To know Will Franken is to appreciate — or at least tolerate — his borderline Tourette’s tendency to say whatever thought occurs to him. That’s not always easy. Franken can sometimes be flinchingly personal, and he often flies in the face of political correctness. A chain smoker, compulsive note-taker, and occasional social pariah, he’s not the kind of guy you’d bring home for Thanksgiving dinner (though he is the kind of guy who can turn a cross-examination at the dinner table into forty minutes of comedic juice). He’s been booed, heckled, thrown off stage, subjected to Facebook comment-thread derision, fired from gigs, and chased out of an Oakland club by an angry mob. He’s also been lauded for always being the smartest guy in the room, which can, in fact, be an onerous burden to shoulder. It’s the source of his success as a comedian, and his undoing as a regular person.
Or so it seems to the casual observer. Franken’s new one-man show, Dieter Und Sheila (aka Black Friday Ikea with a Side of Fresh Tears), precipitated after one afternoon of extreme diarrhea-of-the-mouth. The comedian said he was driving to Half Moon Bay with a girlfriend when they stopped for fish and chips at what was supposed to be an “authentic” English pub — authentic, but for the fact that no one had a British accent. Franken found that irony pretty hilarious. “It was all Union Jack outside,” he said, explaining that the pub tried to compensate in aesthetics for what it lacked in substance.
Unable to stop himself, Franken went in and began ordering in perfectly affected cockney. That caused the waitresses to laugh, which only encouraged Franken, who began cycling through his whole repertory of Western European accents — much to the amusement of some nearby tourists. “I was on a hyper tick,” he said. “Then I slipped into this German accent, and noticed I had a whole show going.”
That got Franken to wondering if speech patterns are actually more than a surface-level trait. Sure, we’re inclined to foist a whole set of cultural narratives and assumptions on a person just by hearing him speak. But what if an accent really can reveal something about a person’s character or psychology?
The comedian took that idea to an extreme in Dieter Und Sheila by writing about a poor, priggish German lad named Dieter who travels to San Francisco’s Hostel International, becomes infatuated with a slutty Australian girl, and tries to woo her in all the wrong ways. Meaning: He goes downstairs and writes eighteenth-century piano serenades on the piano in the common lounge while she’s up in her room smoking cigarettes and having a ménage à trios. It doesn’t work. Eventually, Dieter’s frustration leads him to a nearby hospital shrink, who preaches a theory of “sexual proximity.” Rough translation: To get the girl, our German will have to ape not only her tastes, but also her intonation. He’ll have to start sounding like Crocodile Dundee. From there, the punchlines wrote themselves.
Mucked communication and missed signals — particularly those that occur across cultures — are among Franken’s favorite motifs, and he said the premise of Dieter Und Sheila made for rich, absurdist, extremely inappropriate, half-intellectual and half-sexual performance art. He also confessed that Dieter is loosely based on “parts of me” — meaning he’s an old-fashioned, insecure romantic who can’t ever quite jibe with the modern world. He’ll interrupt the story at points to throw in some Franken “greatest hits,” including a Beethoven gag and a Christmasy version of The Doors. To call it “blasphemous” would probably be an understatement. Dieter Und Sheila shows one night only on Friday, December 23, at The Eureka Theatre (212 Jackson St., San Francisco). 9:30 p.m., $20. 415-788-7469 or TheEurekaTheatre.com
Correction:A previous version of this article failed to credit photographer Nancy Riviera.