Sex, beer, and a puerile fascination with poop accounts for about 80 percent of the material you'll see in an average PianoFight sketch comedy production. Hence the title of PianoFight's ongoing series, S.H.I.T. Show, now in its fifth iteration at San Francisco's Off-Market Theater (S.H.I.T. stands for "Stop Hating Imagination Time"). Comprising ten sketches which clock in at roughly an hour total, S.H.I.T. Show V: A Laugh and a Half kicks off with a video skit ("The Kitchen Sink") about the consummate bad roommate — a guy who shits in the kitchen sink and leaves a polite note promising to come back in four days and clean it up. It ends, appropriately, with fresh, brown, gloppy shit flying everywhere.
Some might see that as an appetizing preview to coming attractions, while others might see it as an artist's statement of sorts. After all, S.H.I.T. Show panders to an audience of twenty- to thirty-year-old dudes who would otherwise be watching Seth Rogen make an ass of himself at the local movie theater. It's written, produced, and directed by a group of young dudes, for an audience of their peers. And for the most part, the sketches deal with issues that concern young dudes: sex, bass players, bad roommates, phallic metaphors, laser tag, beer, homoeroticism, fecal matter, and female masturbation. It's about as dude-centric as you get, in the realm of small independent theater companies. With that in mind, let the shit fall where it may.
Actually, shit plays a minor role in comparison to other bodily fluids, since sketch #9 (called "Not in the Rectory, Pope!") involves buckets of piss and vomit being sloshed about, while sketch #4 ("Jane O") fixates on female ejaculation to a degree that seems almost pathological. Of course, the gross-out humor approach works better in some skits than others. "Not in the Rectory, Pope!" is hilarious, not because the script is particularly brilliant, but because there's something wonderful about watching a bunch of drunken frat boys totter around in monks' cowls, waving their sodden bibles and cursing at the Pope. In contrast, "Jane O" seems unnecessarily lascivious. The setup is great: a book club with four aggressive society women, all squaring off to see who has the smartest, wordiest, most passionate interpretation of Jane Austen's Emma. It's a terrific idea that's undermined by the obligatory orgasm references — no book club member can adequately critique a passage without declaring how much it turned her on or got her off. Like, yeah, we get it already.
In fact, the smartest S.H.I.T. Show sketches are also the least scatological. "Bass in the Key of Bass" brings to life a very unusual blind-date situation. The principals: two bass players — both lonely, both socially inept, both obsessed with their instruments. The scene: a solo concert by the renowned Ricardo Bustamonte, a bassist known for playing sequentially lower notes (as in, Guinness World Records low), and going lower to the ground with each note he plays. As the girl Fantasia (Derricka Smith) puts it, "I heard he once played a note so low that it actually put a glass back together that had been shattered by a high note." Though it ends abruptly, the skit is patently absurd in a way that recalls early Saturday Night Live. By far the funniest sketch in S.H.I.T. Show is "Laser Force," about a corporate merger between two laser-gun manufacturers. Naturally, a board room negotiation devolves into the Venusian Dance of Cthulu. One of the brokers tries to argue a point by quoting from Biggie Smalls' "Gimme the Loot." It's a riot.
S.H.I.T. Show V features all the PianoFight regulars, most of who vary in talent. Rob Ready, Eric Reid, Duncan Wold, and Evan Winchester all have amazing command on stage. They know how to pace the material, trigger humor through facial expressions, and create rhythm and buildup toward a punch line. Other actors seem a little more green. Christy Crowley has about two emotional states: glacial, barely contained anger and bursting, hysterical anger, and she rocks back and forth when going from one state to the other. (Excess body movement is a sure indicator of an actor's discomfort on stage.) Ray Hobbs is fabulous with sneers and grimaces, but his range seems limited.
In sum, it's a fast, entertaining, revolting show by a group of writer-directors with a lot of promise. The challenge for S.H.I.T. Show VI is to trade the poop humor for something a little more imaginative, (as in, stop hating imagination, you guys). That's not an easy feat when poop constitutes the bulk of your ammo — but it doesn't have to be that way. S.H.I.T. Show succeeds most when its writers trust the intelligence of their audience, privilege absurdity over crassness, and take risks with their material. "Laser Force" is a lot funnier than "The Kitchen Sink," and it would be cool to see PianoFight go more in that direction. They just have to realize that S.H.I.T. need not always be shitty.