By Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel Theater Critic
1:51 PM EST, January 5, 2013
SAK Comedy Lab has diverted from its usual improvisational programs to present "Better Days," a scripted comedy it bills as a "live sitcom." This means, of course, that the audience has the role of the famed "live studio audience" — and supplier of the show's laugh track.
Thankfully, no one in the audience had the sort of boorish laugh often heard on those recorded tracks — but there was laughter aplenty to be heard.
That's because creators Tod Kimbro and John Valines, who also directed the comedy's "first episode," have tapped into what makes sitcoms — the comfort food of television — succeed: Stock TV characters, the familiar main-plot, subplot structure, the setups that lead to the punchline.
The occasionally slack pacing on opening night sapped some of the show's zing, and at 70 minutes the show felt bloated. (There's a reason sitcoms generally stick to a quick half hour — eventually the human brain starts to ponder the inanity of it all.)
But this pilot episode — TV speak for a series' first episode that sets up the characters' back stories — more than showed the potential of the concept. SAK plans subsequent episodes each month.
Like many a pilot, the first "Better Days" is necessarily heavy on plot. As the show begins, Todd is being dumped by his girlfriend in a long scene of anguish and tears that had me wondering if the writers forgot this was a comedy.
The laughter begins when the audience meets Todd's friends, who work and hang out at the pub he manages. There's inept waitress Sarah (Ana Eligio), her lothario brother Jeff (Chris Dinger) and Sarah's roommate Jocelyn (Jennifer Bonner).
The show gets a needed jolt when a newbie joins the gang. Raymond Isaac Frak, a sci-fi loving, comic-book nerd who might have accidentally wandered onto the stage from TV's "Big Bang Theory," becomes Todd's new roommate. This kind of familiarity is perfect for a sitcom: Within seconds, we know Ray will be a funny, "adorkable" geek, and in the capable hands of Will Hagaman and his shrewd comic timing he is.
As Todd, Mike Carr has a tough time in the pilot — he spends the entire episode angry or depressed over his breakup. When a character says to him, "We don't want to see you whining and moping anymore," I wholeheartedly agreed.
Bonner's Jocelyn has the fuzziest characterization, seeming to be a ditzy receptionist yet also the gang's pragmatic organizer. Sharpening the various personalities will go a long way to giving the show more zip.
And, with all that plot setup out of the way, there should be more time for wacky-sitcom stories — like Dinger's funny attempts to get a girlfriend by using the music of Marvin Gaye.
During a quick video montage at the top of the show, Sam and Diane from TV's hit 1980s sitcom "Cheers" flashed by. And while "Better Days" isn't going to make anyone forget Ted Danson and Shelley Long, it has more than enough charm for its viewing audience to tune in to the next episode.
• What: An episodic theatrical comedy. New episodes debut monthly and then repeat during the month.
• When: 11:30 p.m. Fridays
• Where: SAK Comedy Lab in City ArtsFactory, 29 S. Orange Ave., Orlando
• Tickets: $10
• Call: 407-648-0001
• Online: http://www.sak.com