Gray Matters

Sketch comedy is a cruel mistress. She demands that you come up with original material. She insists that each show top the previous one. And above all, she commands that you do these things with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. At the premiere of BOOM, celebrated New York sketch group Elephant Larry's eighth new show, EL succeeded in making its mistress, and the audience, very happy indeed. As the audience filed into the Peoples Improv Theater, a screen was onstage, and "factoids" linking to the show, as well as ads for its co-sponsor (satirical weekly magazine The Onion), were being shown, movie theater-style. The lights dimmed, credits rolled, and out came four clean-cut boys, singing about how three of them were "following around" the fourth one. It was a straightforward premise, built on funny lyrical revelations, and kicked off an entertaining hour of live sketches, taped links, and songs.

Elephant Larry's members drew their material from television, history, and popular culture. A recurring joke involved a game show that was named after an overly elaborate description of its premise, rules, and grand prize. The traditional "man visits doctor" scenario was turned on its ear when the doctor turned out to be a chatbot. (For those unfamiliar with instant messaging, this is a computer-generated "persona" that responds to a user's questions with a stock set of answers.)

The most lovably silly sketch centered on Dr. Frankenstein's monster creating his own monster, whose vocabulary was mostly limited to the word "monster." The simple repetition of that word was enough to get everyone laughing, and the sketch continued in surprising ways from there.

One of the classic pitfalls of the form, which has plagued everybody from the lads of Monty Python to SNL's Not Ready for Primetime Players, is how to end a sketch. In the absence of a proper conclusion, writers will comment on the lack of an ending, spin the premise out into boredom, or just abandon the sketch entirely. To their credit, Elephant Larry's performers were able to end on a joke and a blackout, without leaving the audience feeling cheated.

EL has written a strong show, full of sketches that make you smile and several that make you laugh out loud. It's impressive how it has created a show that, without a lot of profanity, politics, or "blue" jokes, manages to play smart and not square. These guys are earnest, clever, and ready to please; it's a refreshing change of pace in an increasingly snarky, too-hip-for-the-room NYC comedy scene.

For those comedians who are willing to try their luck at sketch comedy, the creative struggles tend to outweigh the returns. (How often does a sketch comedian turn his or her stage success into onscreen success that doesn't involve being a background player on a televised sketch show?) Lucky for New York that Elephant Larry doesn't dwell on such things. Its performers' goal is simple: for 60 minutes, they want to make our troubles go BOOM.

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