“State Fair of the Union” is a Curious setup/letdown.

No "Fair!" Curious Comedy sells sociopolitical comment, but delivers disjointed TV tropes.

This isn't a hay bale, it's a news desk—one of several false fronts in Curious Comedy's latest.

This isn’t a hay bale, it’s a news desk—one of several false fronts in Curious Comedy’s latest.

Step right up and guess the weight of “State Fair of the Union,” the collection of sketches now playing at Curious Comedy!

Hint: it’s somehow both lightweight and unwieldy.

“Union,” a grab-bag of humor tropes, won’t so much MAKE you laugh, as LET you if you’re already so inclined. And though the show’s name, promotion, and Independence-Day-proximal opening seem aimed at the same audience as “The Real Americans” (last season, Portland Center Stage) “That Hopey-Changey Thing” (last season, Third Rail Rep) and Lauren Weedman’s “The People’s Republic of Portland” (last month, Center Stage again), you can relinquish any expectations of trenchant sociopolitical commentary. While you’re at it, also quash your appetite for the “State Fair” itself; the hay-baled and flag-bunted set is the only indicator of such a theme, while the action is depicted exclusively as TV commercials, morning news segments, and sitcom excerpts, presumably set indoors.

To be (ahem) fair, some of the play’s fake TV spots do wryly comment on both America and Portlandia. Two particularly “Portland” sketches feature, respectively, a pair of passive-aggressive knitters who can’t stop fake-apologizing, and a liberal couple who are alarmed when their teenage daughter “comes out” as straight. Meanwhile, spoofs of national norms include a commercial for “Little Miss Patriot” (a pink rifle for little girls), an ad for “Chorn” (chicken-flavored corn), and the general sanguine idiocy of the morning news crew who tie the show together with loose impersonations of Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford.

But, wait! Here’s another fairground touch: an audience full of ringers.

I get the sense and have partially confirmed that the Curious Comedy audience is heavily padded with its affiliates: volunteers, students of the theater’s classes, and comedians who’ve already paced that particular stage. It’s even likely that some of the play’s many local writers take seats in the house. A community of loyal supporters is certainly more of an asset than a liability, and any butts in the seats, however biased, are better than none (this also came up in my critique of Action/Adventure). Even so, it’s harder to tell if jokes are truly landing when you’re being humored by family and friends. According to the uproar of audience laughter, the show was hilarious—but that laughter also has a hidden agenda. Situations like these invoke the cliché “preaching to the choir,” because an audience of choristers (or in this case, fellow aspiring comics) doesn’t need to be converted, they’re already believers. The sermon could suck; they’d still shout, “Hallelujah!”

Now hang on; I wouldn’t say “Union” sucks. The actors, to their credit, do as much as humanly possible to sell a merely adequate script. Their timing’s clean and their acting energetic. There are moments when their enthusiasm veers toward desperation, but that’s probably necessary to keep up their momentum while the script meanders. The strongest sketches happen to be the ones for which there’s precedent—more specifically, those that approximate other sketches from preexisting TV shows.

In a funeral sketch, a mourner sobs convincingly-yet-comically over a corpse, but off in the background, the other funeral guests gradually discover a delicious chocolate fondue fountain and pantomime intensely enjoying the food. The premise feels very Carol Burnett/Tim Conway, from method (background/foreground dissonance, stage silence, facial exaggeration) to premise (undermining social morés for guilty, complicit laughs).

In a TV trailer sketch for a fictional show called “Cop Doctor,” a character in aviator glasses and a lab coat is, we’re informed, both a cop and a doctor. “Cop Doctor!” the actors yell in a series of teasers, calling upon his dual expertise to solve implausible double-edged problems. The format, cadence and premise here recall British comedy duo Mitchell & Webb’s sketches: “Speedo” (a sendup of fellow Brit comedian Hugh Laurie’s American TV vehicle, “House”), “Heli-Vets,” (a TV trailer spoof of a reality show for veterinarians who make house calls via helicopter), and “Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit,” (a TV trailer for a reality show about an unlikely “crime fighting duo”).

In another bit, a retail Returns counter employee becomes emotionally over-invested in her customers’ choices, making her a deadpan doppelganger for Saturday Night Live’s more animated “Target Lady,” a store clerk character who pulls the same routine—only in sales rather than returns.

Even if these TV predecessors haven’t directly influenced “Union” (which would be surprising), their recognizability compromises the overall uniqueness of the show’s “original” script.

“C’mon. How much originality can you demand? Comedy runs on formulas,” you might observe. That’s true—and if this were a less competitive comedy or theater town, there’d be no good reason to heckle this show’s serviceable jokes and diffuse theme. But Portland comedy and theater are undeniably blowing up. Every weeknight, the town’s funny people are honing their skills and booking their next LA flights. Every time a bell rings, some Portland comedian is called a “hack” for ANY joke idea that’s been explored before. Other playhouses in town have packed their seasons with funnier, smarter shows than this, and Curious itself has done better (notably, the powerhouse “All Jane No Dick” comedy festival).

Curious prints its bar menu on its playbill. It leaves a church-style tithe envelope on its tables. It closes its shows with a call for donations and an explanation of just how MUCH (classes, improv, standup, festivals) the nonprofit offers. And maybe somewhere in the push to be prolific and solvent, the collective’s sense of humor has been (slightly?) back-burnered. Since resources are tight, it might be more worthwhile to invest in a foolproof outside script (a la Action/Adventure’s “Disassembly”), host a touring play that brings its own actors (like Post5’s recent “Forty-Wonderful”), comically spoof a single movie (as Capital I Productions did with “Manos”)…or drop the play format altogether and keep honing proven strengths: improv, standup, and outreach.

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A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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