Letter from Campus: Rude, Crude and as Popular as Ever

Author: Ed Cohen

Standing in the wings, Kevin Carney looked pleased as he watched the Keenan Revue Band and Keenan Revue Dancers rehearse the opening number for this year’s show.

The band pounded out its cover of “Basketcase,” and a dozen residents of the men’s dorm jogged on stage wearing T-shirts and warm-up pants. As part of the customary show-opener, off came the T-shirts, which were then rubbed front to back between their legs like floss between teeth. Several gyrations later, the routine led into pelvic thrusts.

“You wouldn’t think you’d have to spend a week and a half choreographing pelvic thrusts,” Carney, this year’s director, observed to me wryly, “but you have to have perfect pelvic thrusts if you’re going to be in the Keenan Revue.”

I’ve attended the Keenan Revue for the past seven years, and I’m always alternately appalled and amused, but mostly impressed.

The Revue began as a hall talent show in the dorm basement in 1977, something to break up the dreary chill of South Bend’s winter. It’s grown into the most popular hall-organized event of the year, selling out three shows in Saint Mary’s 1,300-seat O’Laughlin Auditorium at the end of January. Actually “sell-out” is a misnomer. Keenan gives away all the tickets, mostly to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students who wait in long lines to get them.

This year I dropped in on some of the rehearsals to see how the show is put together. Astonishingly quickly, I found out. Though they get started on the standard opening and closing musical numbers a little early, the rest of the acts audition less than a week before opening night. Selections are made on a Sunday night, the cast rehearses Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the curtain goes up Thursday for the first of three straight nights.

The show consists mostly of comedy skits and musical numbers with an occasional juggler, magician or other specialty act. It’s a testament to the talent of the Notre Dame student body that residents of a single hall — guys randomly thrown together by computer — can put together a two-hour show of this quality in so short a time.

And it’s amazing Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s let them. With a show designed exclusively by males age 18 to 22, the humor is predictably sophomoric and often crude. Carney, a senior pre-med major, made his mark last year with a number called “Taco Bell’s Cannon” — the gentle “Pachelbel’s Canon,” standard in weddings, performed to recorded sounds of flatulence. One of this year’s acts featured a man being kicked in the crotch multiple times by, among other characters, the Pope. But the Keenan Revue is undeniably an artifact of the campus culture, and not in an entirely embarrassing way.

One of the more interesting aspects of the show is its complex treatment of the Catholic faith. Although not exactly reverent, the humor reveals respect, knowledge, pride. In a sketch from 1992, the announcers at a football game between the Old Testament and New Testament marvel at Lazarus, “who seemed dead out there in the first half” but after a halftime talk with Jesus “has really come to life.”

The Revue is often criticized for playing on stereotypes, which it does; “Making Fun of You Since 1977” is its slogan. Perpetual targets include the girls (never “women”) of the residence halls Breen-Phillips (fat), Farley (smokers), Pasquerilla West (hairy). The virility of the men of rival Zahm Hall is relentlessly questioned.

The show’s victims don’t all suffer this abuse gladly, but mostly they do. Last year in a referendum, Saint Mary’s students — continually depicted as dumb and easy — voted overwhelmingly to let the show continue to be performed in O’Laughlin.

Former hall residents help keep the tradition going. Every August, the producer — this year it was junior David Cantos — mails appeals to 3,000 Keenan alums. Their donations, along with sales of ads in the show program and souvenir T-shirts, provide the bulk of the estimated $11,000 it costs to produce the Revue. Residents also pass the hat at each show. In his appeal to audience members this year, Carney said people often ask why the hall doesn’t just charge a dollar for tickets.

“We don’t want to do that. We want to keep it completely free, our gift to campus,” he said. “Plus everybody would be coming back on Monday like, ‘Dude, I want my dollar back.’”