‘Tis the season to be jolly

Rating: NNNNN

Feel the Payne

Currently based in L.A., Nikki Payne arrived back in town for a week of sets at Yuk Yuk’s Downtown . She’s as original as ever.

“I don’t exactly do intellectual comedy,” she rightly warned the crowd at Sunday night’s (December 4) show (rating: NNNNN ). With unbelievable energy, she guided us through her unique world, which includes frustrating childhood speech therapy classes, growing up in a trailer park in Nova Scotia and gastrointestinal problems.

She’s got a great eye and ear for bizarre news items, and came to the show equipped with a new bit about the Sex Insomniac.

She also sparked off a couple of audience members, one a teacher who works with special ed teens, another a guy who gave her the expression “faguar,” the gay male equivalent of a cougar.

What Payne does that nobody else around matches is deliver the crudest material – hey, she humped a Christmas tree onstage – and yet retain a childlike innocence. Maybe it’s her smile. Or maybe it’s her heart. We know she’s been through shit, and her act becomes a raunchy celebration of surviving it.

What the Dickens

Bad Dog Theatre has hit upon a terrific formula. Take a familiar story, add improv elements, and – voila – you’ve got a new spin on an old tale.

Of course, it helps when you’ve got some of the swiftest comic actors in town running with the audience’s suggestions. Past successes have included Hairy Patter And The Improviser’s Stone and Stars Warz. Look for Lord Of The Things in early 2006.

But for now we’ve got A Twisted Christmas Carol (rating: NNNN through December 17 ), the company’s solid take on the Dickens classic. Narrated by the author himself (played by Ralph MacLeod ), oddly without his signature beard, the show lets us contribute key elements, such as where Scrooge and Bob Cratchit work, what’s wrong with Tiny Tim and what dead celebrity plays the Ghost of Christmas Past.

At last Saturday’s (December 3) show, these were, in order: a nail polish factory, doesn’t brush his teeth and Liberace.

The rotating cast, playing many roles, is up for these and other challenges. Gord Oxley and Aurora Browne made the Cratchits a particularly fun clan, especially when they were dealing with Tiny Tim’s ( Jason Gemmill ) tooth decay or preparing their Christmas haggis (another improv suggestion).

Lisa Merchant ‘s Ghost of Christmas Panic (another suggestion) delivered a lesson in confident comic delivery, as did Kerry Griffin ‘s pickle-making Mr. Fezziwig.

Dave Healey ‘s Scrooge sure looked the part, and he delivered two of the night’s best lines, one in response to Liberace’s (Oxley again) sexually suggestive language, another a well-timed zinger about Wal-Mart employees trying to unionize.

The only questionable scene (written into the show) concerns Scrooge’s nephew and his fiancee, called Anderson and Pam (get it? Me neither), played here as a flaming fop anticipating a marriage of convenience. The mildly homophobic set-up is beneath the company, and doesn’t deliver any fresh laughs.

Gruff Goldman

One comic who riffs on the idea of gay marriage – in a positive way – is New York’s Julie Goldman , whose Swinging Wild show (rating: NNN ) continues at Buddies in Bad Times until December 10.

Goldman, like a lesbian Sandra Shamas, amusingly recounts the story of her recent same-sex marriage, from her disastrous encounters with annoying salespeople trying to femme up her look to her Jewish mom’s excited reaction to the wedding.

Goldman has a terrific, energetic stage presence, with good audience rapport. Her best material, often delivered in a breathy high-pitched voice, satirizes shopping at Whole Foods or trying to fit in as an office temp among the anorexic straight women in their high heels and short skirts.

Unfortunately, like many left-leaning comics, her political material often devolves into schoolyard bullying. Comparing George W. Bush to a cock and a vagina isn’t just puerile it suggests our genitals are something to be ashamed of.

Goldman is on surer ground sending up The L Word or – in her solid finale – deconstructing your typical lesbian folk rock singer. Her final number, replacing the word “marriage” with “commitment ceremony,” is wickedly smart satire.

Maggie’s misfire

I wish I could say the same about Maggie Cassella ‘s Because I Said So 2005: The Year In Revile (rating: NN ), running in rep with Goldman’s show till December 10.

Cassella’s rant about the year 2005 is pitched at so high and hysterical a level, it’s almost as if she’s ingested Joan Rivers. If we shout it, it will be funny.

Well, not quite. Some bits work, such as her statement that Brooke Shields, after Tom Cruise’s meltdown, really shouldn’t be writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times, or her impression of Barbara Bush at the Astrodome after the floods. Who else in the city would point out the insanity of anti-gay propagandist Fred Phelps?

But for every clever insight, there’s some half-arsed bit, whether it’s ooing over Johnny Depp at the film festival, describing Stephen Harper as having “a girl’s ass” or making fun of Condoleezza Rice’s front teeth.

Fine for catty observations among friends, but not sharp enough for a professional comedy stage.

Roman springs

I’d seen Roman Danylo in a few episodes of the much-improved (but still not terrific) CTV series Comedy Inc, but wasn’t prepared for his first-class stand-up set.

At Friday’s (December 2) late-night set at the Laugh Resort (rating: NNNN ), he showed that he can do just about anything: clever observational humour, good impressions (Dr. Phil), strong physical comedy and even improv.

Above all, Danylo is a superb writer. He’s perfected the art of the comic comparison. In an early bit, he says having the pilot tell passengers they’re experiencing turbulence is like skidding in your car and making a cellphone call. Later, he has a great analogy for men not washing their hands in public restrooms.

These jokes would be good on paper, but Danylo delivers them with unassuming confidence and makes them visual with the skill of a caricaturist. One of his strongest jokes is about getting back at animals. Having been shat on by a pigeon, he squats until a bird flies beneath his legs so he can do the same. Not content to stop there, he decides to hump dogs’ legs and ignore cats.

Silly and surreal, but delivered with so much spontaneity it won over the tough, sparse crowd. It didn’t hurt that host Debra DiGiovanni warmed up the audience with her casual, rapid-fire jokes, or that Ron Sparks (among others) impressed with his darkly comic observations.

Inventive improv

Also caught last Saturday’s Bad Dog Sessions set (December 3, rating: NNN ). It’s a long-form show in which members of the troupe’s resident company, directed by Slap Happy’s Dave Pearce and Tabetha Wells , get to experiment. It’s a fascinating way to learn about improv, and the price is right: pay what you can.

This kind of comedy is akin to a high-wire act, where performers keep piling up on that wire hoping (1) that no one falls off and (2) that someone gets to the end.

Saturday’s show rambled a bit, and some initial scenes lacked focus. A couple of the performers seemed hesitant in some of their decisions, and at times mumbled unconfidently.

That can be hell for an audience, and even tougher on their fellow performers, who find it hard to continue a scene.

What held most of the show together was Jan Caruana ‘s dramatic instincts, adding a bit of physicality to one bit, helping the dramatic arc of another, all without showing a trace of fear or hesitation.

Bad Dog Sessions continues every Saturday night at 10 pm.

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