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Past Tense: Johnny Rizzo's A Comic's Journey opens at Bridgeport's Bijou Theatre on Jan. 10

If you could rig up some sort of scale to measure the emotional toll one of those famous memory-lane trips takes on an individual, “A Comic Journey,” the hour-long, self-produced documentary by comedian and Bridgeport native Johnny Rizzo, would be a decent product tester. You’d probably end up with a graph that resembles a steady, shallow mountain slope with a couple of jagged bumps on it.

Rizzo goes home again, as the saying goes, but his trip extracts some figurative flesh. We don’t witness a radical change in the comedian’s demeanor, but we do sense weariness creeping steadily in as Rizzo visits his former Bridgeport haunts: his childhood home on McKinley Avenue in a once-robust Italian-Jewish neighborhood; the Nine Brothers Bar, a spot where, as an underage youth, he sipped foam from the adults’ glasses of beer while they played frittered away hours playing pinochle; the Galaxy Diner, a late-night grub destination (“this was the spot, man”); the Merritt Canteen, longtime purveyors of famously fiery chili dogs; the iconic Seaside Park, former home to entertainment mogul P.T. Barnum (who also served two terms as Bridgeport mayor); a Catholic shrine, another place to “get wasted” and “make out”; the Beardsley Zoo, where he worked with elephants and smuggled chimpanzees out of the zoo for a night at a time.

Early on, Rizzo runs into a former neighbor, Tony Bacco, who still resides on McKinley Avenue. There’s little discussion of what made Rizzo leave the neighborhood and why Bacco stayed. It doesn’t seem to matter much to either guy. Below the surface, you sense Rizzo’s toying with the deeper hows-and-whys, but that’s not how things play out in the Old Neighborhood. Some things change, some stay the same: end of story.

Rizzo’s journey, clearly, isn’t a light-hearted one. There’s little evidence of his impressive skills as a comedic performer, honed during years of stand-up at high-profile comedy clubs and on television programs. He leaves that role, perhaps too much, to the jokey, occasionally overbearing soundtrack of World War II (and earlier)-era brass and swing numbers, which try to maintain momentum through Rizzo’s stories and lighten the tone as his mood deteriorates.

In a booth at what was once the Galaxy Diner, now expanded from its original chrome-diner furnishings into a sizable family establishment, Rizzo gripes about the Casey Anthony trial (being shown on the diner’s television). Another painful, uncut stretch of footage lasts a full nine minutes, capturing the comedian as he rails against greedy club owners; he drives around the city, weaving in digs at establishment types and undereducated, blue-collar folks (who dared to jeer at his beloved Jimi Hendrix during a concert in Bridgeport before the guitarist’s death in 1970). It has little to do with the day’s “journey,” but it’s one of its byproducts. The soundtrack plays the Bugs to his Daffy throughout the tirade, and its tone is further lightened in post-production with the addition of humorous, scrolling superimposed texts (“Aw mannnn! He’s gonna start bitchin’ again!” and “WTF?!!”).

“Getting wasted” is theme that runs throughout the video; it connects locations and stories about classmates and neighborhood kids with memories of his father, Frank, a cheerful WWII vet who, despite failing health (and, most likely, PTSD), managed a smile more often than not as he sat on the stoop. Rizzo’s mother, Mary, worked as a domestic, serving “rich people” to earn money for the family, her husband no longer able to work.

Rizzo’s default mode, he lets on, was to engage in constant partying. During the film’s final sequence, at the graves of his parents, Rizzo offers what he feels is the best advice he could give a young person: “not to smoke reefer, not to get wasted all the time, because life, man, there are so many highs out there that you don’t have to get an artificial high.”

In the end, Rizzo’s a guy you root for, imminently more likable even as he becomes crankier. It’s not, it turns out, the individual places, people or events that makes him worthy of recognition, but rather the current, flawed, complicated person living in the present, dealing with a rich past and keeping an eye toward the future.

Johnny Rizzo: A Comic’s Journey, Jan. 10, $8-$10, The Bijou Theatre, 275 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 332-3228, thebijoutheatre.com

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com. Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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