Rick Shapiro: When the Walls Tumble Down

I caught stand-up comic Rick Shapiro’s show, called Men Fake Foreplay at the Lakeshore Theater last Friday night, September 5. It should have been called Man in Freefall. 

Lakeshore offered free tickets to anybody who wanted to come out to see the four-camera DVD taping. The promotional blurb called him “one of the most innovative and surreal comedic artists to date.” It listed his credits, which include a stint as Jerry on the short-lived HBO comedy Lucky Louie, spots on SNL, and Law and Order. It mentioned an upcoming biography called Getting It Right by author Adrian LeBlanc that Random House will publish this fall. I did a little checking online and found an article in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum called “A Tale of Two Comics.” Rosenbaum, a noted Seinfeld hater, calls Shapiro the “anti-Seinfeld,” whose “obscene authenticity” stands in contrast to the emptiness behind Seinfeld’s “smirking frat-boy blandness.” I was intrigued. 

My first indication of potential trouble was the reaction of the box office person when I asked what the ticket limit was and the answer was “ten.” Clearly this “staple of the NYC and LA Underground Comedy Scene” was not attracting wide attention in Chicago. As my date and I milled around in the lobby before the show, I remarked, “Everybody looks like us.” By this I meant that they were fully grown, mild-mannered, adult, white, northside appreciators of pop culture. The audience vibe was happy, mellow, accepting—maybe in retrospect not an ideal match for a comic like Rick Shapiro.

When Rick appeared onstage, my foreboding deepened. What dead, gay cowboy giant had he pried those white boots from? They must have been size fourteens. The way they curled up at the toe, there must have been three inches of empty space in there. Then I noticed that his entire left hand, palm and back, and partway up the wrist, was covered in tiny script. “Oh, geez, he’s an obsessive compulsive,” I thought. Then it dawned on me that this was his set list. But why the cheat sheet? He must be well-rehearsed. How many dozens of times has he performed this set? Surely, he’s not going to do a brand-new show if he’s taping for a DVD. So I came to the conclusion that he was going to explore and exploit the concept of nervousness and lack of preparation in the show to humorous effect.

Okay, fast forward to the show—he didn’t explore and exploit the concept of nervousness and lack of preparation in the show. Nervous and unprepared, he gave the kindly audience a demonstration what happens when edgy material collides with a vulnerable psyche. The show and the man were in meltdown.

The set began straightforwardly enough, with jabs at pop culture figures like Matthew McConaughey and Paris Hilton. There were a few references to the Republican National Convention that weren’t fully realized as jokes. If he had control of the performance at all, it was probably lost somewhere around minute ten when whoever was running the lights completely blew a cue and started a video two or three beats too early in a joke. Rick, to his credit, reacted with good humor. Then someone in the light booth evidently realized at this point that the Lakeshore Theater should be represented in the DVD so its logo spontaneously appeared on the curtains behind Shapiro. It was shock comic playing a high-school auditorium. It just didn’t click.

And Shapiro must have known it. Any semblance of a show dwindled from there on out. He zeroed in on a young woman in the front row who had legs “like a thoroughbred’s. It’s like looking into the gate when a race starts,” he said.

His riffs and rants were as dirty, his observations as dark as promised. Rim jobs, blow jobs, fisting. Testicles, labia, and tongues starred in every bit. A riff on his disdain for a certain type of woman (no doubt the kind who drinks lattes at “Starfucks” and sits in the front row at stand-up shows showing her thoroughbred legs) who tries to heal drugged out slacker geniuses like himself was the closest he got to admitting his humanity. They coo over him as he lies inert all day with his booze and cigarettes, pamper him as he despises them, until he finally flees for the company of the type of “fat, black woman” who has the sense to kick his sorry, not-workin’ ass out.

