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A few months ago, Will Franken announced that he would be moving to New York. I was saddened by the news. It wasn't just that Franken's imminent departure put an end to the cover profile I'd been hoping to write about the comic performer for SF Weekly, or that I spend half my time as a Bay Area culture writer trying to debunk clichés about San Francisco as being a mere stepping stone for artists to greater glories in the Far East. It was more than that: Seeing this city through Franken's kaleidoscope eyes is one of the things that has kept me sane over the past few years. San Francisco and Franken are a good fit for one another. Just as it's impossible to imagine Jerry Seinfeld or Woody Allen associating themselves with any metropolis other than New York, it's hard to imagine Franken feeling at home beyond the Bay Area.
This might seem like an odd thing to say about Franken. Like many comedians, from George "I was a loner as a child" Carlin to Richard "I never had any friends" Pryor, Franken readily admits that he doesn't fit in. His career trajectory thus far has included stints as a transcriptionist for TV news shows like 20/20 and Dateline, teaching in a Harlem middle school, touring university campuses dressed as an 18th-century French dandy on behalf of an online search company, typing real estate documents for an insurance firm on the graveyard shift in Charlotte, N.C., and living out of his car at the Berkeley Marina while selling art supplies, working as a receptionist, and hitting at least one open mike a night.
Franken's approach to performance is as hard to pin down as his peripatetic life story. Neither a stand-up comedian nor a solo theater performer in the traditional senses of both terms, Franken occupies the fuzzy space somewhere in between. Seeing the world as being full of self-contradiction and cultural anomaly, he's been accused, in equal parts, of being a communist and a neocon. And if all of the above doesn't make the scraggly looking, long-haired 6-foot-5-er a prize misfit, just look at how he spends his free time reading anything he can lay his hands on by or about Winston Churchill and watching every 3 1/2- or four-star movie in a film guide he owns, alternating titles from the front to the back. Franken expects "The Great Movie Project," as he dubs his celluloid adventure, to take around seven years to complete.
In the light of this, Grandpa It's Not Fitting seems like a fitting title for a Franken show. For, like its creator's life and hallucinogenic performance style, it chafes against standard rules of logic and reason. One of the most fascinating aspects of Franken's work is the way he collapses time frames and geographies together to create pungent new realities. Imitating the voice and aspect of a cheesy History Channel documentary presenter at one point during his show, Franken pokes fun at baby boomer nostalgia. "The 1960s. A time of change and exploration," he repeatedly intones like a malfunctioning machine. Suddenly, without warning, we're thrown backward into a different era. "The 1860s. A time of chaos and exploitation," chimes Franken in his History Channel voice. We've barely had time to acclimatize to the 19th century before Franken's moved on, this time to perform an interpretive dance about prison reform.
The contradictions in Franken's performance also play themselves out through his yo-yoing worldview. In one bit, he takes on the role of a Muslim suicide bomber, quietly reading the Koran on a plane with a bomb strapped to his tummy. When the plane goes down owing to some non-terrorism-related technical malfunction, he tries to enlist potential survivors to declare him responsible for the act. Elsewhere, Christianity is ridiculed when Franken, posing as a blustering British vicar, tucks references to Noam Chomsky and the Beatles into a cataclysmic religious debate. Franken's apparent disdain for all world religions takes its cue from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Then again, in a skit describing a protest against a small Christian gathering in Golden Gate Park, it's not the God-squadders but the militant anti-religion activists who become the subjects of Franken's satire. Franken's ethical stance is ultimately much less clear than that of the Pythons. He wants us to understand that the world we live in constantly defies categorization.
Sometimes, though, the effort that comes with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole becomes too much for us. In Franken's previous shows like 2005's Good Luck With It and Ohio! Ohio! Ohio!from 2004, I've kept up pretty well with the performer's dense layering of cultural references, tangled viewpoints, and stream-of-consciousness style. For buried somewhere in the depths of Franken's spasming imagination is usually the barest outline of a coherent theme. It's what makes him an artist rather than a raving lunatic. But there are times during Grandpa where "not fitting" becomes less about contradiction than confusion. Franken's opening skit concerning a discussion between a terminal breast cancer patient named Mrs. Wit and her physician, one Dr. Posner, about the movie version of the patient's life, contains so much oblique content that the performer risks losing us at the start. Impenetrable references to the Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, aside, it's hard to know what Franken is driving at with this material. It further doesn't help matters that Mrs. Wit appears to be a fly in Dr. Posner's ear.
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