Judge Bill Gibron thinks the "London Derriere"/"Londonderry Air" joke is funnier than anything found on this two-disc DVD set from Ireland's so-called comedy king.
Faith and Begora!
He's been the headlining cabaret act at Jury's Hotel in Dublin for over a quarter of a century. He is a favored tourist attraction for visitors to the Emerald Isle, his tapes and CDs a part of almost every motor coach tour of the island nation. His humor is considered clean and wholesome, reflecting the laidback, happy go lucky lifestyle of those leprechaun-loving people. He filters all his funnies through a thick, boisterous brogue that makes one instantly think of shamrocks, "Danny Boy," and tall pints of Guinness. He's Hal Roach—no, not the famed Hollywood producer known for Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang. This is Hal Roach, the King of Irish Comedy, and in a new two-disc DVD set from White Star and Kultur International Films there is a chance for those unfamiliar with his public pleasing brand of blarney to catch a glimpse of the man in his element.
If you listen closely to the wind, if you cock your ear to the far horizon on a day where the rest of the world is as silent as a tomb, way off in the distance, over the low din of the planet spinning on its axis and the movement of clouds in the sky, you will hear a noise. It won't be loud—obviously—and it won't be hearty, but you'll hear it. Initially, you'll mistake it for sobbing, like the bottled up grief inside a sad soul finally dribbling out in plaintive portions. But upon closer inspection, you'll notice that it sounds a lot like…laughter. Not real uproarious gut busting chortles, but the subtle, almost understated chuckling of someone slightly amused. That "a little on the lame side" guffawing is coming from extinct dinosaurs, as they are the only ones capable of appreciating the fossilized jokes offered up by hoary Hal Roach, the so-called Irish comedy King.
Now, Hal Roach may be a whiz-bang of a man. He probably is a decent entertainer, considerate citizen, loving husband, and incredibly proud papa. He no doubt walks little old ladies across the street and feeds enfeebled kittens by hand to nurse them back to health. But none of this makes him funny—not even the baby cat thing. Relying on humor that was half-lived prior to the Big Bang, and delivering it in a style that would make God himself roll His omnipresent eyes into the back of His omniscient head, Roach is routine dressed up in yellow moons, orange stars, pink hearts, and green clovers. His is a comedic sensibility that makes Ray Romano seem like Andy Kaufman, or better yet, turns Red Buttons into a combination of Andrew "Dice" Clay, Sam Kinison, and Taylor Negron.
A good indication of the level of levity here resides in the constant stereotypical name gaming Roach does during his so-called "performances." Nattily dressed in a tuxedo with defiantly dangling watch fob across his belly, and peeking through oversized glasses that would make Miami Beach yentas weep with jealously, Hal tells his tired tall tales of Mike, Pat, Shamus, O'Reilly, Kelly, Duffy, Murphy, and McGarnicle (well, all but the last). Relying on gags that weren't clever when they first were formed at the subatomic level, Roach crinkles up his nose and mugs shamelessly, acting out every line for apparent added emphasis. But when you're stressing stupidity, all you're doing is ratcheting up the retardation. Like a rejected extra from Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Roach saunters across the quaint Jury cabaret stage more tickled by his own supposed wit than the laugh-track enhanced crowd crowing along with him. And as he plays to the room, delivering his predictable punch lines, you just can't help but wonder who finds this fool funny—and better yet, why science has yet to find a cure for what ails them.
On Disc One, we actually get the chance to go up close and personable with the fanbase. As part of the 50 minute, lifted from VHS presentation An Audience with Hal Roach, we get a "man in the street" style reporter stopping spectators before and after the show, each one asked to grade Roach's performance and persona. And the grinning, goofy smiles plastered across the kissers of these converts make you instantly understand Roach's appeal. He is comedy for the comedically challenged. He's humor for people who snicker when the weatherman discusses barometric pressure. Every single fan seems brainwashed into believing that, if Roach shuffled off this mortal coil today and joined his fellow funnymen in the great non-Friar's Club in the sky (remember, there's nothing filthy about happy Hal), the universe would suddenly be devoid of happiness. Well, when Roach finally does pass into shadows, there will definitely be some glee left behind—only it will be on the faces of those who find his shtick stupid, not stupendous.
Disc Two delivers Hal Roach—It's Him, another 50 minutes of "fidgeting as funny stuff" that tries your patience as well as your pleasure principles. Filmed two years after the "Audience," our comic is still immersed in the same banal setups, still calling out his countrymen and their archetypal anarchy. It's important to note that after about 20 minutes, Roach himself can no longer tolerate his act and he leaves the stage, offering up some set-break amusement while he hides backstage and thumbs through a copy of Ethnic Irish Humor Unabridged. Disc One's diversion is a video montage of Ireland. How quaint. Disc Two delivers an awkward Three Tenors reject named Tony Kenny who belts out two dull musical croakings ("Dear Old Donegal" and "Galway Bay") before taking his bows. With credits and connective material, Roach is on stage for about 35 minutes, tops—and that still seems like 34.9 minutes too long.
Honestly, there is nothing really wrong with Hal Roach's comedy. He's like the innocuous uncle who sits at the back of the family reunion telling knock-knock jokes and playing "got your nose" with the wee ones. And if you're one of the people in this world who thinks Henny Youngman was way too risqué, or believed that Fozzy Bear pushed the outer boundaries of decency with his "whacka whacka whacka" bit, you'll immediately cotton to this old coot. You will split your sides with every borderline ethnic slur and reel with regularly tickled ribs as he digs up another stale story that your best friend told you in 2nd grade. Fans will foam at the mouth to have this relic of a bygone era on the newfangled DVD format. But there seems to be a conceptual contradiction in terms here. The person who prefers Hal Roach's brand of bilious blarney is probably wondering why this wonderful set wasn't simultaneously released on Betamax as well.
Technically, these are direct from videotape masters that flare, bleed, and overmodulate in a haphazard 1.33:1 full screen presentation. Colors are geared toward red—but not green, surprisingly—and the image quality is fuzzy and indistinct, with almost no contrasts to speak of. You can tell these were merely transferred from cassette—there are tracking errors and a line of tape head noise running across the top of the screen when Mr. Kenny is crooning. The Dolby Digital pseudo-stereo is thin, highly hissy, and lacking any real depth or warmth. It perfectly matches the low rent approach taken by the visuals. In the sole glee-producing factor to be found on these two discs, there is not a single bonus or extra included. This means that, after 100 minutes of non-hilarity, we're done with Roach and his self-proclaimed riotousness.
Comedy is a personal proclivity. What makes one man wet 'em is another's sad clown café. But Hal Roach is like that certain obscure, culturally suspect covered dish that your incredibly traditional aunt always makes every holiday. He may be palatable in small slices, but in heaping helpings, he's enough to put you off your pudding for good. Laugh if you must at this moldy old act, but Ireland has to have better humor than this. Roach is one "king" that needs to abdicate immediately.
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