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Witnessing Todd Levin onstage gripping a microphone in his shaky, damp fingers, one was reminded of one of the many funny moments from Encino Man or Starman or Marathon Man, or countless other fish-out-of-water tales. But unlike watching a modern-day caveman listening to a Walkman or a Nazi doctor cruelly drilling the unanaesthetized mouth of a hapless victim, there was nothing to laugh at when Mr. Levin took the stage at PSNBC this evening.

"Took the stage" is actually a rather generous way to describe the near-tragedy the audience was forced to witness during Levin's performance. "Invited 60 strangers to his own private, stammering nervous breakdown" would be a more accurate description of the five minutes of stage time disguised as a "comedy" reading. I, for one, would have looked away were I not wearing a set of contact lenses imprinted with double inverted images of Mr. Levin's smiling face on the inside. (A complementary gift handed out before the performance, without proper explanation.) Some left (including Mr. Levin, at one point - the highlight of his show.); others laughed politely, the way one laughs at a senior citizen telling a tall tale about the "great war" or "depression" or some other such make-believe nonsense. But most, like me, just prayed for time to pass swiftly so that we might hasten the arrival of the next performer and her delightful Keillor-esque yarns of taking Quaaludes with diseased old men and being fingered by strangers behind her high school gymnasium. But until we have the technology to push forward the hands of time, we only have our prayers.

The piece he read, "Minutes from November Editorial Meeting of," was promising enough and read nicely on paper. Of course, there were no apparent references to being fingered in the title but one could still infer that with five full minutes of stage time perhaps one fingering tale would squeeze its way into the reading. No such luck. Instead, Mr. Levin approached the microphone timidly, squinting and straining in the hot lights. Not sure where to look, and unable to see a single person before him for reference, Levin did the next best thing: he trained his head directly at the floor, looking up only occasionally, whenever he was low on oxygen. The microphone itself presented unresolved problems for the reader. Levin held it close to his mouth, and dodged away from it awkwardly when it became too close to his face. This produced an unintentional Doppler effect, as Levin's voice dipped and dove from brief moments of whispered clarity to unintelligible mumbling. (The latter effect was produced when Levin actually had the entire head of the microphone in his mouth.)

The material began with a joke about Mexicans - something we can all relate to enjoy. It quickly fell apart from there, as Levin explored jokes and other unrelated-able materials (and not a single fingering story, incidentally.) with all the charm of Mike Wallace in the throes of depression. It became instantly clear that Levin had chosen the wrong selection of writing for the wrong crowd, on the worst night of his life. From all appearances, he was also drunk. For shame, Mr. Levin!

I think I enjoyed myself twice. The first time was during his Mexican joke; the second was when my cell phone, set to vibrate, began ringing in my front jeans pocket. Perhaps with a bit more experience onstage, or three solid months of intensive hypnosis, Mr. Levin can prevail and let his public reading approach the confidence of his words on paper. For now, though, I hope he packed a clean pair of underpants because the pants he wore onstage tonight must surely be filled with disappointment, regret and, judging by the smell, a giant stinking public apology.


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