It's a Tuesday night and the Pocket Sandwich Theater is packed, with all three levels full and then some. Five, then 10, then 15 minutes late, but nobody cares. Everybody knows everybody, hugging is rampant, conversation flows along with the beer. This is the farewell reunion show for 4 Out Of 5 Doctors comedy troupe. For 25 years, people have come to the shows. No one's in a hurry to see the last one.
"Docs Holiday: The Final Performance" stayed to the Doc format of sketch, songs, improv and short bits tied together with music and comic voiceovers. It launched with a warped Christmas carol, with a slew of Docs, past and present, up on stage, warbling about the "tidings of ridicule and shame" that sometimes come with family Christmases. It's a classic intelligent and tightly written satirical Docs song, with wisecracks and word twists woven into nearly every phrase and not just punchlined. A hysterical rendition of "12 Days of Christmas" extolling the social insanity of the season, devolved as a flask of liquor and an STD was passed around. "The First Noel" was twisted into a paean to conspicuous consumption in Coppell.
Not all Doc bits are subtle. Mark Walters trotted out his Texas geezer character several times: a Tilt-a-Whirl operator, addled from a few too many rides, who now teaches conversational Lone Star diction at University of Texas at Gun Barrel City. (Lunch invitation: "Djeet?" "Djou?" "Skoweet!") By moving to Tulsa, Okla., to take a university theater job, it was announced that Walt, as he is called, "simultaneously raised the IQ of two states." But the move also left the Docs without a head physician, hence the plans to fold the troupe.
Walters, a working actor in film and television, was best known for a while as an outrageous Texas Lottery ad character. He took lead of the Docs in 1993, moving them away from comedy shows and toward corporate work, which paid actual money. Good for the Docs, but not so good for the comedy community. With regular, albeit non-lucrative, shows at The Improv and other places, Docs were a real inspiration to younger troupes, but an inaccessible one.
Vivid characters imbue a Docs show. Not deep, not evolving, but funny. Especially ones by Mark Fickert, a larger than life guy who just has so much fun being a fireman, soldier, various tradesmen and such that you can just see him doing it as a kid. Fickert, or Fick, is the beating heart of the Docs, the one that always wants to play, a big dog of a comedian who'd improvise with a homeless dude on a streetcorner if there were laughs to be had.
Fickert is the Zelig of Dallas comedy, having jumped on stage and even into the pages of Texas Monthly when barely out of high school. If there was a spotlight and a mic, Fick was there. He was an original member and mainstay of Random Scam, Dallas' first improv group that truly carved out a place in the comedy wilderness that was Dallas in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a period of widespread acceptance of performance art and avant garde, one that seems ready for return with the rise of Dead White Zombies and Dallas Comedy House.
When a scene calls for an over-the-edge character that merely waved to the sanity train as it was passing through, for whom the term "scary weird" was coined, the Docs turn to Vince Davis. Sort of a Kevin Spacey who's taken acid too many times, Davis enacts with every muscle in his wired body. For normal to dullard characters that float through the world guided by disconnect, Bob Coonrod lends his dopey integrity to game show hosts, aggravated Everymen, and especially the lead on Docs beloved devolving interpretation of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" with residents only a crackhead would be glad to see.
Over the course of their 25 years, the Docs had more female than male players, clever women chewed up and spit out on a regular basis until two of the sharpest women imaginable laughed their way into the boys' club. Sherry Etzel, fearless enough to do a camel-toe gag, aced the musical numbers and turned in a splendid version of Janis Joplin doing "Silent Night." She and Maria Zsohar played an innocent, airheaded Japanese newscaster pair who obliviously mine every double entendre known. Zsohar did well with a bit on the babysitter from hell, the only kind you can get last minute on a Saturday night.
Long-time Doc John Rainone chameleoned himself through a variety of journeymen characters, providing quick essential hits that moved the action along. Gary Walters had a curious affinity for lingerie roles such as the outlandish Wonderjock skit. Tom Moore, who joined in 2004, offered quirky dolts and other variations of comic gnomes. Lon Lawson, the most recent and youngest Doc, brought a sharp eccentricity.
Except for doing the classic improv guessing game where all but one comedian knows the phrase to be discerned, the Docs have a highly crafted view of improv, one that flourishes under the restrictions. With so many old friends in the audience, the suggestions were profuse and obtuse with intentional trip ups. The premise of improv Jeopardy with Coonrod at the helm has always worked well. But the stand-out a routine involved Walters and Zsohar writing letters to each other in the Civil War à la Ken Burns.
The tightly woven and scripted nature of Docs show has always set the bar high, and they fashion a good ratio of sketches and songs to improv. They rely on standards a bit too much, but that creates a higher than usual batting average of laughs. But the thing that sets them apart are the super–short black-out bits, often commercial parodies, that link the longer numbers, wielded with great skills by sound guy Jay Spence. His good sense of timing keeps the show brisk and high energy.
So long, Docs! Though many suspect they be back, perhaps like The Who, they'll be cranking out annual farewell tour for quite some time.