Josh Kornbluths foibles fuel his monologues

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Josh Kornbluth looks like Ben Franklin — or about as much as a nebbishy New York-born Jew can resemble a Founding Father. But their surface similarities — the girth, the hair, the round glasses — were enough to entice Kornbluth, a Berkeley monologist, to learn more about his 18th-century double, leading him to create “Ben Franklin: Unplugged” several years ago.

It is not surprising, then, that the title of Kornbluth’s latest comic monologue, “Love & Taxes,” alludes to Franklin, who famously quipped about the certainty of death and taxes. The title is also in part a nod to Woody Allen (“Love and Death”), whose neurotic, self-deprecating screen persona is often compared to Kornbluth’s stage character.

Remember Allen’s old New Yorker pieces, those with the “inventor” of the isosceles triangle and the irregular Spanish verb that chases after the hero? Similar absurdities abound in Kornbluth’s monologues.

In “Love & Taxes,” which begins its national tour in New York next month following its Bay Area run, the amateur oboist and former copy editor finds humor in early baroque music, silent letters and gratuitous quotation marks. And in “The Mathematics of Change” — his earlier piece about flunking calculus in his freshman year at Princeton — Kornbluth explains the dangerous beauty of the number 3 and talks of his Bronx Science classmates “impaling themselves on triangles.”

Though rather literary, these jokes become uniquely Kornbluthian through the vigor of the performer’s delivery. “The physical component is inseparable from the verbal,” he says. In fact, he never writes his monologues but develops them through on-stage improvisation. “I’m creating the sounds and then those are vibrating in people’s ears and people are responding: It’s a tremendously visceral and sensuous experience.”

During a sometimes sweaty two-hour performance, the top-heavy actor is light on his black-sneakered feet, moving about the stage while easily morphing from one character into another. Here he is, channeling his eccentric, larger-than-life father — jutting out a proud chest and joyously slapping a potbelly they apparently share. And there he sits as himself, sticking out his bulging eyes in growing amazement at the tax code he’s reading. Oh, and there he pantomimes a conversation with his wife, hunching his shoulders and hanging his impossibly round head like a child scolded by his mother.

He’s big-headed only in the literal sense, comparing himself unfavorably to such versatile solo actors as Lily Tomlin. Anyway, what’s more central to Kornbluth’s comic sensibility is something else: the ability to wring humor from hardship.

To grossly oversimplify, “Love & Taxes” is the sad-but-funny story of the way Kornbluth’s communist upbringing and the ups and downs of his career lead to severe tax problems, with which he copes in part through the love of a good woman. Or, as he puts it on stage, it’s an explanation of how he learned “to love a woman with the depth and complexity with which I loved my father,” the man with whom Kornbluth has been obsessed since his untimely death some 20 years ago, when Kornbluth was in his 20s.

Kornbluth’s style resonates with Jewish audiences, and he’s played his share of Jewish venues — including Washington, D.C.’s Theater J — but he clearly taps into something more universal.

“Setbacks and humor go together for me,” says Kornbluth. “I know this isn’t just a Jewish thing, but I certainly associate it with a Jewish sensibility. It’s the humor equivalent of a shrug, but it’s something else: The more the bastards try to get us down, the more joyfully we will rejoice in our humanity.”

This blend of humor and pathos characterizes all Kornbluth’s monologues, a quality he admires in the short stories of Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud. (Enjoying an uncharacteristic burst of self-confidence in “Haiku Tunnel,” a piece he created while working as a legal secretary in San Francisco, Kornbluth even toys with the idea of calling Paley for a date.)

In “Mathematics,” a lonely Josh, having failed Princeton’s mandatory swim test, bonds more easily with the elderly Russian swim instructor than with his wealthy WASP classmates. And in “Haiku Tunnel,” Kornbluth can barely stand the emotional trauma of seeing what his boss spends on business travel. “In that week, he had spent more than had been spent on my childhood,” Kornbluth exclaims.

“Love & Taxes,” which kicks off its national tour with a New York run at Bank Street Theater from Dec. 3 through Jan. 11, continues to laugh through Kornbluth’s money troubles. At one point, on the verge of what is to be a breakthrough career moment — the premiere of the movie version of “Haiku Tunnel” at the Sundance Film Festival — Kornbluth finds himself hoping his film will flop, because its success would mean triumph for his unscrupulous tax lawyer. (No such luck. The indie flick quickly found a distributor, enjoyed a 2001 theatrical release and is now on DVD.)

