The set (by James Jennings) consists of a folksy little house front with a screen door, a stoop and a white picket fence. A sheet hangs drying on the clothesline. The lights dim. On the sheet, we see a newsreel of Americana from the recent past. Consumer images that filled our childhood flash briefly before our eyes -- Slinky, two-gun holsters, hula hoops, Tony the Tiger, Eskimo Pie, Silly Putty and so on.
Later, at the very end of The Wonder Bread Years, author and host Pat Hazell gives us a slide show from his family album, projected onto the same sheet. Part of the fun here has to do with realizing that the outrageous details of the stories Hazell has told us are, in fact, totally accurate.
Between the bookends, of course, come the books. If it were in print, The Wonder Bread Years would have to look something like the Hardy Boys series and have titles like "The Case of the Label-less Cans," with the plot summary: young Pat and his brothers learn they can get prizes by turning in the labels from Campbell's Soup cans. Ecstatic with this newfound source of wealth, they strip all the cans in their grandmother's pantry. Family dinners turn into "culinary Russian roulette": fried chicken and ... two cans (contents unknown).
In this anecdote, as in many others drawn from Hazell's own growing up, we have wandered from the general into the personal -- a hilariously eccentric personal, at that. And one of the things that makes The Wonder Bread Years more than a comic stroll down memory lane (through that somewhat familiar subdivision known as trivia) is this personal touch. For instance, Hazell's father getting the boys to clean the yard with a promise of "pine floats" as their reward, then giving them a glass of water with a toothpick floating in it. Or the humiliation Hazell suffered at Halloween, when he had to go as a witch one year and as Colonel Sanders the next year because those were the only costumes available. (We get to see both get-ups in the final slide show.)
Another thing that makes The Wonder Bread Years so much better than it sounds like it might be is Hazell himself. He is a writer with a devilish sense of humor, honed by years of experience (he wrote for Jerry Seinfeld), and he is a performer with an easy command of the stage and a great sense of timing.
The jokes spill out in all directions. Hazell jumps from aphoristic insights -- "Childhood was the time when you could fall asleep anywhere and wake up in your own bed" -- to the weird noise a dentist's suction tube makes when it catches the inside of your cheek. A deft hint of preteen postures and movements (done, thank heaven, in the spirit of standup comedy, rather than like "actors being children") adds some zip to the presentation.
There is also a good deal of give-and-take with the audience -- in which Hazell's poise and wit serve him well. On the night I saw the show, he had a few real corkers in the crowd. For example, when asked to share a show-and-tell experience from grammar school, one otherwise prim-looking lady told about showing a condom. Then, perhaps feeling a bit abashed, she added, "It was still in the package." Hazell assured her he didn't think she had picked it up off the sidewalk on the way to school. Just when we were all wondering if the woman's story was perhaps invented, Hazell picked another audience member, who volunteered that she had been in the same class for the "show-and-tell" condom!
In Hazell's hands, the audience participation is fun in itself and also serves to reinforce his basic premise that our shared past binds us together more strongly than we realize.
Of course, here in New Orleans, nostalgia usually has a distinctive flavor. We tend to emphasize how different local culture is from the larger "American" culture. Wonder Bread is not a likely emblem in the land of fried oyster po-boys. But this absence of the New Orleans mystique actually gives a certain freshness to Hazell's take on childhood. For better or worse, it seems we are part of the union, after all.