Happening onto a fresh choice voice or a raw rare gem in stand-up comedy is a real and genuine thrill, especially when you never saw it coming or imagined its probability. Once referred to by art critic and television host Robert Hughes as ‘the shock of the new,’ facing the embrace of the strange and the strong is a magical feeling, even if every element of that vision/performance is necessarily pleasing, or, when it comes to stand-up comedy, necessarily funny.
I’m talking about seeing Saturday Night Live sketch actor and impressionist Darrell Hammond currently on tour opening for stand-up comedian Jay Mohr. On a Saturday night at Parx Casino’s Xcite Center in Bensalem, PA, the renowned SNL sketch member from 1995 to 2009 (currently its announcer since 2014) and impersonator famed for his takes on Bill Clinton and Donald Trump was a uniquely odd opener for the far more gregarious and outgoing Mohr.
Don’t get me wrong. Headliner Mohr was truly funny. The stand-up comedian and actor currently found in Ben Affleck’s basketball dramedy Air performed extended routines surrounding his recent, real life rehab stint and weight gain, as well as joking about his past acting bits in Jerry Maguire (along with an amusing Tom Cruise impersonation) and his time (too) on Saturday Night Live. Like Hammond, Mohr has his killer impersonations that he performs – Robert DeNiro, Adam Sandler, Christopher Walken, Norm McDonald – and always crushes.
Darrell Hammond, however, was another story.
Committed as he was to an oddly frumpy persona/look of oversized rumpled coat, rolled up pants, big sneakers and a full brim fedora nearly pulled over his eyes, Hammond moved through, narcoleptic-ally a set of non-sequiturs in varying degrees of sleepiness and volume, all of which seemed to touch, ever-so-slightly on the Southern drawl of his Floridian upbringing.
Like an insistently vague and hypnotizing David Lynch character you cannot look directly at, or away from, Hammond was self-immolating/self-critical about his dumb schooling and stupid past, a drunken father who hated the child’s bedroom impersonations, hinted at various drug and drink addictions, and wound up telling stories about smoking crack as a celebrity in New York and running around with one-time hookers, lost and in need of directions by following Dominos pizza delivery vans. Sticking with the Lynch comparison, Hammond’s entire routine – including time warp dreamy drifts into Bill Clinton and Donald Trump voices – seemed geared for a trip along Lynch’s Lost Highway – the verbal equivalent of a car crash, a head wound and a psychogenic fugue state, all of which was immense and mesmerizing.
Was this performance art, or just an epigrammatic free-fall stand-up routine that matched Steven Wright’s level of swift aural theater into blurringly and slurringly slow Foster Brooks territory with a dollop of Emo Phillips and some gentlemanly William S. Burroughs.
“I’ve never actually written a joke,” he told a live audience during an AXS live stand-up comedy special taping. “I just tell stories about how fucked up I am.”
For the better or the worse, the hurt and eerie weirdness of Hammond’s stand-up routine on Saturday stems from his real life, marriage, divorce, marriage and divorce to the same woman, two abusive parents, struggles with cocaine addiction and alcoholism, friends who committed suicide due to similar addictions, horrific car accidents, issues with cutting, hallucinations, post=traumatic stress disorder, and several separate psych ward hospitalizations and diagnoses which initially included bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. He got stuck in a “vat” of absinthe and got placed in a hospital after getting drunk and trying to cut off his arm with a large kitchen knife. He was once led out of Saturday Night Live’s Studio 8H at NBC in New York City by straight jacket during a particular horrid bout ff PTSD, and struggled painfully with attempting to impersonate Senator and Presidential candidate John McCain because of the late senator’s experiences with torture as a prisoner in the Vietnam War, as well as his father’s own life as a veteran scarred by memories of World War II.
“I didn’t want to make fun of a guy whose body, soul, and voice were changed by combat,” Hammond told CNN back in 2011. “This is why I had a hard time playing John McCain and didn’t want to play John McCain.”
Not knowing all of this in advance, Hammond penned and published a highly detailed autobiographical memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem in 2011 that settles the matters all of these sad, strange true stories. Some of which end with him having to impersonate Bill Clinton at the most unfortunate times. If they are all true. Who is to know? Hammond seems inscrutable. (Plus, apparently there is a Broadway play being made form Hammond’s autobiography. Here’s hoping it’s a musical).
Sun Vegas reporter Rich Lax wrote in his review of God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked that it “isn’t your typical celebrity abuse/celebrity addiction tale; this stuff is hardcore. Hammond’s mom didn’t hit him with a belt; she used a hammer. Hammond didn’t get wasted before he went on air; he cut himself with razor blades, then went to a crack den. He didn’t get an intervention; he got carried out of NBC in a straightjacket…. SNL impressionist Darrell Hammond packed 10 lifetime’s worth of batsh*t-crazy stories into one book. If even half of these stories are true, that guy has my respect for still being alive.”
All that and still, knowing or not knowing Hammond’s sad and violent backstory, audiences at Parx’s Xcite Center = me included – were simply not prepared for such sleepwalking, oddly uncomfortable takes on a life near-deathly lived.
Uncomfortable or not, Darrell Hammond was brilliant, and sad, and brilliant and haunted and brilliant and worth hearing and watching wherever he plies his slow motion disaster stand-up comic mirth and madness.