Not for nothing does comedian Robert Dubac pose for publicity photos with a piece of duct tape over his mouth. He takes pleasure in being a provocateur and claiming that the world is trying to censor him. "Offensive" is his favorite self descriptor — next to, well, "funny." "Do I think too much, or too little?" he asks audience members at the beginning of his one-man show, Free Range Thinking. It's a sincere question, rather than a rhetorical one. Staring into the auditorium at The Marsh Berkeley last Saturday, Dubac knotted his features into the wisest, world-weariest expression he could muster. "I don't know," he said.
The title Free Range Thinking is apropos of Dubac's rambling, stream-of-consciousness style. It's entirely pre-written — he says as much, warning us that the script contains F-bombs. But it has the flow of free-associative thought. During the first scene, Dubac stands inside a box (OMG, metaphor alert!) flipping through what appears to be The New York Times — judging from the typeface, at least. Behind him lies a blackboard with a huge question mark scrolled across the front. When Dubac finally turns to us, he looks comically disoriented, like a guy who accidentally walked onto the wrong movie set. He launches into a rather weird anecdote about having his identity stolen, which apparently resulted in some form of amnesia. The implication is that he'll have to learn a whole new set of beliefs and values by imbibing the contents of a newspaper.
That might not be obvious right away, but it doesn't take long for Dubac to veer into lecture mode. He believes that, the age of free will being overrated, individual thought has become troublingly passé. It's an old notion — Marcuse had a similar, if slightly more elaborate thesis in One Dimensional Man — but Dubac roots it firmly in contemporary trash culture. What gets him hot under the collar isn't the amorphous evil of capitalism, or the clear-cut evil of social repression. It's the boob tube. Specifically, it's Jersey Shore, Fox News, advertisements, the Oprah Winfrey Network, Dancing with the Stars, Glenn Beck, The O'Reilly Factor, social networking, Google, and all forms of tabloid television. All this schlock is stultifying our critical faculties, Dubac argues. It's ensuring that the average American adult has the vocabulary of a ninth grader. It's giving us brain damage.
Such doomsayer rhetoric had its place and time — namely, in the 1970s. At this point, Dubac can't help but seem a bit like an old fuddy-duddy. Sure, Jersey Shore revels in schlock. But to say it's representative of all American television reveals that Dubac probably doesn't watch much TV. His arguments wouldn't go over that well with a younger audience. Fortunately, he doesn't have to worry that much, since the vast majority of theater-goers came up well before Showtime and HBO made TV a respectable medium. And in Berkeley, a 65-minute monologue against passive consumption will never get old.
Not to mention that the real entertainment value of Free Range Thinking isn't the message per se, but the way it's delivered. Dubac speaks with the careful, moderate intonation of a public radio host; his narrow face and handsome, weathered frame lend to the overall professorial air. And when he hits on a point of particular importance, he can't help but get excited. For instance, the joke about how we can instantaneously direct-message Jesus, via Facebook. It's actually pretty easy, Dubac assures. Just punch "Jesus H. Christ" into your search engine. Apparently, you'll recognize the profile pic.
Perhaps that nice bit of blasphemy justifies the "offensive material" classification. It really shouldn't. Dubac points out that it's hard to carry 65 minutes of political humor without going a little blue, and he isn't above grabbing his crotch for laughs, or uttering a few fuck-words. He also has an imaginary conversation with a seven-year-old nephew, to whom he must explain the concept of "bullshit." (It has manifold semantic possibilities.) Yet the show is fairly clean, overall. There's a bit of edge when Dubac starts promulgating fake Swiftian proposals, about how we should export our bums to foreign countries (in exchange for immigrants), or how an execution could also be defined as a "ninety-fourth trimester pregnancy termination." He also consults "the voice of reason," and passes through a magic door that promises "truth" and "knowledge" on the other side. In other words, it's nothing that a progressive Berkeley audience couldn't stomach.
If you're considering Free Range Thinking for a Saturday night date, don't do it for substantive content. Most of the jokes are old — he has one about a woman mugger taking 70 cents on the dollar, for instance — and the tone often feels stentorian. If you don't like being on the receiving end of a monologue, then Dubac isn't the guy for you. That said, he's still a gifted entertainer, capable of vocal impersonations and a few magic tricks. Perhaps the most dazzling part of the show is when he tears up a newspaper and puts it back together. There's hope for mass media, after all.