Kennedy painful at first, painfully funny to conclude

by A.J. Fox | 11/7/05 6:00am

As I walked into "Jamie Kennedy: Unapologetic and Uncensored" on Thursday night, I ran down a mental list of what I knew about this enigmatic yet oddly ubiquitous comedian. Who was this guy whose appearance I had enthusiastically, if perhaps a bit ignorantly, volunteered to review? An almost-famous stand-up comic hovering on the edge of mainstream success? A wannabe-Jim Carrey trying to reinvent a floundering film career by getting behind a mic? That lovably un-hip rapper from "Malibu's Most Wanted"? As it turns out, Jamie Kennedy is all these things and more. But on Thursday, as he stood before a packed Spaulding theater, joking, cursing and having sex with imaginary people, he became something else: a hit with the Dartmouth community. Eventually.

I add that last part because, unfortunately, it was not until two-thirds of the way through the show that the audience experienced the sidesplitting laughter for which they had shelled out their hard-earned DASH.

After waiting an unreasonable 25 minutes for something to happen, the crowd was greeted by a lethargic voice-over asking them to welcome comedian Al Berman to the mic. Out wandered a large, vaguely bewildered-looking man who made his way to center stage and began his appointed task of warming us up for the real humor that was presumably in store. Berman had a stoic style punctuated by unexpected bursts of enthusiasm -- think Steven Wright crossed with Pablo Francisco. His rambling, shapeless routine touched on everything from salad made out of ice cream to the hidden meaning of personal ads. Though his act seemed a bit contrived at times, he was consistent enough to accomplish his fairly simple job of warming up the crowd. Wisely knowing when to quit, Berman yielded the floor after about 10 minutes, and out walked Jamie Kennedy in all his denim-and-nylon glory.

When Kennedy first appeared, my first reaction was to marvel at what an uncanny resemblance he bore to Seth Green. As I watched him shuffle around the stage compulsively stroking his beard and riffing on easy targets like NASCAR and Ashton Kutcher, in a voice that recalled a mellow David Spade, I began to notice a distinct lack of anything resembling stage personality. Despite his best efforts, Kennedy is simply not one of those comedians who can get laughs just because of the way he is; he lacks such qualities as the relaxed stage presence of Dave Chappelle, the wry observance of Jerry Seinfeld, the fiery energy of a young George Carlin or the cartoonish glee of Robin Williams.

Kennedy unwisely attempted a bit of Williams-esque mimicry early in his act, but it came off as painfully rehearsed. He would set himself up, pause for a second and then -- oh look -- there goes another Ozzy Osbourne impression. Like the comedian who opened for him, Kennedy's act lacked the clear thread of higher quality stand-up. One minute, he was using the microphone to demonstrate the mistakes of his early sex life, and the next minute, he was acting out a British version of Cops.

Few of his early jokes garnered anything more than gentle appreciative chuckles from the audience, if even that. A routine about the perils of being an altar boy went on for so long that Kennedy ended it by announcing, "I love it when it gets so uncomfortably silent in here!"

But just as I was about to write off Jamie Kennedy as another gaffe on the part of Programming Board, something unexpected happened. Perhaps sensing the hopelessness of his routine, Kennedy kicked his notebook to the side of the stage and simply began to talk to the audience. He razzed a student in the front row about the uselessness of his intended Latin major. He noticed a 12-year-old sitting off in the distance and began to question him about his love life. He answered the ringing phone of a female audience member, and after talking to her sister for a couple minutes, hung up and called his ex-girlfriend instead.

Suddenly, people sitting around me, who had looked on the verge of sleep just minutes before, were holding their sides with laughter as Kennedy asked an audience member in his mid-fifties about his daily porn consumption. Once he went off the script and began to have a little fun with the crowd, Kennedy's act turned around 180 degrees into the realm of unprecedented hilarity.

This merciful gearshift into improvisation reached its comic zenith when Kennedy began to solicit heckling from the audience, inviting attacks on everything from his B-list career to his poor haircut. My personal favorite jab was offered up by a guy sitting behind me who teased Kennedy for starring in "Son of the Mask." Kennedy responded in a manner unprintable in this newspaper.

As he gleefully absorbed the taunts and insults of the enthusiastic crowd, I was struck by the irony of the finale. Here was a comedian whose biggest laughs came from offering up his own lack of talent as a comic sacrifice. If Kennedy had maintained this same type of interactive, self-deprecating humor throughout what was at times a painfully slow set, it would have made for a near-perfect evening. As it was, however, the audience walked away having enjoyed a middling show that was saved by a tremendously successful third act.

I think the guy sitting in front of me summed up the collective feelings of the audience. His final words? "That was way better than Vanessa Carlton."

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