The Wonder Bread Years attracts a limited but appreciative audience: those who enjoyed growing up in the 1950s or '60s in America. The show begins with a video montage of snippets from the era's television commercials and shows, product photos and even school films. Nostalgic moans and gasps of recognition spring from the audience, prompted by images of Jell-O molds, Hula Hoops, sparklers, Silly Putty, lawn darts, Kool-Aid, Slinkys, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Big Wheels, toy guns, Eskimo Pies, Clackers, crayons, Smokey Bear, a host of WHAM-O summer fun products including Slip 'N Slide and Water Wiggle, and of course Wonder bread.
This comedic swoonathon for middle-class white baby boomers relies on the comedy of recognition. Easy and comfortable as comedy approaches go. The audience of silver heads and comfortable shoes on Wednesday night at the Bass Performance Hall's small McDavid Studio, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth, eagerly gobbled up the spoon-fed sentimental prompts.
The Wonder Bread Years is a perennial production with a long shelf life, having been first trotted out in the early 2000s. It bills itself as skirting the line between stand-up comedy and theater. But it doesn't. It's stand-up in the storytelling monologist style, more in the nostalgic Bill Cosby vein rather than a more perverse Ron Shock or Michael McDonald. It's still one guy on a stage, sharing his point of view, perhaps with the aid of a few visuals and props. Like most stand-up acts there is general interacting—if not outright messing with—audience members, chastising them that texting clashes with nostalgia and asking them to open stinky packages of SPAM. It even includes stupid human tricks: balancing various objects on the nose and chin, the kind of skill you master when growing up with brothers.
This edition of The Wonder Bread Years features the show's creator, Pat Hazell. Not seeing his home state of Nebraska as an option, and trying for a while to make a home base near New Orleans where his wife was raised, he's now recreating his childhood domestic bliss in the Austin area with their two pre-teen boys. It may have made him too soft. While relaxed and affable on stage, internet clips hint that other actors who have taken on the Wonder Bread Years' mantle—John McGivern, himself a one-man-show meister who plies Midwest nostalgia, and David Mann, known for his theatrical solo show Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather—may impart more punch to the material when done live.
On the other hand, Pat Hazell is best known as a writer. As one of the original scripters for the sitcom Seinfeld, he is the anti-topical comedian who celebrates the superficial ordinary. The Wonder Bread Years regresses, though, into Americana humor, reveling in a mythical age of American life. In a Seinfeldian manner, it explores the eating habits of boys with their love of cold cereals whose primary ingredient is sugar, especially ones in small boxes that turn into bowls. At least 10 minutes is spent on candy and the candy season of Easter to Halloween. Family Midwest vacations are pictured as seen almost entirely from the back-facing seat of a Ford Country Squire station wagon and consisting of stops to pose with gigantic roadside tchotchkes.
Hazell's sentiments are highly commendable. Promotional materials state the show is about "reminding us that there is still a kid inside each of us, and a sense of wonder that is waiting to be unlocked… that we share more in common than we have differences." But the material could resonate deeper truths without risking offense. Wednesday's show left me yearning for the whimsy and emotion of Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, or the gently jaded honesty of Bill Cosby's Russell, My Brother, Whom I Also Slept With. Then again, I like my wonder with less gee-whiz and more awe, as in The Little Prince.
The Wonder Bread Years is the perfect stand-up for those who distain the sardine seating and dark confines of typical comedy clubs. The McDavid Studio is casual, relaxed and all-ages friendly. But it is flat and wide. Seats are general admission, so get there early to be assured of a good stage view since much of the action occurs seated or on the floor.