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Inside Jake Broder's sharp political comedy
What do David Bowie, Johnny Depp, Bob Dylan, and Robin Williams have in common? If nothing else, there's a little-known figure named Lord Richard Buckley, a stand-up comedian who performed in the 40s and 50s. Those modern-day stars all cited him as an influence.
Just ask Jake Broder, who has been performing as Lord Buckley since 2001. "Johnny Depp has described his character Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean, as one half Keith Richards and one half Lord Buckley," he says.
Broder is currently reviving his own Buckley performance at 59E59, where his show His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley is playing through January 1. The theatre has been turned into a 40s-era night club, where Broder-as-Buckley unspools a variety of monologues onstage while backed by a three-piece jazz band. He dons a tuxedo, a clipped British accent, and a larger-than-life presence, with a cigarette often hanging leisurely from his fingers.
Offstage, though, Broder is more soft-spoken. And he's American. But it was 15 years ago in London that he first found Buckley. "I was doing a show in the West End, and a friend of mine just handed me an album and said, 'Here, check this out,'" he recalls. "It was one of Lord Buckley's comedy albums. It was a combination of classic storytelling and hip, which I thought was both very, very funny and really astute."
"Hip" refers to the "hip semantic" – lingo that was in vogue with the jazz musicians of that time. In one of his famous monologues, for instance, Buckley calls Jesus of Nazareth, "a carpenter kitty… the kind of a cat that come on so wild and so sweet and so strong and so with it that when he laid it – wham! It stayed there."
In creating his show, however, Broder didn't simply want to recreate the comedian's best-known monologues. His chose to take Buckley's spirit — part comedy, part political, and all hip — and propel it into 2016. "He was preaching universal love and railing against racism in the 40s, which is a ballsy thing to do," Broder says. "Our goal is to take his material and update the material itself, because comedy lives in the moment."
He says it took years to master hip semantic, likening it to tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese: "When you say words like 'dig,' depending on how you say it, it has about five different meanings." The result of all this preparation is a mix of vintage Buckley monologues with additions that are entirely Broder's. For example, the original Buckley had a hip version of A Christmas Carol called "Scrooge," but in Broder's show, Scrooge is now a billionaire who lives in a "penthouse pad in Scrooge Tower." The Ghost of Christmas Past, meanwhile, is a Native American who shows up "on a Standing Rock."
Then there are the more overt political moments, such as when Broder sits down at the piano and plays "Georgia on My Mind," interspersed with a story about a black boy being lynched. "There was a time, right at the end of the song, when I sometimes used to howl out 'I can't breathe!'" he says.
This may not be what audiences are expecting when they attend a jazz concert around the holidays. But that was the appeal of the original Buckley; he wasn't willing to let people forget the world they were living in. "In a loving way, we want to shake the shit out of people," Broder says. "That's sort of our little secret."
But His Royal Hipness isn't only about railing against social and political issues with a jazz backing. That wouldn't be true to Buckley, who was also about making people laugh and bringing them together in communion. "In order to do the right thing, we have to understand and be compassionate and dig deeper," Broder says. "The reason we're in this fix is because we spend so much time rubbing our own backs and not reaching out. There are people who are angry and upset and so flipped out that they would do what they did. We have to find out what hurts and try to help make it better. And that's past conservative or progressive. That's not a political thought. That's a, 'Let's make the bubble bigger so that everybody's in it.'"
Or as Buckley would say, "Don't get mad, love harder!"
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Photos by Vincent Scarano. Top photo: Jake Broder as Lord Buckley.TDF Members: Go here to browse our latest discounts for theatre, dance, and concerts.