For comic, roasting America is the best way to savor it

Harry Gordon at a June performance of “Harry Gordon Roasts America” at ImprovBoston in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Of all your late-night comedy choices — Leno, Letterman, Stewart and Colbert among them — only Harry Gordon will regularly bring you the latest on “Fucking Rhode Island: Our crazy, diminutive neighbor to the south.”

Also, only one of these is conveniently live. Gordon performs “Harry Gordon Roasts America” at 10 p.m. on the second, fourth and, “if god wills one,” fifth Thursdays of each month at ImprovBoston in Central Square. Recorded performances run on Cambridge Community Television’s Channel 10.

For the most part, a roast is Gordon behind a star-spangled lectern and in front of a video screen showing clips from the past week or so of breaking news and heartbreaking inanity. He stops the video frequently to comment when something particularly stupid is said, and he has no shortage of opportunities.

Around the time Hollywood personalities such as James Cameron and Kevin Costner were getting involved in the BP oil spill, Gordon found a mother lode, with talking heads on TV rapidly spouting senseless allusions such as “Well, this is already a Nightmare on Elm Street,” insisting “They can’t do any worse than the bureaucrats in Washington” and, in discussing the oil befouling birds, saying “People described it as looking like it was chocolate, I was thinking it was like fondue.” (Never mind that there is chocolate fondue, but what is the point of the comparison in the first place?)

The process

Gordon trawls the news constantly for such items, keeping an eye out for the absurd and shocking, and invariably finds the clips he needs on YouTube. He edits them together, does a rough draft of a show as he compiles and edits, he said, then hones the script daily until a performance. Even then he finds room to stretch — riffing in the voice of an infomercial actor when he feels the audience responds especially well to it, for instance. He plans more person-on-the-street interviews to play on video during the roasts, and he already does “audibles,” in which he takes suggestions from the audience for impromptu political speeches that carefully say nothing, but with great force.

It’s a comment on the rhetoric of politicians, he said, of whom “I wonder sometimes if they even know what’s going on.”

It’s also a way to emphasize the show’s live, difficult and somewhat dangerous nature — which is actually more in his comfort zone. Having put in countless hours at ImprovBoston and its North End counterpart, ImprovAsylum, since starting in comedy there in 1999, he’s credited by many as being one of the best improv comedians in the area. (Gordon works in Cambridge and is a Central Square resident.)

“To do a lot of writing for a show is new to me. I’ve probably written more for this show in the last six months than I’ve written comedy entirely in the previous 10 years,” he said. “It’s hard to do improvisation in the roasts, but I’m finding ways to play around with it.”

Common sense

Woody Allen asks Marshall McLuhan for help with a know-it-all in his 1977 film, “Annie Hall.”

Still, the essence of the show is in those paused videos, and he clearly delights in being able to freeze time and shut down the idiots. In a way, it’s the same fantasy smartasses have wanted to live since Woody Allen magically produced Marshall McLuhan to testify in “Annie Hall” in 1977, but that was in answer to a know-it-all in line at a movie. Now, thanks to a 24/7 news cycle and hundreds of cable channels desperate for content, these people are on television as experts.

Although he invites on Dana Jay Bein, another accomplished improv actor, for pop culture commentaries, what “Harry Gordon Roasts America” says is that you don’t need McLuhan or any other expert, and you don’t need the crew of writers employed by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. His freeze-frame rants reveal the meaninglessness of on-air fluff by applying common sense, as when he watched a cable news host ask a guest, “Have you gone to see the ‘Prince of Persia’ movie?” and the reply, “Of course I have, I have teenage kids.”

“What? What does that mean?” Gordon bellowed from his lectern. “If your 13-year-old does something, that means you have to do it too? Hey, do you lie and say you’re headed over to a friend’s house for a sleepover but in reality go drink in the woods?”

Fanning the flames

During one of the roasts Gordon was asked to run as a comedian, he discovered a problem: He didn’t know the person he was sending off and up, and neither did much of the audience. “I just thought, why not make the target, the thing that’s being roasted, just America itself? And in that way, I’m kind of making fun of ourselves too.”

He launched the roasts of America in November as a half-hour on Saturday nights, but it was heavy with Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and hot-button issues such as abortion. “You do 30 straight minutes of that, you burn people out,” he said. “Yeah, you’re making good commentary, but this is a little much.”

Also, the shows tended to be just plain mean, he said, and filled with language even stronger than he allows now. In revamping the concept, he thought about what he liked to watch. He found one answer in infomercials.

“I’ve been fascinated by them for years,” he said, “these crappy friggin’ products that clearly don’t work.” He’s particularly fond of the EZCracker, which cracks eggs, and the Shoedini, which sells itself as a shoehorn on a stick. “That’s your selling point? It’s a piece of shit!”

Aggravated affection

And, of course, there’s Rhode Island. Gordon is from Vermont, but over time he found the tiny state compelling his attention. “I would see the news stories from Rhode Island, and what goes on in Rhode Island is fucking ridiculous. It’s filled with mobsters and rich people. It’s a weird, weird state, like a protectorate or a principality, it’s the Liechtenstein of the United States. Who knows what’s going on down there. It’s fascinating,” he said. “I found myself doing pieces over and over again about Rhode Island, and I just was like, I’ll call it ‘Fucking Rhode Island.’”

He doesn’t intend it to be mean-spirited. Roasts don’t work if they’re are, and Gordon approaches his work looking at America as a whole with the same foul-mouthed, aggravated affection as any professional in the field.

“For lack of a better word, it’s done with love. I do love America. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t love it. Look at how crazy and fun and ridiculous we are, even if there are people who say stuff and whose political and social views are completely different than mine. I’m on some level probably offended by them. In other ways it’s just sort of fun to make fun of everything about who we are,” he said. “We’re just a crazy, crazy place. We’re a crazy nation.”

“Harry Gordon Roasts America” runs at 10 p.m. on the second, fourth and fifth Thursdays of each month at ImprovBoston, 40 Prospect St., Central Square, Cambridge. For information, click here or call (617) 576-1253. Shows are $7, or $5 for students and seniors. Recorded performances of the roasts run on Cambridge Community Television’s Channel 10. Gordon also has a Facebook page and Twitter account.

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