hippie, a dweeb in long hair who liked the Monkees, and a horny philosophy student). He's a comedian with a comic's rhythm and style who deals with many of the things other comics do but gives them a deeper, more significant spin due to their complex context.

For example, he discusses a first date like every other comic but he makes it matter because of his tender tone, shaping the bit with his feelings, fraught with desire, desperate love, funny first-date fears and vital details (''She smelled of vanilla''). Since we know he later marries her, there's an extra layer of meaning, a dramatic texture.

He begins with bare facts listing his age (39), place of birth (Portland), height (6-foot-2) and weight (195 pounds), then moves outward from there in subtly expanding wavelets that take in his wife (''I love her, even though the bitch won't take my name''), his psyche (an ''intensely anal'' list-maker who draws up an annual roster of his 20 best friends in descending order of affection and the 23 women he had sex with), and his loves (cuddling with his wife, fudge) and hates (pro-abortionists, zealots).

Reynolds fills the proscenium more with his intense presence than with his nondescript looks (in gray suit and tie, he looks like a stressed-out math teacher) and, to be sure, fills it with an invisible cast of characters.

Nothing Extra

He doesn't play his audience or manipulate it, he bends its ear, like a wry John Bradshaw discussing dysfunctional families on PBS. Yet for all his urgency and poetic finale, he isn't preachy—it's a lean, compact show with no downtime.

He stalks the stage with a loping walk, pacing and prowling as if searching for answers, imploring us with his gaunt, bony, decidedly unfunny face and deep-set, haunted eyes, rarely breaking into a smile. He's like a gentile Richard Lewis, a goy beset with Jewish angst, looking for the meaning of life in a box of Mystic Mints—and finding it!

He uses his hands, face, voices and body language, enacting scenes as much as telling them. He sits in the chair to summon up lazy summer boyhood days, Christmas mornings and juvenile crushes, then abruptly shifts the mood to recall the darker side — strange men sleeping over, a knife-wielding parent and a drowning incident. The grim, funny, quiet and manic moments overlap and enhance one another. He calls it a ''tapestry of my life''; it's more like a tattered throw rug.

What Family Means

He loves the concept of family, but his own reality of it is decidedly confused, so when his wife becomes pregnant, we understand his frenzy. He calls babies ''little pieces of evil who would choke you for a cookie if they could'' and defines kids as ''stupid little people who don't pay rent,'' giving the birth of his son a sweet, if unresolved, seriocomic twinge.

Reynolds is a ''cerebral comedian'' who ventures beyond smart material into a brave new world of feeling. He may be too personal, sincere or gut-spilling for some, too standard stand-up for others, but whatever he discusses — whether it's his own death, divorce (he imagines a divorce ceremony), a faint embarrassment about being a comedian (''It sounds so trivial and ... dirty''), the Bible, communion, God (he wonders whatever happened to Jesus the teenager and imagines a hilarious New Testament father-son picnic) or litter bugs—he turns into little epiphanies that make us feel united, engaged and alive, the point of all theater.

He's not Chekhov, but he's got a few of the same questions—and much funnier answers.

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