If I had a bucket list, there would be one less item on it, because last night I finally got to see Otto & George live on stage in a comedy club. And although one of them is made of wood, trust me when I tell you that two minutes into the show no one believed they weren’t watching a foul-mouthed midget go postal on everyone, including the shy guy on stage trying to calm him down.
Brooklyn-born Otto Petersen started out working a normal ventriloquist act, playing clubs and parties and busking in the park. Changing the material to an X-rated routine was both a survival tactic to get work and a stroke of genius. And I don’t care how prepared you think you might be for a ribald puppet, but the twisted, filthy smut that spews out of George’s mouth is as shocking as it is hilarious, maybe the most politically incorrect show on the planet. Nothing is sacred, not celebrities, politicians, alternate lifesyles, nationalities, religions and most especially anyone sitting within shouting distance from the stage.
Otto and George had just played the night before with John Valby, the ribald piano player who is especially popular in upstate New York. I did not see that show, but apparently a few people seated nearby had and returned for a full evening of puppet magic. I don’t know whether some of the other attendees were expecting Jeff Dunham, but between the act’s reputation and the disclaimers, there was no way you could walk into this gig expecting to see anything other than a demented ventriloquist with a foul-mouthed puppet. And while I saw many people laughing uncontrollably at even the most offensive material, there were also a couple who were obviously in way over their heads sitting slack-jawed, mouths agape, like they were being mentally raped.
Sorry, I have no sympathy for those people. If you pay to see an act like this you know what you’re getting. Filthy, sexually oriented jokes that are that much more hilarious because they’re coming from the mouth of a puppet. Otto baits the audience, and you can see his lips moving, but people don’t even make eye contact with him because they’re fixated on George. Hell, I know that’s Otto doing the voice and I’m still staring at the puppet the entire time. (I’ve seen clips where people argue with George!)
What makes these guys great – and yes, I refer to them as two people – is that Otto rarely speaks directly to the audience. He lets George do all the dirty work. George looks as demented as he sounds, and relentlessly attacks Otto as well as the audience. So while Otto is trampling on the sacred cows of every gender, race, creed and lifestyle, he looks like he’s the victim, not the perpetrator. It’s a brilliant idea perfectly executed.
And for those who might snark that his ventriloquist skill is lacking because his lips do move, well…you’re missing the point. It’s one thing to see a guy drink a glass of water while throwing his voice, but you know all the time that it’s a parlor trick. Watching Otto & George, you’re convinced that a demented midget is onstage holding the room hostage. And that’s just what he did through two hour-long sets that I couldn’t reprint a word of even if I wanted to. One of the funniest shows I have ever seen; do not miss them if they perform near you.
Host and opening act Johnny O was flat out hilarious. I don’t expect much more from the M.C. than to make the time pass quickly, make me laugh once or twice and get me to the headliner. I’ll admit that when this middle-aged guy from Parsippany hit the stage I had no expectations, but my ribs ached by the time he was done. Irreverant social humor that was unilaterally funny, whether breaking balls about Italians and their lawn ornaments or the social caste differences between Yankee and Met fans. A bag full of great one-liners, sight gags and dead-on impressions of Sean Connery, Ice-T, Nipsey Russell (a killer closer) and Bernie Mac. And an impression of Jesse Ventura coaching his son about birth control? Folks, this was fucking gold. This guy needs to headline and I need to find out where so I can see him again.
The worst thing you can probably tell a comic is “I’m staying for the second show“, but Johnny O juggled his routine a bit and reworked some lines; Otto probably altered his by a third. Frankly, they were both so funny I probably could have watched them deliver the same material word for word.
The smaller opening crowd was actually more attentive and responsive. The later crowd, a bit younger, contained the requisite wiseass who thinks he’s funnier than the comic, the talkative drunk at the front table, the group of twelve sometimes focusing on each other instead of being part of the overall crowd. This is nothing new for a working comic, and both handled it well. And I don’t blame the comics – they were nailing the material and rifling the self-deprecating callbacks when things didn’t go as well as expected. They had the follow-up ready for any punch line that fizzled. They just didn’t get back what they put out there in the second show. Sure, maybe a Joe Pignatano reference plays better in New York City than elsewhere, but if a Bernie Mac imitation is too deep for you, maybe you need to get out more…just somewhere else. But with enough of us in the audience who were gasping for air, they did what professionals do – play to those of us who were actually getting the subtleties.
The Comedy Club in Webster is a great space – perfect sightlines, great sound and lighting, not a bad seat in the house. The food is good, the drinks reasonably priced and the servers attentive and friendly without being cloying. In short, it’s a great comedy room that deserves a great comedy audience. I know a lot of us walked away tonight with sore ribs and big smiles; hopefully Otto and Johnny got enough of a response from the core of both crowds to make up for the sprinkling of cluelsss ones.
Of course, George couldn’t be placated. “Go to Home Depot”, he told me, “and get a rope in aisle 2 and a stepladder in aisle 7 and do it right in the store! Kill yourself!!”
Otto & George on Letterman
Otto & George website
Otto & George on MySpace
Johnny O. on MySpace