One joke over the line 


Sending up the Oscars should be as easy as taking candy from the proverbial baby. They're tortuously long, consistently pretentious and emblematic of the megabucks Tinseltown excess the rest of us working Joes and Janes are well within our rights to loathe.

So why wasn't last Sunday's "Wanzie & Doug's Most Excellent Academy Awards Soiree and Gabfest" half as entertaining as it should have been? Meeting up with a roomful of equally cynical movie buffs at Maitland's Enzian Theater for a marathon gawk-and-gripe session seemed the perfect tactic for coping with this year's televised tableau of industry self-congratulation. But the undertaking's inherent promise had evaporated long before the major awards were handed out, lost in a haze of boozy bitchiness and boorish behavior on the part of our inadequate hosts.

At the outset, all signs pointed to an evening of knowing self-parody. To lampoon its status as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Orlando area, the Enzian had been decorated in a style that radiated low-rent glamour. Instead of rolling out the red carpet to welcome the honored guests, staffers had slapped two swatches of scarlet fabric on the venue's front walkway, holding them messily in place with thick slabs of black gaffer's tape. A single white limousine was parked at the entrance, standing out like a bandaged thumb amidst the parking lot's surfeit of wood-paneled minivans and compact domestic jobs.

The crowd lined up at the front door was mostly attired in affordable knockoffs of the designer fashions we'd later see slung across the backs of the Academy's presenters and honorees. A few of the audience members had opted for something a little more daring, including one fellow who showed up in a full Scottish kilt -- fully two years late if his goal was to celebrate "Braveheart."

Broadcast blues

No one was allowed inside without being first subjected to an impromptu interview with Wanzie and Doug themselves, who trained a camera on each new arrival as they essayed a series of probing queries even Joan Rivers wouldn't dream of attempting. "Are you a lesbian?" they demanded of a young girl in a business suit. "Are you two sleeping together?" a happy couple was interrogated.

Not in the mood for unnecessary embarrassment, the friend I had brought along suggested that we sneak past the video inquisition. Once we were inside, the wisdom of her preference became readily apparent: The footage was being broadcast in real-time on the Enzian's screen, so that already-seated partiers could have a good laugh at each new victim of the ongoing verbal abuse. Personally, I can deal with the idea that folks are talking about what a jerk I am after I've left a room, but not as I'm entering one.

As the projected image switched over to that of the actual Oscars' ceremony, Wanzie and Doug went into full-on action. If you've never caught their shtick each Monday on Real Radio 104.1's "The Philips Phile" (or in their theatrical extravaganza at last year's Orlando International Fringe Festival, "Michael Wanzie Presents Two Men Trapped in Women's Bodies"), they're easy to envision. Michael Wanzie is a diminutive camp queen of a jokemeister, while sidekick Doug Bowser plays the taller, blonder straight man to his pal's hysteric rants. Think of them as Nathan Lane and Slow Lane, respectively.

The thin red whine

With that scenario in place, I had hoped that the duo would provide some sorely needed acerbic relief from the Oscars' self-important goings-on. As emcee Whoopi Goldberg launched into her opening monologue, however, that wish was beginning to appear little more than a pipe dream. Instead of going for the jugular with a running evisceration of Goldberg's spiel --which basically broadcast the philosophy "I like me! I really like me!" -- Wanzie happily chuckled into the mike, eating up each of the comedienne's limp punch lines. For this we could have hired Ed McMahon.

Every edition of the Academy Awards has its share of raspberry-worthy moments, and this year's was no exception. James Coburn's rambling acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor was one, a stream of free association that was worthy of past Enzian guest Peter Fonda in its lack of internal logic or cohesion. Elsewhere, a cowboy-hatted Val Kilmer struggled in vain to control a nervous horse that had obviously seen a few of the actor's most recent movies. Helen Hunt sported a hairstyle and makeup job that made her look a little too much like Jan Brady, and the always sanctimonious Celine Dion discussed her impending career hiatus with an urgency befitting news of a Rwandan earthquake. Celine Dion taking a break from show business? Give THAT an award!

Somehow, though, the sure-fire set-ups went whizzing past our lazy hosts, whose lack of appropriate ripostes left the rest of us to fill in the gaps. One of the more impassioned retorts came from the table next to me, as we all witnessed the unlikely sight of Sen. John Glenn introducing a montage of clips from historical epics.

"What's he have to do with a goddamn thing?" a dark-haired woman loudly demanded in confused frustration. Not the funniest line of the night on paper, but certainly the most heartfelt.

Though they were missing easy shots left and right, even the underperforming Wanzie and Doug easily grasped the protracted awfulness of the featured dance number, in which choreographer Debbie Allen put a troupe of multicultural hardbodies through routines keyed to this year's nominees for Best Dramatic Score. It was a new low in a genre already famed for its ability to induce bathroom breaks, and Wanzie caught on right away, greeting the ludicrous Saving Private Ryan dance with the shouted instruction "The enemy is approaching -- let's do a time-step!"

Pushing the envelope

That broadside was a fleeting moment of inspiration, however, and Wanzie seemed to know it. Drinking heavily, he attempted to compensate for his lack of sustained wit by turning the nastiness up to uncomfortable levels. By the time the Best Editing award had been handed out, he was audibly smashed and spewing ethnic slurs with reckless abandon. A nervous Doug attempted to force-feed him coffee as his partner dismissed the late Frank Sinatra as "a Mafia don" and impugned Best Foreign Film winner Life is Beautiful by asserting that director/writer/star Roberto Benigni shouldn't be allowed to accept his Oscar until he learned to speak better English. "Another one for the Mafia," he spat as Benigni returned to the podium for his Best Actor statuette. After a while, Wanzie turned his verbal attention toward "Winter Park Jews," asking if there were any in the audience who would dance along with the scenes from "Fiddler on the Roof" that were being shown in tribute to director Norman Jewison.

By that point, the diehards in the audience -- those of us who were to remain throughout the unforgivably long program's three-and-a-half hours -- were yelling for Wanzie to "shut up." We had expected a night of playful sarcasm, and instead gotten an earful of unfunny invective.

One joke over the line, Wanzie and Doug retreated to their table at the side of the stage. It was impossible to pay them any further heed when we could instead watch a jubilant Benigni hugging his countrywoman Sophia Loren, both of them blissful in the knowledge that humor works best when it's grounded in humanity. Life is beautiful, their smiles seemed to acknowledge, no matter how ugly some people can be.


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