A good story doesn't always translate into a good stand-up routine. Similarly, the most confident and reliable comedian can quickly find him or herself unable to maneuver within the unfamiliar parameters of a linear (and true) story. But when a performer can keep a serious tale moving with just the right comedic elements and timing, the result transcends stand-up comedy as well as straight-up storytelling. This mix is what Previously Secret Information aims for. Its Sunday night lineup at Stage Werx demonstrated to an audience of about 50 that it doesn't always work but it's pure magic when it does.
Veteran comedian and series producer Joe Klocek scored early and often with "What to Do When You Hit a Cow and Other Rules No One Tells You About," which deals with the demanding, low-paying life of a young comedian on the road. ("It's like I was getting paid to drive, and telling jokes was something I had to do before I could go to sleep each night.")
With trademark confidence and clarity, Klocek walked the audience through a horrific car wreck in Utah after (as the title suggests) hitting a cow that was standing on the highway at dusk. He interspersed serious and troubling concepts (such as having lost literally everything he owned in the wreck) with humorous lines, such as a sheriff's deputy saying to a motel manager, "We need to give this guy the out-of-towner-hit-a-cow rate."
Klocek brought everything together by describing the incident as a traumatic but necessary course correction in his life. Details included an uncanny chance encounter in a Walnut Creek restaurant (where he'd never have been if not for the cow) and a successful comedy career in San Francisco (which he'd never have chosen if not forced back here by the cow). "Sometimes you need a cow," he said.Also successful was Dhaya Lakshminarayanan with her story, "Transitive." The former venture capitalist turned performer related her Indian family's difficulty in the United States after her father lost his job as a scientist and her mother chose to pursue a computer science degree and re-enter the work force. Like Klocek, Lakshminarayanan interspersed serious and sometimes unnerving details (her father was unable to get health insurance because he's diabetic) with lighter ones (her mother sometimes greets Indian women in public with the observation "You are looking very fat today!" because in Indian culture it's seen as a sign of prosperity). Keeping her movements minimal and her pace measured and deliberate, Lakshminarayanan held the audience's attention and got many laughs - as well as prolonged applause. Less successful was Mary Van Note, a comedian and solo performer who we've raved about with good reason. Van Note capitalizes on her youth, small stature, creative outfits, and faux nervousness to tremendous effect. She often takes the stage as if she's in front of an audience for the first time, and her frank and ribald disclosures have the crowd in hysterics within the first couple of minutes. In "The Roommate Situation," Van Note told of two complete strangers delivering her roommate Nancy home one evening - and some gruesome discoveries that followed. Several minutes after Nancy's return she reported a foul smell, and "right in front of my roommate's door - a turd." Worse things were to come, in the form of more discoveries and subsequent confrontations (in which the roommate accused Van Note of being, of all things, anal), yet Van Note never quite found her footing. Numerous of her revelations got laughs, but she didn't hold the confidence - and the room - for the duration of her story. Turning in a similar performance was Will Franken. The comedian who has lately been exploring outlandish scenarios and otherworldly characters to uproarious effect seemed off balance from the beginning in "My Father Was a Mean Man, But Cruel" aka "Two Piece and a Biscuit." It probably had something to do with his subject matter - a physically abusive father and an estranged son who's been in trouble with the law - which was undoubtedly the harshest of the night. Like Van Note, Franken got big laughs with some of his one-liners ("He was violent, but he wasn't afraid to hurt you," and "Tragically, he's still alive"), but they were counterweighted with remarks such as "My first template for manhood was 'You can die at any moment.'"
Apparently the same applies to comedians walking into unfamiliar territory.