When your last name is “the Eccentric,” it limits your career options. The choices are pretty much either mad king or clown.
Avner the Eccentric’s given surname is actually Eisenberg, but his professional name has been good to him for the past few decades—and to those who witness his finely honed act of physical comedy, juggling, magic, and a silent and hapless dance of exponentially accumulating mishaps. So he may as well just stick with it now, and hope no one gets confused and tries to depose him.
Though Avner tours about six months a year, the road hasn’t taken him to our neck of the woods since his self-titled show played San Francisco’s now defunct Life on the Water in 1987, two years after he played a holy man in “The Jewel of the Nile,” the sequel to the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner film “Romancing the Stone.” Now 57 and based in Maine, Avner has finally returned, bringing his latest show, “Exceptions to Gravity,” to San Jose Rep. In the best vaudeville tradition, “Exceptions” should be called the latest evolution of the act he’s been refining for 30 years.
“It’s the sum of all the shows I’ve ever done,” says Avner, who makes his entrance in a black bowler, baggy pants, and his own gray beard—he’s a janitor giving the stage one last once-over before the show starts, discovers he’s being watched, but carries on with his work and decides to hang around to see the show, amusing himself while he waits and amusing the audience through his character’s inability to keep things from falling apart. “So it’s not entirely new, but it has come together with more of a theme and an idea. Although I wouldn’t press on that too hard—it’s a house of cards that’ll come tumbling down if you look at it too closely. My character is waiting for a show to start that never starts, so there’s the kind of existential argument in it that we’re waiting and we don’t really know why.”
If all this talk of waiting and existential plights recalls “Waiting for Godot,” there’s a good reason for that: Avner has done his time as both Vladimir and Estragon in his day, and just as there’s a fair amount of vaudeville shtick in Beckett’s play, there’s a Beckettian tone pervading Avner’s comedy. Avner is lost, unlucky, an unfortunate soul, and we are invited to laugh at him.
“I was in Paris at a theater for three months, and I sprained something and I started limping around,” Avner says. “It was terrible. And the director of the theater came and said, ‘What are we going to do? Can you do the show?’ I said. ‘Oh, of course.’ He said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘Well, my humor is based on people laughing at the misfortunes of others. If that person is gray and old and limping, it’s just that much funnier.’”
A great deal of humor in general consists of laughing at the misfortunes of others, whether it’s the practiced pratfalls of a physical comic or the unexpected catastrophes of people in home videos. Part of the appeal, Avner says, boils down to simple schadenfreude, the German concept of delight in other people’s pain, but another part is hard-wired into our brains.
“The startle reflex is a big part of our self-defense,” he says. “We’re walking through the jungle, we come across a tiger, we go, ‘Uh!’ and go into freeze, fight, or fly—and if we don’t get eaten, we learn to be more careful. If you take that same startle reflex, which is designed in our neurosystem to keep us from being eaten by tigers, and apply it to just hanging around the house, that’s why babies laugh when you go, ‘Boo!’ When we see somebody fall down, it startles us in a way that the subconscious mind knows there’s no danger, but we’ve already taken in the air that allows us to run away or fight, so it comes out as laughter.”
Listening to Avner talk (he seldom does so onstage), it’s easy to believe he was a chemistry and biology major before he discovered theater in college.
“I went through a kind of midlife crisis at the age of 18,” he says. “Then I kind of meandered through the humanities, went into the theater building to get out of a thunderstorm and got a part in a play, saw (mime Marcel) Marceau that same year, and at the spring fair was asked to juggle in front of somebody’s booth to attract a crowd. I just got hooked on it.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Washington, Avner studied with mime Jacques Le Coq in Paris from 1971-74, and upon his return to the States started developing his act. That’s how he became associated with a theatrical wave known as New Vaudeville.
“There was a time in New York in the very early ’80s when the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Penn and Teller, Bill Irwin and myself all did our shows, and they didn’t know what to call it,” he says. “It wasn’t theater, it wasn’t a play. Magic, juggling, physical comedy, acrobatics, slack rope walking—these were vaudeville-circus skills. But the identifying characteristics of vaudeville were that one would do eight or 10 minutes, maybe 12 minutes, and we had all taken these skills and developed two-hour, two-act shows.”
A hallmark of Avner’s shows is how showy they aren’t. He works with common objects, and though his comic skills are impeccable, his act is less about showing what he can do than reveling in his character’s inability to do anything right. The audience assumes the role of an intruder or voyeur.
“If people aren’t getting the jokes, the tendency of comedians is to just try harder—talk louder, go faster, be funnier. And it never works,” Avner says. “This fellow comedian asked me, ‘What do you do when they don’t laugh?’ I said, ‘Thank God. I have enough problems out there without people laughing.’”
It’s this tone that Avner tries to convey to his students.