I have been repeatedly watching “Oh, Hello! On Broadway” … on Netflix. In addition to finding it hysterical, it has me digging deep into my theater-geek past.
Inhabiting the role of foul-mouthed senior citizen George St. Geeglund, stand-up comedian John Mulaney describes the audience, to their faces, as a collection of “comedy nerds, theatre dorks, and children whose parents have made a severe miscalculation!”
“Oh, Hello!” is the catch-phrase of St. Geeglund and his long-time roommate/best frenemy Gil Faizon, another dirty old man and the alter ego of actor Nick Kroll from “The League.” Mulaney and Kroll debuted these two elderly, down-on-their-luck Manhattenite characters on “Kroll Show,” but their early sketches and off-the-cuff interviews they did in these roles are put to shame by this limited-run Broadway production, where the two crack comedians put the full weight of their talent behind these two unsavory characters.
For me, the theater-geek connection went deep, as I was reminded of another “limited-run vanity project” (St. Geeglund’s words) that I saw when I was still college-aged. It was called “The Play What I Wrote,” written and performed on Broadway by very-British comic duo Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, aka The Right Size. Itself an homage to shows put on by earlier comic duo Morecambe and Wise, “The Play What I Wrote” was a meta-theatrical exercise about its’ stars putting on their own absurd play, noteably their quest and their unlikely success in landing a major star for a featured role in a play-within-a-play. The guest star changed every night. The night 21-year-old me saw the show, it was the late Roger Moore (who apparently suffered a heart attack on stage that night, and I didn’t know it). The NY Times review placed the one-night-only guest star as Kevin Kline. Other guest stars throughout the run included Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, Alan Alda, Jeff Goldblum, and Daniel Radcliffe. Dragooned into McColl’s and Foley’s play-within-a-play, the guest star was forced into some pretty humiliating positions. Roger Moore gamely dressed up in horrible drag, among other indignities.
If I have already put you to sleep, my apologies. I swear I will get to the cuss words and dirty jokes soon. Suffice it to say, “Oh, Hello! on Broadway” follows this format in that a duo with a lot of history – St. Geeglund, a failed writer; and Faizon, a failed actor – have landed a theater well above their stature (the Lyceum Theater … they wanted the Wintergarden, but you try dealing with the fucking Shubert organization) to put on a haphazard play-within-a-play. There’s no fourth wall – Gil and George interact with the audience like a tandem comedy duo. There is a surprise appearance by a major star … well, two surprise appearances by major stars, one of them doubly surprising because you thought they were name-checking him/her as part of a joke. They also happen to be failed talk-show hosts, having run an absurd talk show called “Too Much Tuna,” the sole purpose being to offer their guest a tuna sandwich that is way too large and to get them to confess as much.
George: “‘Too Much Tuna’ is a prank show where we –”
Gil: “At-tut-tut, we can’t say that.”
George: “Oh, shit, we can’t say that. Okay … ‘Too Much Tuna’ is a talk show with no prank element. In it, we talk to New York’s biggest stars, and they don’t at all receive a big fucking tuna comeuppance!”
And that wasn’t even their first crack at it.
George: “How about we go down to the old WOLO sound studio and tape a little episode of you-know-what?”
Gil: “‘You Know What?’ The game show where we make people try to guess what you know?”
George: “Ha ha! That was such a vague and hard game show! We never narrowed it down what it was I could know! And the one time that guy guessed it, I lied!”
See what they did there, with the name of the fictitious radio station? WOLO. Say it out loud. George and Gil get more laughs than you would think by punning on their own innocuous catch phrase/show title. Take their well-received avant-garde production, “Waiting for Godot, Hello!” In their version, Godot shows up, like, ten minutes in. And then they prank that mofo with Too Much Tuna. (Trademark.)
See, what “Oh, Hello!” has going for it over “The Play What I Wrote” are Kroll and Mulaney. Sure, their guest star is a next-level A-lister, but Kroll and Mulaney themselves are the real deal, with apologies to McColl and Foley.
John Mulaney has my vote for the hands-down funniest stand-up comic working today. If you haven’t yet, run and watch both of his Netflix specials. “New in Town” is hilarious. “The Comeback Kid” blows it out of the water, though – I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed that hard. St. Geeglund has a lot of Mulaney in him – in his voice, mannerisms, and the loving way he says the words “Lie,” “Liar,” and “Lying.” It’s like looking forty years into Mulaney’s future, had he never made any money.
