By Melanie Weir
“Do comedians ever retire?” This is the question Nancy Redman asks in her solo performance, “At Wit’s End: A Home for Retired Comics.” Moreover, what would happen if, when comedians retired, they all went to the same retirement home? During her 90‑minute show, Ms. Redman answers this question with the zest, gusto, and special flair brandished by only the most seasoned comedians.
The first of many characters to come onto the stage is Goldie, stage name: Hall, a retired comic with a saccharine sweet voice. She’s proud to have been elected third‑floor president for another year. Goldie has worked with all of the greats, and loves nothing more than to namedrop, telling stories about how she used to be part of their show. (Joan Rivers was horrified at the suggestion that she go solo back in the day, if Goldie’s two‑minute impression is any indication.)
Goldie leads the third‑floor meeting with plenty of anecdotes and digressions, while the social worker in the far‑left corner of the room desperately tries to get her back on track. That the audience cannot see this social worker, and that the audience is transformed into the assembly of third‑floor retired comics, are no matter. Ms. Redman conducts herself with such complete commitment and confidence that being in the audience almost makes one feel like one of those residents, waiting for a presentation and playing Punchline Jeopardy with Goldie.
Punchline Jeopardy is a game in which Goldie says the punchline of a clever or famous joke, and the first comic to raise their hand gets to come up onstage to tell a joke of their own. During this game, Ms. Redman seamlessly transforms into three other characters, each funnier than the last, and all completely in contrast with each other. (Harold, a lip‑smacking, gesticulating gentleman who was having trouble with his hearing aid, seemed to be the audience favorite.) Ms. Redman swaps back and forth between characters so easily, one almost forgets they are watching a solo performance.
The second half, however, in which Ms. Redman introduces herself, is the true meat and potatoes of the show. Retired comic Nancy has just moved to the third floor, and is going to do a little presentation so everybody can get to know her. She gets sidetracked at first, when a group comes in for chair dancing. Not wanting to disappoint, she conducts the chair dancing class herself, even winning scattered audience participation for her effort.
Her presentation itself is so unfunny that it is funny. She performs a version of standup comedy in which she tells a very funny joke, and then tries to explain why “the person who makes a mistake in the joke is right.” Her efforts to pick jokes apart explain away the hilarity, creating a hilarious brand of cringe comedy in and of itself, in a style similar to the ubiquitously popular sitcom “The Office.” Watching resident comic Nancy give a presentation on standup is like watching an elderly, confused Michael Scott attempt to explain a joke: very funny, but not in the way one would expect.
Nancy is frequently interrupted by the ghosts of her past, quite literally. Her mother is the first ghost to make an appearance, and she stays onstage the whole time, criticizing her and reminding her that she only wants to be referred to as “dead,” not having “passed” or “died.” Nancy’s ex‑boyfriends Jason and Henry also make appearances, as well as her friend and former therapist. They all seem to be laughing so hard they can barely speak to her.
It’s hilarious to watch Nancy interact with and quell fights between them. But when Nancy’s presentation is punctuated by clips of her younger self on television doing standup, these interactions are colored by a bittersweet poignancy as you are reminded of where these comics all are: near the end of their lives. Nancy isn’t just explaining the construction of a funny joke; she’s trying to reclaim a part of who she is, asking, “Who am I, if I am no longer a working comic?”
In a world where midlife and even quarter‑life crises are often discussed, the end‑of‑life crisis does not get as much attention. To those who loved and felt defined by their careers, retirement can feel like a loss of identity. Characterized by rising frequency in the deaths of friends and loved ones, fears of losing one’s faculties, and a world that may feel too fast‑changing to keep up with, the latter decades of one’s life can be some of the most harrowing. Ms. Redman’s comedy touches on all of this, but it is so subtle and so funny that only at the very end of the show, when Nancy looks back on her past self, does one realize the gravity of it all.
Ms. Redman’s answer to all of this sadness, fear, and loss is not sad or negative, but rather beautiful, resilient, and life‑affirming. Even if the residents’ standup sets were bungled and interrupted by miscommunication, social workers, chair dancing, and ghosts, the show is a fantastic, hilarious treat to watch and laugh along to. And after all, if people are laughing, the comedian is still doing her job, whether or not it is technically her job anymore.
At the end of her show, Ms. Redman echoes the way her younger self introduced herself on a talk show, which we see in a clip. At the time, it was an over‑obvious joke introduction to her standup, but in her old age, it has come to mean more. It is the answer to the very question she poses throughout the show.
“Who am I, if I am no longer a working comic?” Her answer: “I’m a comedian. I tell jokes.”
“At Wit’s End: A Home for Retired Comics”
Performed by Nancy Redman
Directed by Bill Cosgriff
October 19th at 2:00 PM, November 16 at 4pm
Photo by Danny Boyd
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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MELANIE WEIR is an actor, singer and writer, and a graduate of Seton Hall University’s Theatre and Creative Writing programs. She has spent the past several years trying on several new theatre hats, including directing, playwrighting, songwriting, and editing, with the tight-knit group from her college program. She has also established herself as a freelance writer, and has been published on various blogs and websites, including Business Insider.