The Final Punch
It’s a bit weird going to a Holiday Punch. The long-running musical comedy variety show has announced that this year’s will be its last. After 40 years of punches, Off the Wall Theatre closes-out the series with one final trip across the stage. Off the Wall regulars like Jeremy Welter, Lawrence Lukasavage and Gutzman himself are joined by a host of others in the usual run of musical spoofery and somewhat valiant attempts at comedy.
They try to be topical. It might have been easier to put together a topical comedy show for an entire holiday season back when the series started, but the current pulse of current events makes anything that doesn’t refresh a bit more frequently feel a little stale by the time it makes it to the stage. Jeremy Welter comes onstage as Melania Trump and delivers comedy that might have been passable a couple of weeks ago. There’s a bit about Mother Theresa’s sainthood that feels a few months stale...not that all of the topical stuff falls flat. There’s a Trump mutation of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that’s actually quite clever. There's a satirical bit involving the rest of the cast trying to build a wall around David Flores that's kind of sharp as well.
More often than not, though, the whole thing seems animated by a comic aesthetic that feels vintage mid-twentieth century. Gutzman found a style that worked decades ago and it still sort of works--it’s just a bit strange to see current events draping the old skeleton of a comedy sensibility from an earlier age. It’s strange seeing a show with this kind of comic aesthetic used on contemporary subject matter. Even bits about autotune, mobile phones and Pokemon Go feel like they’re coming from a different era.
They’ve stated that one of the reasons they’re not going to be doing the show anymore is because people are too easily offended. The show that has prided itself on being playfully offensive continues to lean quite heavily on easy jokes and stereotypes. There’s a bit wherein Gutzman dons a generically Asian stereotype going through a series of easy jokes involving a conversation with Donald Trump. it wouldn’t have been entirely out of character for the show at that stage for one of the other cast members to lovingly escort Gutzman offstage mid-sketch. The show is self-deprecating, gently poking fun at itself quite often. At one point they do a spoof of Oklahoma as done by the same group of actors a number of years into the future when everyone will be quite old.
The challenge with any long-running program is to get a steady infusion of new talent. Over the years, Holiday Punch has managed some of that, but the ideal is to have an integration between new talent and old aesthetics. As witnessed by yet another Holiday Punch, a topical comedy variety show really shouldn’t be that difficult to maintain. Off the Wall makes this type of show fun even through the weakness of the comedy by appealing through the ensemble. Holiday Punch may be on its way out, but the Holiday Punch-style variety comedy show should be exceedingly easy to put together for a city with the kind of talent that inhabits Milwaukee. Here’s hoping for something a bit more contemporary in overall aesthetic with whatever takes the place of Punch if and when it ever shows-up.
Off the Wall Theatre’s Holiday Punch runs through Dec. 31 on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations, call 414-484-8874. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.