A cast stand-out as Rodney Ruxin in “The League,” Nick Kroll is more the actor and disappears more effectively into the very different role of Gil Faizon. This is important for his character, as the beta male in the pair with whom we are meant to empathize as he is repeatedly subjected to thoughtless comments and abuse by St. Geeglund.
Right away I relate to this show as a whole from the standpoint not just as a theater geek, but a skinny theater geek. I was always cast as old men. If you’re skinny in high school or college and want to act, you get cast as old men. Never mind that most of the old men I know have beer bellies; in high school, skinny reads as old and frail, apparently. Don’t count on getting cast as the romantic lead; practice your hunched-over walk, gravelly voice, and learn to love heavy makeup and baby powder in your hair. For all of us aged-up 16-year-olds, the still-young Mulaney and Kroll seemed to be seizing the baton on all our behalves by aging themselves up but making themselves the star of the show for once.
The theatre-geek references run deep and deep and deep. Gil and George describe famous theatrical techniques, like the one-sided telephone call, or the fact that audiences like to be screamed at. They discuss how to order at a diner in the 70’s (“Hey sweetheart, bring me a Chicken Cacciatore or some other dish that doesn’t exist anymore!”) They cover the etiquette of talking about celebrity deaths. (Blame the year, and make it about you.)
Gil and George have decorated their set with cast-offs and call-backs from all the major Broadway shows (as well as a few classic TV shows) they could dig out of some weird warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. There’s the trap door from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and the original front porch from “The Cosby Show” (“… which we got for, like, nothing!“) There’s a hilariously low-budget puppet of the Pillowman from Martin McDonough’s “The Pillowman,” and in honor of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit,” they installed a No Exit sign, which they are proud to announce has been declared by the city to be a massive fire hazard.
That’s one of my favorite kinds of jokes – bragging about something without realizing that it’s not brag-worthy. They do it again early on – “We are proud recipients of a 1997 restraining order!”
I tried to mansplain this joke structure to an 18-year-old aspiring comedienne the other night, and she was like “Oh, you mean like, when a guy is like ‘I slept with three girls in one night!'”
I can appreciate her position, but no, an actual unfunny man might actually and non-ironically brag about that. To make that same statement into a good example of this kind of joke, it might become … “I slept with three women in one night, and I’m happy to say that I used protection with two of them!” Or to go even darker … “I slept with three women in one night, and with two of them it was even consensual!”
Faizon and St. Geeglund proceed with their play-within-a-play, which is so autobiographical that the lines between the play and the play-within-a-play start to blur. They spar with the unseen stage manager, Ravi (“He’s one of those new Indians. He’s a real Aziz I’mSorry. But we like to say he’s the master … of fun!”). George’s anger issues become more and more obvious in his berating of Ravi. (“You ever miss one of Gil’s cues again, and I will choke you out, Slumdog!”) Other disquieting details about our two heroes come to light – their love of drugs, obsession with Steely Dan, the suspicious deaths of all of George’s wives on the same staircase, and Gil’s sexual attraction to raccoons. They steal your food, but if you don’t watch out, they’re gonna steal your heart.
The show becomes a flashback retrospective, as we get a whirlwind tour through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s through the pervy eyes of our two heroes. At some point, they do an absurd interpretive dance, claiming they are trying to win the newly-created Tony Award for “Best Choreography in a Limited-Run Vanity Project.” Emotionally exhausted from the dance number, George and Gil lie down, spent, and bring the house down by calling out to Ravi to perform more and more ridiculous errands for them. “Ravi! Will you go to every pizza place in Manhatten, and bring me the most sun-faded head shot of Danny Aiello?”
The ending falls a little flat, the final blow-up and inevitable reunion of Gil and George seeming forced and rushed, and involving the disquieting issue of a soiled pair of corduroys that never gets resolved. In all, though, this show delivers all the kinds humor that I love the most – cluelessness, unearned bravado, and obscure references that you have to have sat in a History of Expressionist Theatre 101 course to fully get.
What are your favorite lines from “Oh, Hello! on Broadway”? I didn’t even scratch the surface of mine in this article …