Silence is the worst thing a comedian can hear. A heckler can at least give them something to work through on stage or let them know that their audience hasn’t suffered a simultaneous brain hemorrhage during their act. Silence, however, feels like you’re trying to make Death itself laugh followed by his cold hand slapping across your face.
Harland Williams conducts a similar, interesting and sometimes entertaining experiment with his latest DVD special, A Force of Nature. Where Maria Bamford entertained a familial audience of two for her recent the special special special!, he has literally no one to bounce his material off of for his 53 minutes of stage time. The entire performance takes place on a flat hilltop in the Mohave Desert with nothing between him and those watching at home except for a couple of cameras, a constant wind and the occasional crow.
The special opens with a short, scripted sequence of our comedic hero wandering through the desert crying out for “comedy” the way Bill Carson cried out for water just before he died in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The scripted moments that follow aren’t nearly as good and can sometimes bring the main material to a halt. Though it’s a nice way to break up the monotony, they suck the spontaneity out of the moment.
It can also feel strange to hear Williams do his act without anyone reacting to it. Much of Williams’s schtick can be very silly and goofy. He’s known for making ungodly noises, faces and voices (thanks in part to his memorable performance as a whale-impersonating sonar ensign in the otherwise forgettable Kelsey Grammer comedy Down Periscope) to punctuate his material about dinosaurs, Chinese people and alien-like erections. These moments don’t work as well without an audience because they need the synergy of nervous laughter and facial reactions to strengthen and validate them. Witnessing Williams’s vocal chords twist and convulse within the vacuum of comedic silence can seem excessive and even creepy at times.
However, Williams’s true strength lies in the deconstruction of his observations. He can boil down any broad topic to its most basic form and present the absolute absurdity of something that seems so sane. (He deftly notes that every human is really just an “SO” or “successful orgasm.”) They don’t venture into deep, philosophical territory for long, but his descriptions and bits work well on their own purely as humor. His characterizations of babies as “little Hills Have Eyes” and rhinoceroses as “great, big, fat, white-trash unicorns” are sure to make any working observational comic wish they had thought of them first.
Williams’s experiment took guts to try. It says a lot about his respect for his audience to take such a leap of faith, even if there are moments when he doesn’t always land on his feet.