For the world to decide—as it has—that Borscht-Belt insult comedians are outdated and unwelcome is, of course, playing right into their hands. Guys cut from the cloth of Don Rickles were born to suffer, and the less respect they get, the funnier they are. Pommelhorse’s Fringe show A Sad Carousel dramatized the dying gurgle of Herschel Douscheburg, an aging insult comic who’s going down sweating, spewing offensive ethnic jokes like phlegm.
As impeccably embodied by Sam L. Landman, Herschel Douscheburg was the most completely realized character I encountered in the 2010 Fringe. A Sad Carousel opened with Landman standing alone in a spotlight, wearing a bad suit and a medallion with his shirt open down to his hairy belly, listening to the hectoring voices in his head. Eventually the reverie broke, and the show was off and running with Douscheburg trying to save his career and save his life—he’s made a lot of enemies, including the Special Olympics, representatives of which send him misspelled death threats.
This may be the point at which you wonder whether the Fringe needed a show full of tasteless jokes. Of course it didn’t, and the world doesn’t need Herschel Douscheburg—that’s what makes him such a great character. Landman lumbered his way through the show bitterly, impatiently, and hilariously. The characters seemed to know they were in a Fringe show, which provided the occasion for lots of acid jokes about small-scale theater generally and the Minnesota Fringe specifically. For Herschel Douscheburg, his uptight nephew Saul (Matthew Glover), his agent Morty (Peter Ooley), his floozy girlfriend Coco (Lindsey McDonald Dorsey), and his private investigator Rudy (Steve Lattery), the Fringe, like life generally, was indeed a sad carousel to be riding.
A Sad Carousel was fast and furious, and the numerous gags that didn’t work (the premise of a ska detective in a Two-Tone suit turned out to be a lot funnier in theory than in reality) were buried in the even more numerous gags that did. The cast members were as fearless as they needed to be (which is pretty damn fearless), with bulletproof comic timing. Creating sympathy for an unsympathetic character is no mean feat, but Pommelhorse pulled it off precisely by being merciless with Douscheburg. Like his hero Rickles, Douscheburg wins by losing. You laugh at his pain, and he loves it.