Harrowing story from talk show writer

Brian Finkelstein. Picture: Sam Icklow

First Day Off in a Long Time
Written and performed by Brian Finkelstein
4.5 stars
The Blue Room

REVIEW: David Zampatti

There can't be a tougher gig in comedy than writing for US talk shows; every line is genetically modified, every set up is massaged like Kobe beef, every punch line goes under an electron microscope. If you haven't got it, every time, your career can be nasty, brutish and short.

Brian Finkelstein swims in those shark-infested waters (The Moth, Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O'Brien), and the fact that he's come out alive, with both his humanity and sense of humour intact, is a testament to the guy.

He's back for a second stint at the Fringe, with a new story, First Day Off in a Long Time, that's at times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, but always honed to such a fine point it's invisible to the naked eye.

The thing Finkelstein thinks he's getting a day off from is his volunteer job at a NYC community service called the Humanitarian Suicide Hotline. He worked there for four years after surviving a selection process run by a corporate ex-hippy that weeded out 46 of the original 50 applicants. What he didn't tell his inquisitor was that he had once found himself on a Californian beach with a revolver in his mouth. As Finkelstein tells it, this was maybe just a trial run brought on by existential pessimism and a significant amount of tequila, but the gun was loaded and trigger fingers can get itchy.

All of this is punctuated with gag lines to die for; Finkelstein is looking for love, "an abstract notion - like bigfoot". He reads The Bridges of Madison County because he's "the opposite of a man".

But then, at 4:30am one morning, the phone at the help line rings. It's Amy, she's 22, a student at NYU. She's depressed, but that's not the problem. She says she doesn't have the RIGHT to be depressed, her words start to slur, and Finkelstein's alarm bells all go off at once.

The story is harrowing, instructive and desperately sad. Finkelstein finds something clear and bright at the end of his tunnel, but it's a hard, costly light to steer by.

We're all the better for having seen it too.

First Day Off in a Long Time is on until Feb 22.