Some may hear an echo of “The Producers” in this situation. For Kornbluth, the Mel Brooks film is an extreme example of something all Jewish humorists do. “The reaction to unspeakable and unimaginable tragedy having as one component irony is profoundly Jewish to me,” he says.

Tax troubles may seem like minor tsuris, but for Kornbluth they’re at the core of major political issues. As he tells his “holistic tax practitioner” — who believes not filing is a symptom, not a problem — one of Kornbluth’s earliest tax memories is of his anti-establishment father crumpling up his own tax return. Kornbluth grew up not only poor, but also with the belief that this was the normal state of things.

“Until I was 8 or 9, I never even encountered the stereotype of the Jew with money, and I was shocked when I heard about it because it was so much the opposite of my family,” he says. “My father gave me [the communist memoir] ‘Jews Without Money,'” he deadpans, “which I thought was redundant.”

The effects of this upbringing seem to have been hard to shake off. In “Love & Taxes,” when fortune seems to smile upon our hero and Hollywood studios option two of his monologues, Kornbluth can’t deliver a suitable script because he could find “no middle ground between what Hollywood wanted and what my father would have wanted.”

Though his father left the family when Kornbluth was an infant, and his mother won the ensuing custody battle, Kornbluth says he felt closer to his dad. “My father was very present for me when I was with him [on weekends]. He always treated the times that I was with him as what he lived for.”

It’s no wonder that the death of Paul Kornbluth, who at different times had predicted that his son would lead a revolution or become the world’s greatest mathematician, left his son at a loss and in search of creative outlets for his jumble of feelings. Four out of his five major monologues deal with his father in some fundamental way, including this latest. While rejecting the elder Kornbluth’s anarchic brand of communism and trying to do right by the tax authorities, Kornbluth discovers that the tax system just doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, his boss at the law firm routinely finds legal ways for corporate clients to avoid taxes but could do nothing to save a poor, debt-ridden Josh from the IRS.

But here’s the thing: Kornbluth noticed that most tax lawyers he met had names like Bob Klayman and Mortimer Caplin. “Virtually everyone I talked to was Jewish,” he says, explaining that there was a period when the only possibility a Jew had of becoming a partner in a “white-shoe” law firm was in the tax section.

The man whom Kornbluth eventually turns to with his tax problems, Sheldon S. Cohen, is of that generation. So it makes sense that when this Beltway insider with a Borscht Belt accent calls Kornbluth a pischer, Kornbluth finally realizes he must stop complaining about the system and start improving it.

This civics lesson seems to have sunk in for “Citizen Josh,” as he calls a planned collection of his more political monologues. (The first collection, “Red Diaper Baby,” came out in 1996.) Kornbluth has been following selected performances of “Love & Taxes” with “Tax Talkbacks” between audiences and tax experts.

The move beyond the merely personal stems in part from Kornbluth’s need to protect the privacy of his growing family. “If I base my act on autobiography and I’m not going to talk about my life in detail, then where can I go?” So, like his inspiration Spalding Gray did most famously with “Swimming to Cambodia,” Kornbluth is connecting his preoccupation with himself to the larger world.

Oddly, until he was in his late 20s, when his friend, Bay Area journalist Scott Rosenberg, took him to a Gray performance, Kornbluth didn’t even know about the monologue form. But seeing the master at work, he immediately recognized the form’s potential to express a wide range of subjects and emotions.

“I’d been looking for an outlet for my thoughts and my imagination, but I hadn’t found something I could do well. I’d tried cartooning, but I couldn’t draw. I’d tried music, but I just wasn’t that good at it.” But by performing monologues — getting his start at places like The Marsh — Kornbluth gradually found his authentic voice.

The ending of “Love & Taxes” all but proclaims that Kornbluth has finally freed himself from his father’s haunting spirit, but after the show Kornbluth admits he’s still working on getting closure. Behind his round glasses are eyes tinged with sadness, and Kornbluth seems to have remained a sort of perpetual child — certainly a perpetual son — which is perhaps the key to his great charm. His oversized inner Joshy — full of wonder, playful mischief, and a naive ineptitude with money and business — inspires instant good will. When he reveals in an interview that he still has unresolved issues with his Princeton days and would love to be asked to perform at the university that inspired “The Mathematics of Change,” you want to run to the nearest phone and get him a gig.

In truth, career-wise Kornbluth is doing just fine. Not only has he got several projects in the works, but — more importantly for him — the work is aligned with his values. “It’s almost incomprehensibly great to be able to do what I love as my work,” he says. Maybe, just maybe, the lovable loser is really a winner.