The image of a woman bouncing a pajama-clad child in her arms brings with it suggestions of care, concern and comfort, perhaps even a sense of warm nostalgia for when we were young, too. But if the fleece-clad moppet actually is well over five feet tall and pushing 40, you know the world you’re observing has another agenda: to make you laugh.
Then again, comedy and sentimentality both are at work in The 3rd Floor XXXIII: the Final Chapter, playing at Miracle Theater Fridays and Saturdays through December 19. After nearly two decades as Portland’s sketch-comedy powerhouse, the 3rd Floor is billing this as its final creation — so you might say they really are rocking their baby to sleep.
Co-founder Ted Douglass told The Oregonian that the group is considering a 20th anniversary greatest-hits finale next summer, and no doubt such a show would have plenty to draw on. The 3rd Floor not only served as de facto center for a community of local sketch and improv purveyors, with more than 50 actors cycling through its ranks, but it established a national reputation among its comedy peers, both through touring and by hosting an annual sketch festival for several years. In 2010, the group even toyed with a more cohesive, story-driven approach (y’know … a play) with its film noir-inspired dark comedy Killing Time, which Douglass described as “Double Indemnity with time machines.”
While The Final Chapter doesn’t have the thematic focus of shows such as 2006’s After-School Girlfight! Kill! Kill! (after-school TV specials meet Russ Myers) or the previous year’s That’s Entertainment (a survey of a century’s worth of sketch styles), it does employ the 3rd Floor method, wherein characters or jokes recur throughout the show, sometimes in otherwise unrelated sketches. It doesn’t lessen the episodic nature of the form so much as turn it into a stealth virtue. Even if the most prominent recurring bit here, a series of faux-documentary video clips about the Benji movie franchise, doesn’t pay off big, it helps the overall rhythm of the show.
As a Benji fixation might suggest, the 3rd Floor writers have a thing for the pop culture of their youth. Interstitial music is heavy on ’80s/’90s rock. Star Wars is sent up, both live and by remote control. But they’re by no means stuck in a particular time. One of the strongest bits, pun intended, stars Douglass as a human Fitbit, helping Lori Ferraro lose weight by counting her steps out loud and barking out, “Don’t eat that! What the hell’s wrong with you?” Those two team up hilariously in a riff on that underappreciated art form, the cheapo TV ad for the oddball Mom-and-Pop business. Pitching the wares of a specialty store called Cot Lot (“Cots are the new trundle bed!”), Ferraro’s enthusiasm edges into derangement. Paul Glazier shines as a Russian strip-club owner trying to train a pair of undercover policewomen (“You need to being sexy!”). But the night’s high point is more of a period piece, a Mary Poppins send-up with Jordana Barnes as Mary’s foul-mouthed, gin-swilling sister, Geri Poppins. Her spoonful of choice sure ain’t sugar.
And speaking of time, the cleverest concept here is used only glancingly: Douglass as a time traveler bringing dire warnings — from the past!
It’s no wonder, though, that the 3rd Floor is looking to the past in so many ways. Anniversaries and endings bring on nostalgic moods, and so does loss. Andy Buzan, one of the group’s co-founders (whose performance as an infantile 19-year-old in a diaper, from the 2008 remount That’s Entertainment — the Director’s Cut will be forever smudged across my memory) died in October.
For the show’s conclusion, Douglass steps out and addresses the audience, recalling the hard work and thrill of putting on their first show all those years ago at the Main Street Playhouse, and how they decided this show should end, as has been their custom, with a dance, this one pulled from the archives.
“This is for Andy. This is for all of us,” Douglass said simply, before joining in on a joyous routine to Cake’s alt-rock version of I Will Survive.
Sketch comedy shows, more than most performances, feed off a crowd. So bring your friends. The 3rd Floor has staged more audacious, more consistently hilarious shows, but that’s no knock on this one. By the end of the evening, you’ll have no doubt that these folks love doing what they do, that they love one another, and that you love them too.
The 3rd Floor XXXIII: The Final Chapter continues through December 19 at Miracle Theater. Ticket and schedule information here.