Pat Hazell Brings Wonder Bread Years

Return to Playhouse by Seinfeld Pal

Last week Pat Hazell was in Austin doing comedy for the anniversary of the Texas Observer, the alternative journal that gives Molly awards in memory of the late great Molly Ivins. This week he’s back home, the birthplace of his humor, helping us escape to childhood with The Wonder Bread Years, his one-man show at the Omaha Community Playhouse. The man who once performed table magic at the Spaghetti Works and hung upside down in the Old Market to escape Houdini-like from a straitjacket brings “the jewel” of a career that began at Burke High School in 1979. He’s done material for events to honor a liberal like Molly Ivins and a conservative like Newt Gingrich, providing laughs for the latter’s 70th birthday. Non-Omahans may know him best as the man who warmed up audiences for the Seinfeld show. But here he puts us in touch with warm memories of our common past, first as co-author and actor in Bunk Bed Brothers, which opened the Playhouse season in 1989, the year after his first Tonight Show gig. Since then he’s done The Wonder Bread Years (recall the bright polka-dotted wrappers on those soft white loaves?) more than a thousand times, starting with a show for an NETV pledge drive. He calls it “a conversation with the audience” rather than a stand-up comedy monologue. “I open with a video overture, a montage” of toys and joys that draw on the common denominator from when we were all 7 or 8, ages when life was less threatening. He revisits those nights when you knew it was time to go to bed because television stations waved the flag and played the National Anthem. Once, back in the 1980s, a reporter asked his parents, Joanne and Bill Hazell, how they managed to produce a comic genius. After admitting that Pat was raised no differently than their other three boys and two girls, they recalled that amidst the usual commotion of eight at a dinner table Pat said, “The neighbor lady is having an affair with the milkman.” It wasn’t true, but he’d learned how to get attention. And it hints at his awareness of the ways of yesteryear when milk and bread were delivered to our doors. With six children, the Hazells didn’t buy eight tickets for Playhouse shows, but, when another couple skipped one, two of the kids got to go. Pat saw Hamlet ’79 and Robber Bridegroom his senior year at Burke. By then he was already performing with classmates Rob Baker, Don Harris and others as Tri Kappa Stooge. They did a version of M.A.S.H. for the school, with Rob as Hawkeye and Pat as Trapper John. A young talent growing up in Omaha in those days, Hazell recalled, was asking the question, “How do you become the next Johnny Carson?” A big boost came when he and Max Goldman, his co-author on Bunk Bed Brothers, joined Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David as writers at the birth of what came to be called the greatest sitcom in television history. He ended up doing the warmups after Larry, “I think, had us draw straws and I drew the short straw” for the first audience-warming stint. “When it was time to do it again, he said, ‘You’ve got seniority.’” He later did warmups for Ellen and Mad about You. Well-traveled with The Wonder Bread Years booked at various venues in the months ahead, he has often returned home for shows at the Playhouse and elsewhere. He opened at the Orpheum for Jerry Seinfeld who called him back for an extra bow, saying, “All hail Pat Hazell, King of Nebraska!” Carl Beck cast him in A Few Good Men as the officer (Tom Cruise in the movie) who cross-examines the Jack Nicholson character who snarls, “You can’t handle the truth!” Beck “offered me a nice challenge,” not only with a serious lead role, “but the first time not writing my own words.” That was in 1993. The next year he starred in a Playhouse fund-raising gala, noting “I’m gearing my material to become more conversational.” Years earlier, he came home for a gig at the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and reported that his comedy was entering “a more mature phase.” Reminded of that comment last week, he longed for a time machine to delete it, but there’s no question he’s evolved from the days when he offered such gems as “how to spell mom backwards” and “What’s the main ingredient in ice?” He almost gave America the first sit-com set here when NBC bought six episodes of his American Pie, first titled “The Archers of Omaha,” but didn’t find a slot for its planned mid-season airing. He wrote a play, Grounded for Life, the story of a 33-year-old still grounded for throwing a snowball at a school bus. It was considered by the Playhouse and performed elsewhere, but languished after a sit-com of the same name surfaced. Now he’s collaborating with a New York composer and completing an original musical version of Grounded. He looked to Omaha again for design help from Steve Wheeldon when he wrote a touring show, Kodachrome Christmas. “I wrote it as a one-woman show so I could never be in it.” He retains his observational and conversational approach in Wonder Bread Years, which features “a tightly-crafted script with open doors to allow me to ask the audience their favorite shows and so on. “Some nights the door stays open longer than others. If I didn’t have that breathing room, I wouldn’t be doing it this long.” Doing it in his hometown means “I may be able to get more specific,” not just talking about trick or treating in a mask, but mentioning Mangelsons.” Sometimes audiences think he’s making up stories, but then see his own family in a slide show and exclaim, “Oh, my God, it’s true.” In short, it’s a funny, nostalgic trip down memory lane. Or, as Pat puts it, “It’s not Death of a Salesman.” The Wonder Bread Years runs June 13-29, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Tickets are $35; call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.org.

posted at 01:18 pm
on Friday, June 06th, 2014

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