Sunday, March 21, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show

Before I saw Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple of years ago, what I'd hoped for was a highly entertaining look at an old-fashioned traveling festival. Surprisingly, the picture turned out to be even broader than I imagined. While taking his inspiration from Buffalo Bill's famous tent shows, Vaughn also set out to tour young talented stand-up comics across the United States where they could ply their trade on a nightly basis. Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is an entertaining, yet poignant examination of the makings of a comedian.

Although Vaughn is the presiding spirit over the tour, which took place in September 2005, he serves more as the impresario of the event. Helmer Ari Sandel, who directed the ingeniously funny comic short West Bank Story (that parodied West Side Story within the Arab-Israeli conflict) provides more than just an inside look of the tour. He goes within the very dynamics of how a comedian makes things funny - even issues that under other circumstances wouldn't be funny at all. Vaughn first pays tribute to the many performers who have been a huge part of his career, including director/writer/actor Jon Favreau, actor Peter Billingsley, and country singer/actor Dwight Yoakam. But most of the picture is about a number of novice comedians who are trying to find their footing on a nightly stage.

Besides examining the distinctive styles of each performer, Sandel peers inside their personal lives so that we can see how they use aspects of their quirky personalities to help shape their material. For instance, comedian John Caparulo makes fun of the service industry, yet we learn that he actually makes his living waiting tables. Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed illustrates the frustrations of being an Arab in America by recalling a bitter story in which he was detained in a Las Vegas airport. Bret Ernst has some funny jokes about his gay brother, but they grow out of the bereavement of losing him to AIDS in 2001.

Since the tour takes place after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the performers also meet some of America's disenfranchised, whom they invite to the show for free. The scene among the refugees of Katrina is powerfully affecting because it proves to be too big a tragedy to be turned into a source for comedy. Although it was virtually ignored upon its release, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is a sweet and affecting tribute to the shrewd charms of the American road show.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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