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Comedy Is Hard: Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s Bullet for Adolf

Suppose I told you about a new off-broadway comedy that featured dinner party hosted by a bona-fide Nazi for his Buddhist daughter, with guests that include her stoner ex-boyfriend who enjoys pedophile humor, her probably-gay new boyfriend, their black felon roommate from Harlem, the beautiful buppie the roommate lusts after, and the buppie’s black-power spouting friend – and that the main course would consist of the Nazi’s daughter’s placenta, what would you think?

You would probably think, “wow, Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle are collaborating on an off-broadway show? This I gotta see.” Or, if your disposition is more timid, at least check out on Youtube once the clips begin appearing.

But unfortunately, the above is a description of the least-successful scene in Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s limp comedy, Bullet for Adolf, currently running at New World Stages in Manhattan.

The play is about . . . well, that’s the problem: the play isn’t about anything. Nominally, it’s about who stole a pistol that might have been part of an assassination plot against Hitler. But the theft doesn’t happen until the end of the first act, and there is nothing important actually riding on its resolution. It’s set in mid-80s Houston, among a group of stoner friends who work together at a construction site (working for said Nazi, a bricklayer), and is supposedly a nostalgia piece about that period in history (endless video montages of the events of that time beat that point home) but doesn’t actually have anything to say about history, and is actually about that time in life when you drift, out of school and not yet pursuing a career, with no particular responsibilities or commitments to hold you down.

Including any responsibilities to the audience. To, for example, have a story. Or, failing that, a theme. Or even a topic.

Instead, what we have are a variety of plausible caricatures – ably embodied by a talented cast – slinging one-liners at one another. Some of the one-liners are pretty good. But they never rise beyond the level of sitcom humor, and more to the point, they never connect to anything larger than the moment itself. They don’t build. They don’t make a play.

And the problem with the Nazi, and the pedophile humor, and the daughter’s gay boyfriend, and the black-power-spouting lust-object, and the placenta, is that, in the absence of any meaningful satiric context, they aren’t funny. They’re just desperate lunges for something beyond the sitcom. They don’t shock – they aren’t real enough to be shocking. They just embarrass.

I won’t pretend there’s no pleasure in the show – as I said, the average quality of the one-liners is pretty high, and the actors are all good at what they do. But this play is a perfect illustration of the writing-class cliche that you and your friends hanging around being funny together do not constitute a comedy.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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