Provocative Bay Area comedian Will Franken joins Pawns of Comedy tour
Chico, CA 95928
The line between absurdity and offense can be difficult to tread, especially when you’re a white dude in a miniskirt pretending to be a drunk black man begging for change.
“I had a black tranny wino character I was doing for a couple of weeks, and I’d open up with the guy, come out in a skirt and be all, ‘I’m gonna cut my dick off up in this mothafucka!’” says Bay Area-based comedian Will Franken, who headlines the Pawns of Comedy Tour (hosted by former Chico impresario and current Bay Area comedian DNA). The tour is stopping off this weekend at the Blue Room Theatre. “The whole joke is he’s not really a transsexual, he’s just trying to get a dollar for a sex-change operation.
“Normally, the more offensive I think a bit might be I push it closer to the end, because if you’ve won the crowd over up to that point you should be fine. But I just couldn’t figure out how to get into a skirt halfway through the show.”
Franken is no longer afraid of teetering on the precipice: “In ’07 my wife and I split up. Before that I’d write something and go, ‘I don't know, I don’t know if they’ll like it,’ and get nervous about it, but after she left I thought, y’know, fuck it. The whole censorship thing didn’t even register anymore. I was already pushing the envelope politically and stuff, and at that point I just decided if I think it’s funny I’ll do it.”
While such characters might be racy, they don’t characterize the whole of Franken’s performance, which is more stupefying for its schizophrenic delivery and surrealistic satire than schlocky shock value. Self-described as a “one-man Monty Python,” Franken often includes in his bits conversations among dozens of characters that rarely continue in the directions you’d expect, shish-kabobing stereotypes and preconceptions at every twist. The absurdity of it all only thinly disguises an underlying erudite intelligence.
“Underneath it there’s a lot of satire,” Franken says. “I got my master’s in Restoration and 18th-century lit, where there’s a lot of satire. The point of comedy is to ridicule the prevailing notion and replace it with another alternative, which you do through irony.
“I think comedy has kind of slipped. There was the first revolution, with Lenny Bruce and those guys, who tried to put a social spin on what they were doing, and that’s kind of gotten lost. Comedians are up there talking about Facebook or their dating circle now, but I think there should be something in comedy that does try to elevate the intellect or provide a different moral or spiritual alternative to a prevailing notion.”
The foundation of Franken’s comedy may lie in an educated appreciation of 200-year-old texts, but his daily inspiration is more direct: “I used to smoke a lot of weed and I’d make my podcast and stuff. I’d get high and be real isolated, and I’d just talk to myself looking in the mirror and stuff.
“But I quit the weed, so the way I’m writing now is like I did when I was younger. I’ll go out in public, and I’ll hang out with friends or whatever, and I don’t know if I embarrass them or not, but I’ll launch into something in public and just kind of write on my feet. I rarely actually sit down and write, because I find nothing gets done that way, but if I can go out in public and just goof around then something will stick and I’ll try to remember it.
“Just last night I was walking with this girl and we saw an ad for The Holocaust on NBC or something like that, so I thought of an actor who’s going to play the Holocaust, not just one character but the entire Holocaust, and I just started riffing about him. [Franken’s voice changes to an affected British accent] ‘When I was approached about doing the Holocaust I thought I just can’t play a role that big; it’s a huge role.’ ”