`Saturday Night' trio showcased on tour

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The shaggy-haired anchorman, the prissy ``Church Lady'' who skewers all sinners with her ``Isn't that precious?'' and the big lump of a guy known as the ``Subliminal Man'' are familiar faces on ``Saturday Night Live.'' For some live audiences around the United States, they are becoming even more familiar. Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon are among the latest crop of players on this popular 12-year-old NBC late-night comedy show. During the program's seasonal hiatus, the three are on a 16-city tour, keeping their comic claws honed. They played here at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, to a medium-size but energetic crowd.

Be advised: This is not really ``Saturday Night Live'' on the road, folks. There's no set to speak of; no band, no costumes, no women. Just the three guys working solo, doing fairly traditional stand-up comedy - traditional in perhaps its worst as well as best aspects. While there was some subtle, observational comedy, too often the performers went for unimaginative, sure-fire laughs - body jokes and profanity.

Mr. Nealon had the cleanest and most structured act. The laconic performer began with some good one-liners, one a cross-country skiing tip: ``Start out with a small country, like Chile.'' And on growing up in a small town that didn't allow fireworks: ``We made our own. You close your eyes and rub them real hard till you can see stars. There was always someone who said they were better last year.''

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This was a SNL-trained audience, and they could smell trademarks a mile off. Nealon launched into the ``Subliminal Man'' routine, which puts a new spin on the idea of audience participation: not asking for it. Starting on a long story, he'd ``forget'' the words, and the audience would call them out. He'd slip any and all into the story without missing a beat. That's how he got a story that included a hotel, the Civil War, Eskimos, and dentists.

Mr. Carvey was up next, all over the place with restless energy, and a host of impersonations and situation humor based on language misunderstandings. At one point he was unable to make out the garbled train information given to him over the phone, and was given the information by a John Travolta type, himself a bit hard to understand.

The hit of his act came when he talked about when his uncle Rico threatened to disrupt a Thanksgiving dinner because his favorite dish wasn't made. Another relative rose up to set him straight. The audience howled when they saw the beloved Church Lady started to emerge from Carvey. His mouth pursed up, his head dipped like a bird, his voice squeaked. Even his arm was bent in permanent sanctimonious outrage. In episodes of SNL, Church Lady is a formidable force against those she thinks are sinners (just about everybody). If given the chance, she could have demolished the puffed-up Rico. But Carvey skittered out of that potentially great confrontation and instead had them start a stereotypical romance, all growls and shrill titters.

Stepping aside from something potentially interesting was part of Mr. Miller's dilemma, as well. Usually the most charismatic of the three, that night he was morose, cynical, and profane. Finding much that was printable was like stepping gingerly through a mine field. At one point he put Cary Grant in Ulysses S. Grant's place and started in with Grant's accent. It looked intriguing, but he backed out lamely. That left him sneering at the suburban America he's been touring through. Miller's strong points, his intellect and use of words and metaphors, shone through occasionally. Talking about square dancing: ``I don't know why people like being ordered around the floor. It's like a B.F. Skinner hoedown.''

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