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A&E: A Mass Ave gallery showcases poster artist

November 19, 2007

One of New York's premiere poster designers is featured in a solo show at the Dean Johnson Gallery, while one of the most popular stand-up comics in the country stops at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Last week I wanted to tell you about the Paula Scher show at Dean Johnson Gallery. Alas, space was short and there wouldn't have been room to show you any of the work. Where's the fun in that?

Now, with more space, we can show you some of the pieces by Scher, an artist familiar to New Yorkers-and visitors to the Big Apple-as the creator of many of the posters for plays presented by the famed Public Theatre.

The collection showcased in "Scher Numbers" includes memorable work for "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk," "One Flea Spare" and "Pericles." The title of the show, though, derives from her series of playful images based on numbers and letters. A broken hanger becomes "Two," a fractured "Five" seems to fly off the paper. It's an ideal show for a gallery that often features artists who also work in the commercial realm. The only downside is the sloppy hanging job. Yes, these are posters and not one-of-a-kind work, but they should be presented with more care than what you find on the wall of a college dorm room.

After catching the Dane Cook concert at Conseco Fieldhouse (Nov. 9), I found myself thinking about Steve Martin.

Having just finished reading the nolonger-so-wild-and-crazy guy's memoir, "Born Standing Up" (Scribner, due out in December) I can't help but compare and contrast the two comics. After all, Cook's 2005 CD "Retaliation" was the highestselling comedy album since Martin's 1978 release "Wild and Crazy Guy" (perhaps the last comedy album that I bought). And while Cook is the latest comic to play venues usually reserved for rock stars, Martin pretty much created the concept of arena comedy. Yes, Bob Hope played to bigger crowds on his overseas military tours, but Martin's audiences bought tickets.

Both Cook and Martin hit the big time at about the same age: at 34, Cook made his motion picture leading-man debut in 2006's "Employee of the Month" and Martin did the same with 1979's "The Jerk." We won't go into which is the funnier movie.

But while Martin-as goofy as his act was-always seemed to be chasing a Dadaist comic ideal, Cook seems much more interested in cultivating and growing his fan base. As the poster boy for Myspace marketing-accumulating more than 2 million "friends" and counting-he has created an atmosphere of, well, comfort. Rather than the craziest, cleverest, most insightful or most taboo-busting guy at the party, he's the one who makes you laugh by telling you the jokes you already heard, maybe switching up the delivery a little for variety. A Rolling Stone scribe noted sharply that Cook "could be "Animal House" if you thought Neidermeyer was the funny one." Touché.

Cook's style of answering fan IMs and relentlessly posting and podcasting is, at least loosely, related to Martin's pre-superstar penchant for taking his audience out into the street with him after shows. It's about creating a sense that something special happened between performer and audience (A feeling difficult to create when audiences number in the thousands).

The primary difference, for me, is that Martin's act-for good or ill-was uniquely his own, while much of Cook's act could be performed by just about any comic on the circuit. That doesn't mean, though, that I'm going to be climbing on the Dane-bashing bandwagon. Seeing Cook in concert was far from the nightmare experience that I'd been warned about. There were a fair share of laughs, some big ones, at the Conseco show (a high point: his bit on Oprah's excessiveness with her audience-"You get a humpback whale. You get a humpback whale. You get a humpback whale."). And the goodwill was palpable.

The issue for me wasn't the lack of laughs. It was that Cook's material wasn't any better than that of your average comedy club headliner. And with a significantly higher ticket price, I didn't feel like audiences were getting any more of a show than patrons on an average weekend at Crackers or Morty's or One-Liners.

(And lest you feel this is just an old guy knocking the new generation of comics, rest assured that I felt the same way about Jon Stewart's appearance in town last year. Nice to see you, oh familiar famous face, but what makes this evening better than seeing you on TV or YouTube clips? At least Stewart threw in some local references.)

There was also a question of structure. Comedy acts-almost as much as plays and concerts-are at their best when there's architecture under them. It could be hidden deep below the surface or it could be obvious. The show shouldn't just end because time ran out. And the act should leave echoes, not just of great punch lines but of something more.

There came a point in Steve Martin's career where he needed to stop doing arena shows. Martin said in his book, "The nuances of stand-up still thrilled me, but nuance was difficult when you were a white dot in a basketball arena. This was no longer an experiment; I felt a huge responsibility not to let people down."

Cook seems to sense that same responsibility. But he's apparently approaching it with a different attitude than Martin. By setting the bar of creativity and originality low-and by gleefully hurtling over it-he gave his fiercely loyal audience what they want. And they left happy.

I just wish they wanted more.
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