MRT Gets Last Laugh With ‘History of Comedy’ (4.5 Stars)

“The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)” – Written & Directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor; Presented by The Reduced Shakespeare Company and Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA. Performances through May 18th, 2014.


The Merrimack Repertory Theatre is finishing up its fantastic 35th season with another outrageous production from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the good folks who brought you “The Bible: the Complete Word of God (Abridged)”. The interesting thing about this show is that for all the non-stop laughs going on, it is definitely an educational experience as well. This is undoubtedly the most painless history lesson you will ever sit through.

For instance, do you know where the word “slapstick” comes from? Hint: its origin is ancient and Italian and did not initially refer to low-brow physical comedy. And did you know one of the earliest joke books was produced by the church?

The show is relentless and fast-paced, which makes it all the more surprising that the cast is comprised of only three hard-working actor/comedians. If you’re a fan of the television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” you’re sure to enjoy this two-hour romp through the history of all things comedic. The three performers that keep it all going are Dominic Conti, Michael Faulkner and Jerry Kernion. All three are funny and skilled and all are adept at physical comedy. With a good sense of timing they can deliver humorous puns and jokes one minute and engage in silly pratfalls the next.

There are times when the creators of the show, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor actually perform their own material and there are times when they farm it out to others. I’ve watched the creator’s performances and while they are excellent at both creating and performing I detected no loss of hilarity when the material was handed off to this energetic, professional trio.

Like all good shows, this one is deeper and more thought-provoking than it might at first appear. There are a few pervasive themes that run through the evening’s performance. One is the role of the jester, the “wise fool”, the one who can be painfully blunt and honest about the prevailing authority, because he wraps his barbs in a blanket of laughter, thereby deflecting the punishment that might have been handed out to someone with less wit who dared tell truth to those in power. The message isn’t just “Question Authority” it’s “Skewer Authority on its own foolishness”. A motto we could definitely live by in today’s fractured political landscape. Another prevalent theme is simply, “Make the world a better, funnier place though laughter and humor”. The concept is reinforced as the players illustrate how humor has been with us since the beginning of civilization as a way to cope with life’s challenges.

There is a thin storyline throughout the show about a mysterious book of humor that has been rediscovered and missing its last chapter, but it only serves as a plot device that rarely slows things down. It’s a funny show but it’s not just light fluff like a string of chicken jokes (yes, there are those too). They take on thought-provoking topics such as racism, politics and censorship as well, and some of this is pretty edgy, so be prepared. There are few institutions that escape the jester’s barbs.Religion seems to take the biggest brunt of the jokes: “Jesus walks into a hotel and puts three nails on the counter, “Can you put me up for the night?” And the next joke elicited even more groans than that one.

While it may not be quite scholarly, this is an actual, if somewhat spotty, historic account of humor throughout the ages. The topics and people covered are numerous and varied: From early Greek humorists through the Italian Renaissance, to the invention of film and the resulting early comedies (at which point some in the audience were in tears of laughter). There were examples of comedy techniques, like the straightman and the set up. There were mashups like Abbott and Costello meet Shakespeare, and Anton Chekhov meets Seinfeld! There was audience participation, puppetry, pie throwing, “lists” (of the funny and not funny people in the world). At one point Dominic Conti performed a sweet little number called “Laugh ’til I Cry” on the ukelele that had just the right amount of laughter and pathos. In short, the amount of material – hilarious material – crammed into this two act show is amazing. For a great night of fun and nearly continuous laughter treat yourself to “The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)”, MRT’s final production of the season by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in Lowell. It’s well worth the drive. For more info, go to: