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Bill Maher, Fred Armisen, and the Menace of the One-Man Show

For reasons that are beyond my control, I sometimes end up in a room where someone is watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and I can’t get out because (a) the room is in my house, and (b) it’s the room with food in it. This happened on Friday, with a panel that included Fred Armisen, whose best impersonation is “that of a normal person” (h/t Elisabeth Moss). Among Armisen’s other impersonations (President Obama, the Queen of England, Bill Maher (“it’s not … a religion,” — very nuanced), Brutus the Ape, Joy Behar) are a subset of performer prototypes: Joshua Rainhorn, Dan Bjelland, and my favorite, Tommy Palmese, a one-man show torture specialist whose four-hour performance (“half-Jewish, half-Italian, completely neurotic”) is equally unimaginably horrible and exactly like the real thing.

Bill Maher was eager to bond over Fred Armisen’s discomfort at the one-man show, a theme that Armisen has revisited on a few occasions. “There’s so many, like, dramatic pauses … you can hear your body, you’re just nervous, and you just want it to continue and end, quickly,” he told Maher. The universality of the experience of being in a sparsely populated theater while a person in sneakers squeaks across the stage to wear assorted hats, as you silently padlock your eyes against being the person in the audience who gets stared at and asked rhetorical questions, is probably not something that everyone has been cursed equally with sharing — but if you’ve been there, seat A08 for the Sunday matinee, your hand is irrevocably and permanently stamped as soon as you walk in the door. You carry the experience with you like a genetic tattoo. What chicken pox is to kindergarten, the bad one-man show is to anyone who ever took a theater class or made friends with an improv troupe in the NoHo arts district.

Not all single-player shows are bad, of course. Being locked in a dark room with Eddie Izzard is not the same nightmarish battle with the invisible chains of obligatory sitting-through that occurs when you’re supporting your friend Derrick as he sweats his way through reenacting his decision of where to go to college, on a stool, under a hot light. Like God’s audience, the audience at a bad one-man show is too afraid to laugh, just for different reasons. The tone of the particular theater beast that Armisen spears is the kind that swings wildly from light to dark, dying grandfathers (prop glasses, creaky voice) becoming redneck gas station attendants (trucker hat, thumbs miming a hook into some invisible overalls) and then offensively morphing into aged jazz musicians (“Son, y’ever heard the blues?”). Whether probingly autobiographical or just uncomfortably personal, sitting through one of these puppies always feels as though you’re witnessing what has now evolved into a Thing with a Name: the overshare. Overshares are best consumed — and can even be enjoyed — from a spatial remove, where nobody can hear you chortle or cough or notice that you’ve gotten up to use the bathroom. Come to think of it, blogging might have been invented as a way to circumnavigate single-player performance culture: the anxiety, the awareness of the sounds your body makes (who will catalog all of the stomach noises that only exist in black box theaters?: the mewing kitten, the Casio bossa nova intro, the big iron gong, the pod of dolphins singing in the Turks and Caicos — and that’s not even getting into the taxonomy of nose whistles), comes from being part of the performance — a big part of the performance, in fact, when seats A09 and A07 happen to be empty. The responsibility of delivering focused attention and appropriate responses to a person alone on a stage can give way to a sort of meta stage fright — the requirement of having to watch someone who, having very few other options, is looking back at you, and now she’s started washing her face in the basin located on the fourth wall while crying. Even God has a thing against one-man shows. He’s probably too afraid to laugh.