By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
‘Hot for My Name’
“If you need to go onstage and get attention from a big group of people, that means something’s wrong with me … and THAT is because of something you guys did.” — comedian Esther Povitsky, in conversation with her parents.
“Holy cow! That is such horse —-. I’ve never heard such horse —- in my life.” — Esther’s dad.
You kill me, Esther Povitsky.
That sounds a little like the title of an unproduced Neil Simon play from 1977, but it’s how I feel about Esther Povitsky after experiencing her hilarious, insightful, original and damn endearing stand-up special/reality show “Hot for My Name,” premiering Friday on Comedy Central.
Based on Povitsky’s well-honed, self-deprecating and consistently funny onstage persona, coupled with offscreen footage of Povitsky engaging in barbed but loving repartee with her deadpan-funny parents, Morrie and Mary, I’m all-in for an Esther Povitsky film vehicle or an Esther Povitsky sitcom and/or a full season of reality shows starring Esther, Morrie and Mary.
In Povitsky’s debut special, we see clips from multiple performances at the Dynasty Typewriter at the Hayworth Theater in Los Angeles, interspersed with documentary footage of Esther visiting her hometown of Skokie, Illinois, to explore how and why her upbringing contributed to her path to become a performer. In her opening routine, Povitsky — dressed like she’s starring in a 1950s movie about a shy receptionist, will turn out to be a bombshell when she takes off those glasses and lets her hair down — explains why she didn’t change her name when she embarked on a career in show business.
“I sound like a very old Polish cabbage farmer,” she notes. “Whatever, I’m hot … for my name. You know that’s true! When they say, ‘Esther Povitsky!’ and I walk out, you’re like, ‘OK.’ But if someone said, ‘This is my friend Ashley’ (and you saw me), you’d be like, ‘Ew. Why is Adam Driver’s little brother wearing that skirt?’”
Cut to Skokie, and Esther’s parents’ house, where we meet a couple of pups identified as “Duncan, Good Dog,” and “Pepper, Bad Dog,” as Morrie tells Esther how horrible she was doing a modern dance routine as a child. Meanwhile, Mary tells Esther she has something under her nose, but it turns out that’s just a shadow. Of Esther’s nose.
That might sound meaner than it comes across, as there’s a twinkle in Morrie’s eye when he ribs his daughter, and Mary seems more blissfully oblivious than intentionally demeaning. Nevertheless, one can see how Povitsky gravitated toward a profession where there’s instant gratification and enthusiastic displays of affection from strangers who have paid to hear her thoughts. With a sweet delivery belying a sharp wit, and onstage presence that brings to mind early Sarah Silverman and Whitney Cummings, Povitsky, who is 32 but could convincingly play a college freshman, travels in familiar stand-up territory, mining personal relationships and sex for material and displaying a gift for observational humor.
“When you look like me, you tend to date guys who have really strong feelings about magic,” she says. “And if I can pretend to like magic for one night, aren’t I the greatest magician of all?”
Then we’re back in Skokie, this time at the public library, where Morrie shows Esther a shelf filled with books written by comedians such as Jay Leno and Amy Schumer and Bob Saget and Norm Macdonald and tells her she could write a book: “For you, it might be a comic book.” Later, we’re at a restaurant in New York, where Esther’s beautiful, blond mother coolly relates an anecdote about a teacher supposedly locking Esther in a closet as punishment and Esther wanting her mother to call the police. Mom says she was sure Esther was exaggerating “because you were always blowing things out of proportion,” and Morrie chimes in, “That was a good idea, to put you in the closet. We should have thought of that,” while Mary says, “Oh, this is the rice dip” as she turns her attention to the appetizers.
Again: I know that sounds a bit horrifying, but my guess is Esther inherited her gifts for exaggerated storytelling from her parents. Even as they give her grief, we never doubt they love her.
Well. Almost never.
“Esther Povitsky: Hot for My Name” ends on a brilliant and slightly bizarre final note, with actors Priscilla Barnes, Christine Taylor and Andrew Friedman (among others) playing heightened versions of Esther’s loved ones, as Esther kicks into a fantastic musical number lamenting how she got her dad’s eyebrows and nose and how her mom is “graceful as a swan, [but] I look like a Hobbit with overalls on.”
Careerwise, Esther Povitsky deserves to be hotter than hot by any name.
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