The waiter smiles and drops the plates at our cozy, round, two-person table. I take my first bite into a medium-rare medallion of filet mignon. It's so good that I forget that the same five smooth-jazz Christmas songs have been playing on a loop for an hour.
Thirty minutes later — surprise! — my waiter is onstage with eight other Laffing Matterz cast members, belting out a parody of the song "Hello!" from The Book of Mormon. In addition to being economically efficient, the whole double-duty, actors-as-servers trick is brilliant because it makes me feel like I have a friend in the show — a feeling that will stay with me right up until my bill arrives.
The Laffing Matterz dinner theater has been around Fort Lauderdale for almost a decade now, surviving where several other comedy clubs and theater troupes have come and fizzled. Judging by the spelling of the company's name, I was ready to dismiss it as cheesy vaudeville humor for 80-year-olds. But its longevity and promise of political satire gave me pause: Maybe it would have some biting humor, like Capitol Steps or The Daily Show. I had to find out.
The first people who wandered onstage as dinner plates were cleared were Laffing Matterz's founders, Mark and Rita Wells. As they welcomed the audience, it was evident that the couple is comfortable under the lights — the result of having spent a combined 25 years at the Crystal Palace Theatre Restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, performing musical satire that would become the blueprint for Laffing Matterz.
In 2005, the Wellses opened their company in the old McCrory Building at Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard, and it ran there until April 2009, when it went on hiatus for what Mark and Rita like to refer to as a "recession break." That October, Laffing Matterz reappeared — at an upgraded venue, the warm Adobo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. It's been going strong on Thursdays through Sundays ever since — even with weekend tickets costing $69 apiece.
The show consists of about 21 separate skits, all under five minutes. Most of them are songs, composed by the show's musical director, Phil Hinton, that take on social and political topics: steroids in baseball, global warming, menopause, and the dilemma of which parent pays for a gay wedding.
Those musical numbers are broken up by a few punchy little two-line sketches. In one that lasts for maybe 30 seconds, a nervous man played by Steven Kennedy confesses to his priest, played by Rusty Allison (my waiter!), that he's having sex with his girlfriend and her twin. When asked how he can tell them apart, he zings, "Well, her twin has a beard."
Two news segments (think SNL's weekend update, without a desk) take on Kim Kardashian's ass and other pop-culture punching bags. Although the news segment gets updated weekly, the whole show gets rewritten every season. The current show, called Laffing Matterz With a Vengeance, just debuted in November and runs through May, so the material is relatively current. I say "relatively" because there was a Rick Scott "Gangnam Style" parody.
The biggest laugh came during a surprisingly raunchy sketch in which cast member Angela Thomas portrayed Paula Deen. The crowd was pleasantly game as Thomas ended the sketch with a chocolate-covered banana and a nonexistent gag reflex.
The Daily Show this was not. Yes, the jokes were cheesy; yes, the subject matter was a little tired; and yes, most audience members looked to be about 63 — but Laffing Matterz is a laudable effort. Not every joke of the show landed, but being mad about that is like going to a baseball game and complaining when every at-bat doesn't result in a home run.
What really made it enjoyable was the cast, who never phoned it in, even for a second. They fully committed to every song. They're professional. They're tough. They seemed to have each others' backs, even when they were up on that stage deep-throating a stick of butter or spanking themselves with a loofah. That Rusty Allison can sing — and he remembered with pinpoint accuracy the specifications of my salad.