Review: Dan Bain: Variations on the Same Joke – acerbic comedy about jokes (about jokes)

Erin Harrington reviews Dan Bain: Variations on the Same Joke, at Little Andromeda, 29 July 2021.

Earlier this week, for very serious professional reasons, I was reading responses to the way that the final scenes of the finale of Seinfeld in 1998 (a very topical reference) gestured to existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”. Sartre’s play centres on a trio of people who are stuck together in a room for what they realise will be eternity. This is their afterlife, and their punishment the notion that ‘hell is other people’. This doesn’t mean that people suck, but is a dynamic that’s entirely central to the relationship between performer and audience: our rich inner lives will never be understood by anyone apart from ourselves, we’re never able to escape the trap of the watchful gaze and judgments of others, and these facile judgments shape the way we see ourselves.

There’s more than a whiff of the purgatorial about Dan Bain’s new one man show Variations on the Same Joke – and this is a compliment. It’s a piquant, rhythmic deconstruction of stand up comedy sets and Bain’s own comedic persona, as well as the complex ways that the relationship between comic and audience is built up. Here, the trick is that the performer has perhaps far more control of the audience’s perceptions and judgments than we might initially think – and the punchline might not kick you in the ass until you’re halfway out the door.

The show is mostly made up of three standalone comedy sets of about 15 minutes each. Each set, while different in its focus, has the same DNA: there’s an inspirational quote of dubious provenance about repetition projected a screen, then Bain enters assertively to Propellerheads’ Shirley Bassey banger “History Repeating”. He undertakes some mannered stage movements, and comments on his appearance and his need to build rapport. It’s all familiar; we’re being softened up. We’re also reassured that if it all goes belly up, there’s no need to worry as he’ll do some sideshow tricks, and there’s Chekhov’s suitcase full of carnie props on stage just in case. Then there’s extended narrative jokes proper: a story from childhood (if it’s got animals, all the better), some serious topical comedy with self-referential comments about edginess, and so on. In each sequence, he appears in a slightly different iteration of himself (different clothes, different nights, different gigs, different echoes throughout the comedic multiverse).

The comedy is assertive, flicking between the acerbic and the self-deprecating, as Bain leverages nearly two decades’ worth of experience in theatre, street performance, and improvisation into a forceful stage persona. There’s riffs about gender being cancelled, pre-pubescent encounters with the dangerous and erotic contents of an illegal dump, retellings of biblical scenes with an anticapitalist riot daddy spin, ducks’ inability to self-regulate, and kids’ inability to tidy their shit up. There’s word play and characterisation. A bad taste joke at the outset doesn’t quite hit its mark, but worse taste jokes later on definitely do. The repetition of sets and themes also defamiliarises this structure, the jokes’ beats, and Bain’s own comic persona, such that after a while we begin to hover at the edge of parody; are these real jokes, jokes about jokes, jokes about jokes about jokes? (Turtle jokes all the way down).

The success of the majority of the gags themselves aside, the overall effect is that we have to think about whether we’re laughing at the sets’ contents or the familiarity of their beats, and the extent to which our acceptance of the role of receptive, supportive audience members is entirely in our control. Do we choose to laugh, or are we made to? This aspect of the show will likely make some audience members uncomfortable. Running jokes about the cold, clammy, invisible hand of the market in one set point slyly to the way that we, ourselves, are (perhaps) compelled by higher forces to react to certain types of cadences, or to offer Pavlovian responses to things that happen in threes. Beyond the obvious structure of the sets, these patterns ripple outwards, such that we start to make connections ourselves: a bit about Gregor Mendel in one set becomes a joke about the Mandela effect in another, and so on, and that’s funny too. It’s very cleverly done and well crafted.

At one point Bain states overtly that he’s interested in the power of patterns in jokes and storytelling; they are effective tools that hit some kind of comedic and narrative patch on our happy little lizard brains, but they can also be both crutch and scaffold. In this light, I’m particularly taken with two throwaway and unrelated comments: one about anxiety, and another about how comedy has the ‘illusion of participation’, both of which toy with ideas about power(lessness) and control. What’s comedy but neuroses laid bare and stripped for parts over and over and over again, while anxiously trying to create an immediate parasocial relationship with a brand new set of people, through the use of exacting technical choices, that feels natural while being wholly constructed? And what tricks do performers construct as shorthand to get them there, in a manner that audiences find both obvious (schtick) and subtle (slick)?

For the most part this first outing of this new show pokes around in these gaps to good effect, although it won’t be to everyone’s taste (though to be fair, what comedy is?). The room at the beginning is a bit cold, and I think thrown quite a bit by the very obviously paint-by-numbers style of stand up, even though it’s also something that we also know and likely crave; after all, we’re here for the funnies, and the content’s in the title. There’s also a shift in the room as we become more in on the joke (about jokes), and perhaps more self-aware in our understanding of the show’s structure, its immediate content, and our roles. I’m not sure yet if the back end of the show has found its ideal shape, but overall there’s a terrific cumulative effect that is manipulated to great effect in the shows’ very last beat. Joke, laugh; rinse, repeat.

Dan Bain: Versions of the Same Joke runs at Little Andromeda from Thursday 29- Sunday 31 July, 2021.

ETA: this post was edited to fix the typo that said Seinfeld finished in 1988, when it should clearly have said 1998, but really what’s 10 years when faced with existential comedy and the heat death of the universe.

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