Christmas is a sacred day to many, a time to celebrate with friends and family. You'd think comedians would make fun of it at their own peril.
But no less an authority than John Waters, an unabashed Christmas fan who will be bringing his "A John Waters Christmas" to the Lyric on Dec. 21, says that's simply not true. Audiences — at least his audiences — love it when he takes on Christmas, Waters promises. The only stipulation, he says, is that he had better be funny.
"If you're coming to see 'A John Waters Christmas,' you pretty much know what to expect," says Waters, who's been touring the world with his yuletide celebration the past few weeks. "The one thing that's going too far is if it isn't funny. If it isn't funny, it wasn't a good joke and it did go too far. Or maybe not far enough."
Clearly, there's humor to be mined from the holidays. Between now and Dec. 25, at least four Christmas-themed evenings of comedy will be playing in the Baltimore area. And the performers behind all of them agree that the holiday season is fertile ground for cracking wise, spoofing every sacred cow they can think of and otherwise mining yuks during a time when there are, admittedly, some strange things going on.
"The holidays are almost as filled with sanctimony and hypocrisy as the Republican presidential race," says Ben Schatz of San Francisco-based The Kinsey Sicks, whose twisted celebration of the season, "Oy Vey In a Manger," plays Highlandtown's Creative Alliance on Friday. "Everybody's supposed to be happy all the time, but everybody's stressed out. Finding ways to address that with humor — I think it's a great relief."
Local comic Marc Unger, who will host the fourth annual Comedy Cantonese at Magooby's Joke House on Christmas Eve, warns that the evening's Jewish-centric humor can get pretty pointed and outrageous. But he's never known anyone to seriously object.
"What's interesting about it is that the audience does tend to skew a little older," he says. "There's this fear that the sensibilities of an older audience, regardless of their religion, can be a problem. But these people who are in their late 60s or early 70s, they grew up in the '60s. They know who Lenny Bruce is, who George Carlin is. So nothing that I say is going to really offend them."
The four nights of comedy certainly run the gamut. First up is "Oy Vey," a musical revue in which the four male members of The Kinsey Sicks, performing in drag, portray a Jewish family that centuries ago foreclosed on the manger in which Jesus was born. Hard times being what they are, the family has only recently lost the manger themselves, through foreclosure.
"The premise of our show is … we've been in the same manger for 2,000 years, and now we're being foreclosed upon," says Schatz. The show, which he says can get pointed at times, spends much of its time going happily over the top.
"It's saucy, it's a naughty show," says Schatz. "We sing some really fun, naughty parodies. People sense that we're good-natured, even if they don't like where we go with the humor. We're very edgy, but our music is gorgeous. And because we're really very funny and kind of charming, people can't help but stick around."
Also up this weekend are two nights of shoot-from-the-hip holiday comedy, courtesy of BIG, the Baltimore Improv Group. As always with BIG, which bases its shows on suggestions from the audience, the evening should prove as funny as the quick wits of both the audience and performers will allow.
Waters will take to the Lyric stage with a happily deranged take on the holidays that's a mix of the outrageous and the celebratory. While Waters insists he loves Christmas, he happily revels in its absurdities.
"I like Christmas, without irony," he says. "'A John Waters Christmas' is filled with information for people who feel the same way. But it's also for people that hate Christmas, don't believe in Christ, are religious and don't believe in pagan Christmas trees. Every kind of lunacy that you can experience at Christmas, I talk about."
The run on holiday humor will draw to a close on Christmas Eve with what Magooby's promises will be "a night of Jewish humor, booze and Chinese food." Unger, whose brother, Andrew, runs the comedy club, promises that some sensibilities will be stepped on. His audiences, he insists, wouldn't want it any other way.
"I think any topic is fair game," he says. "But for the most part, it's some Jewish stuff, making fun of the Christians, and then eating some Chinese food."
A holiday comedy quartet
• The Kinsey Sicks in "Oy Vey In a Manger" is 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Friday at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $22-$27. Information: 410-276-1651 or creativealliance.org
• The Baltimore Improv Group presents "BIG's Winter Wonder" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Tickets are $8-$10. Information: 888-745-8393 or bigimprov.org.
• "A John Waters Christmas," 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $35-$65. Information: 410-685-5086 or lyricoperahouse.com.
• "Comedy Cantonese," 8:30 p.m. Dec. 24 at Magooby's Joke House, 9603 Deereco Road in Timonium. Tickets are $30. Information: 410-252-2727 or magoobys.com.