Pat Hazell's one-man show is a walk down memory lane, but the paving stones on the path are made of laughter.
The Wonder Bread Years, an evening of nostalgia and humor delivered by the comedian, opened a five-day run Wednesday night at McDavid Studio. A full house of about 250 patrons seemed to have no trouble remembering the 1950s and '60s icons -- from station wagons to Jiffy Pop -- that provided the launching pad for Hazell's flights through baby boomer memory banks.
The show opened with a montage of home-movie footage and vintage commercials set to Paul Simon's Kodachrome, which prepared us for a show that would embrace that twilight period when television (and, seemingly, the world around us) was transitioning from dreary black-and-white to glorious color.
With the two central elements (children and consumer goods) established, Hazell, who was a writer on Seinfeld, glided into an extended riff on growing up in the years between World War II and the Carter administration. Nearly all of his observations were viewed through the cracked lens of childhood, when the most important things in life were eating blue food and playing with toys so manifestly dangerous that they must have been invented by lawyers.
The main theme was the notion of wonder, and how children thrive on it. But, despite having that strong, continuous thread, Hazell did not stay in one place very long. One of the most entertaining aspects of his show was the seamless transition from one anecdote to the next. Some observations about sugared cereals slid right into a bit about dentists. That gave way to memories tied to ice cream trucks, which led to stories about vacations and Dairy Queens.
Perhaps because of his Midwestern roots (Hazell grew up in Omaha, Neb.) it was all highly reminiscent of author Jean Shepherd's tales of coming of age in Chicago. And there was a lot of Bill Cosby in his easy manner and ability to make comic fodder of the minutia of everyday life.
Among the bits that worked especially well was a slide show that took up a good part of the show's second half. Using images from his own childhood, Hazell was able to touch on everything from recycling Christmas paper to the bizarre choices made for photographs on family trips -- such as the shot of a young Hazell standing with a 20-foot statue of Yogi Bear.
Despite covering so much ground, all of the stories emerged logically and appeared to be universally understood, such as the nightmarish tales of bad Halloween costumes (Hazell felt he bottomed out the year he had to go as Col. Sanders and collect his candy in a fried chicken bucket), or the gaping chasm between the adult's and children's tables at Thanksgiving (and why did the age cutoff to qualify for the big kids' table keep going up as he grew older?).
It was also striking how many of Hazell's memories involved specific brand names (see the show's title). Especially chilling was how often he was able to start an advertising jingle from the past and have the audience finish it. We tend to forget what a thoroughly media-immersed generation we were in our youth. But we're not just good at remembering cereal commercials, "We're grrrrrrreat!"
The gentle, charming evening of nostalgia made you feel as if you were sitting next to Andy and Opie. There is no Vietnam in Hazell's window on the past. No struggle for civil rights. No war on drugs. Instead, he only remembers things like plastic green army men and tasteless white bread with Velveeta cheese.
It was in these seemingly ordinary things that he found the special sense of wonder that made his show so warmly entertaining.