My ex-boyfriend used to tell a childhood story. One night as he and his brothers were watching The Carol Burnett Show, their grandmother walked in. Carol's special guest that evening was Charo, and when Grandma realized this, she launched into a bitter tirade. Her venom was aimed not at the "Cuchi-Cuchi Girl," however, but rather at the program's so-called star. What is the world coming to, she railed, when gifted entertainers like Charo are reduced to doing lisping comedy bits in service of hacks like Carol Burnett? Why weren't their stations reversed?
She had a valid point.
Once upon a time, audiences demanded something else besides talent and nice cheekbones before they upgraded a mortal to celebrity status. But in this era when most folks' idea of a prime Las Vegas show is decent seats for Celine Dion, that "little something extra" is increasingly rare.
I am not speaking of mere charisma, with its practiced smiles and sparkling eyes. Avon Ladies have charisma. No, this elusive quality is juicier, basted with a heady elixir composed of sweat and stardust. Performers blessed with it play to the back of the house . . . and the solar system beyond. Lola Falana had it. Ann-Margret still does. Lazy critics refer to it as je ne sais quoi, but is has a name:
Karazma is not the exclusive province of beautiful broads. The contemporary performers who best exemplify the term—and, in fact, coined it—are incontestably men, albeit ones who dress in blousy costumes, prance around like schoolgirls who got too curious about the pills in mom's purse, and blatantly bask in each other's affections. They are Vancouver, B.C.'s finest entertainment export, the diminutive Lil' Hamm and his lumbering partner, Big Hamm, collectively known as Canned Hamm.
Karazma! "Sounds good, doesn't it?" says Lil' Hamm encouragingly. "Try and pretend that you are roaring like a lion when you say it; put your hand out like a claw. . . . There! You have Karazma!"
"We have it . . . and you can have it, too," adds Big Hamm. "We're working on a way to license it to the consumer."
In the meantime, the curious are encouraged to pick up the duo's delirious CD titled—what else?—Karazma! (on Pro-Am). From the Cameo-esque funk of the title tune, to Lil' Hamm's heart-wrenching power ballad "I Kissed All the Girls at the Party" and the Euro- disco orgy "Bells of Sex," plus a cover of "Shortn'in Bread" that shames Klaus Flouride's, it is a nonstop adventure . . . sort of like the one that guy went for in Scorsese's After Hours.
But just as none of the aforementioned Vegas greats built their reputations in the recording studio, so are Canned Hamm a delicacy best savored live. "We only truly feel at home when we are onstage," confesses Lil' Hamm. "It doesn't matter where that stage is, be it a recreation center or illegal gambling den. We give the crowds delusions and feed off of their madness."
Yet is it truly madness to make fans shudder with joy? To care enough to single out a special "Karaoke Lady" to serenade at each show? To bravely bare as much flesh as Gypsy Rose Lee ever did as they strut through the crowd in their boxer shorts? That is not madness. That is entertainment of the highest echelon, born from pure, unadulterated love between artist and audience.
If you caught Canned Hamm's set before the New Pornographers' show at the Croc last fall, you've already tasted the exhilaration. But Big Hamm promises this weekend's regional dates won't be a mere rehash of past glories. "We have recently added new hats and also puppets to the show," he reveals coyly. While the puppets may get left behind, an appearance by Canned Hamm's "favorite new character," the Gay Chef, is definitely on the bill.
Alas, Seattle is not on the duo's tour itinerary proper this time. (They are, however, playing a private party at an undisclosed Emerald City location late Saturday night.) So why am I writing about Canned Hamm? This is not, after all, Tacoma Weekly or Bellingham Weekly. Because they don't play Washington often enough, and getting across the U.S./Canadian border with those dazzling costumes (rumor has it their new ones are made of baby-blue leather) in the trunk has only grown tougher since Sept. 11.
And more importantly, in a sad, sorry world where Madonna is still allowed to make movies but Charo has to settle for Sprint commercials, the pursuit of real Karazma merits a road trip. My ex-boyfriend's grandmother would surely concur.
Canned Hamm appear at the 3B Tavern in Bellingham on Fri., March 8, and the Java Jive in Tacoma on Sat., March 9. Both shows are with Tennessee Twin.