The audience’s laughed weakly. But true to its sensitive nature, it did not heckle. Maybe it was this mild-mannered apathy that threw Rick. Whatever it was, his performance got more disjointed, more off-the cuff. His eyes darted from the audience to the ceiling as he searched in vain for his inner bearings. He began jokes and then lost the thread and never finished them. He consulted a crumpled advertising circular with some unrealized material scrawled in the margin, then gave up and tossed it away. The more nervous he got as the show spun out of control, the more he focused on the pretty women in the front row and his never-to-be satisfied longing for them. Two of them, long-haired minxes from Manchester, England, front and center, craved his attention as much as he seemed to crave some sort of undefined validation from them. They giggled and tossed their hair, and seemed to believe that they were his female doppelgangers. 

This was a man stripped bare before us. It was as bad as it could be. Rick Shapiro’s career is built on his persona—aggressive, crude, misogynistic, self-loathing. LeBlanc, his soon-to-be biographer, goes several miles further and raises him to mystic heights. Rosenbaum quotes her in his Slate article: “His work implicates you,” she says. His rendering of his dynamic and intricate experience of the world will make you laugh, but it requires you, blessedly, to think deeply and feel.”

Hmmm. . . blessedly? You, know, she just may be right. It’s a week later and I still cannot keep this Katrina of a performance out of my thoughts. But not because I laughed—I didn’t, much. Not because I related—at all. Not because he was smart or insightful—his brand of insight doesn’t interest me. Why his performance was affecting for me was that as he went down in flames, I got to see who Rick Shapiro really is.

Some hurricane ripped the façade off Shapiro’s structure last Friday, and I could see the inner workings of his psyche—the crumpled plaster, warped beams, and leaking pipes of pain, sexual shame, and vulnerability all his crassness and aggression is meant to hide. He wants to seem inviolable, to make us believe his fucked-upness is a choice, a badge of courage. Maybe it is. But what I saw was an essentially nice guy whose anger is just the distorted cry of “Help me, ladies. Why don’t you love me, ladies? It’s so hard to be a man who feels.

It’s almost a truism that the main fuel, the mechanics, of comedy is pain. Those of us who study comedy and do comedy or hang out with comics know this. While we watched Shapiro crumble into ruins, he humanized himself. 

His final riff was a drawn-out reenactment of a fisting encounter. I don’t remember what the context was. By this time in the show there was no context, only a man on stage trying to fill out his 60 minutes and get perhaps a few minutes of usable material for a DVD. He pressed his genital-licking lips to the mike and made power-tool sound effects as he pumped his right arm, leading first with one finger . . . then two . . . then three. . . .  When he finally reached his clenched-fist finale, I looked behind me, at what he had surely been looking at for some time now—a sea of empty seats.

Could it get more pitiful than that? Yes, it could, and it did. He ended his show with a bit that was meant to be performed with Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” a lovely but pitiful pop torch ballad. But the sound person blew the cue again, and poor Rick had signal to get the song to start. The overblown horns trumpeted the intro and Dusty’s lament began: “When I said I needed you, you said you would always stay. It wasn’t me who changed but you, and you have gone away.” All momentum lost, he bravely started his riff, I have no idea what it was about. By this time I was so overwhelmed but the sheer cluster-fuckedness of it all that I couldn’t pay attention.

But then, something wonderful happened. As Shapiro jerked around the stage in a palsied dance to the song’s refrain (“You don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand/You don’t have to stay forever, I will understand”), one of the pretty Manchester girls put a note at his feet. He picked it up and without looking at it, crumpled it up and threw it back at her. (“Believe me, believe me, I can’t help but love you/But believe me, I’ll never tie you down.”)

Rick Shapiro had been telling us the truth. He really didn’t want to fuck the latte girl who was titillated by the belief that he needed her love to bring him from his darkness into light. He wasn’t us, and we weren’t him, and he wanted nothing to do with any of it. 

I may never be a Shapiro fan, but I will always respect the weird dignity that has brought him to his place of almost-fame, almost-success. If Rick Shapiro were more in control of his persona, if he could pull it off without losing his shit, he would be a bigger star. But the truth is, there’s too much of a sensitive human being under that dripping sewer-rat, flesh-consuming id of his. Sure, he didn’t do it on purpose, but last Friday night something bigger inside him would not let the façade hold. It takes an act of generosity and courage to stay on stage as the walls come tumbling down. That was the real show. And I’m sorry not for Rick, but for the two-thirds of the audience who didn’t stay to be inspired by it.