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Making a Killing in Comedy

[whitespace] Killing My Lobster
Matt Ipcar

An Ensemble With an Edge: Killing My Lobster at a Shotwell Studio rehearsal.

Killing My Lobster's theater of the absurd

By Simone Stein

Most passionate young artistic types come to California with a dream. Brown University graduates Marc Vogl and Paul Charney had more of a vague notion. They wanted to create something, they just didn't know what--until they realized their true talents lay in their spastic braininess and skewed outlook. Voilà! Killing My Lobster, a very funny and very smart comedy group, was born. (The name comes from a verbal slip made during a word-association party game.) A peculiarly potent mix of the scathing and the silly, a Killing My Lobster show unfolds in manic vignettes that are alternately deadpan and screwball.

What Killing My Lobster fans appreciate (and the group does have fans--its shows regularly sell out) is a sense of humor that's rooted in 20-something absurdity without being cheesy or condescendingly Gen-X. Past skits have included a short musical sitcom about a Russian family living Swiss Family Robinson-style on the space station Mir and a bit about a kid applying for an internship at the DMV.

Besides sketch comedy, Killing My Lobster also produces films, a Web site, a zine and the Hi Lo Film Festival, a three-day celebration of high-concept, low-budget movies to be held this October at the Victoria Theater. This fall, the group will perform its new show, Killing My Lobster Gets Some Action, four times at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and an additional four at Bindlestiff Studios. Killing My Lobster Gets Some Action should be racier than past Lobster efforts--instead of themes like PBS or dysfunctional families, it's about sex. Still, the Lobsters are more Monty Python than Farrelly Brothers, and judging by the skits being developed at a recent rehearsal, the show should be as sophisticated and surreal as it is titillating.

Metropolitan: How did Killing My Lobster form?

Charney: Marc and I graduated from Brown in 1995. Marc went away to Africa for six months. I decided to live at home in New York City for the year because I didn't know what I wanted to do. Marc came back from Africa around New Year's of 1996, and he was living at home too. We were both at this point where we were, like, I think it's time to leave our mommy and daddy, and do something fun. We just didn't know what. But we thought a great city to be in would be San Francisco. There's that old notion that if you're going to be poor, you might as well be warm.

Metropolitan: If you're young and itching to express yourself, the obvious thing to do is to start a band or make a film. Why did you decide to do sketch comedy?

Vogl: When we moved out here, the first wildly pretentious idea that we thought of was to start an art collective. That didn't really go anywhere. We started making a movie, and we filmed a bunch of scenes for it, but it was a mess--there wasn't [any] direction. As summer turned to fall, we realized none of these projects were getting off the ground. We were really tripping ourselves up by putting the carriage before the horse and trying to come up with a project rather than saying, well, what's our enthusiasm for? We tried to force it. So we decided to just start writing some funny stuff and see what happened.

Charney: It got to a point where I just booked a space, this little tiny hole in the wall in the Mission called Grasshopper Palace. I didn't know what we were going to do. I said to the group, I have the space. If you guys want to do stuff, that'd be cool. If not, I guess I'll be doing a one-man show.

Vogl: That was around Christmas of '96. A bunch of us went away for Christmas, and when we got back we said, All right, we've got six weeks to do it. Some of us started writing bits and pieces of things, and they evolved into sketches. We rehearsed in our living rooms in the Lower Haight--we live about a block away from each other. It's been really collaborative from the beginning. We had eight people in it, and eight people writing sketches, and other friends doing costumes and stuff.

Metropolitan: At rehearsal, you take everyone's ideas seriously. Isn't that maddening?

Charney: You have to really respect each other, but most importantly when we're in rehearsals, we're really just trying to make each other laugh. That's all you really have when you're doing comedy, that's how you know it's working.

Vogl: There's no room for any ego. Collaboration doesn't work if people are too rooted in their own individuality. None of us are interested in being competitive with each other. I've been in other comedy groups where there was a lot of competition and one-upsmanship: 'OK, that was funny, but check out my stuff, it's funnier, so there.' Everybody we work with has to establish that they're on the same wavelength. Not only do they have to have a good sense of humor--even if it's different, as long as they have a good one--but also, they have to not take themselves too seriously. I mean, we're doing stupid stuff.

Metropolitan: It's the opposite of trying to be cool.

Vogl: We're big dorks! No doubt about it! Huge dorks! That's how we spend our lives, you know?

Metropolitan: So, is Killing My Lobster a way to turn geekiness into fun and profit?

Vogl: Profit? We haven't figured out how to do that yet. It's about trusting a little bit that ridiculous shit happens to everybody. We have sketches about our experiences working at offices, our experiences going out with people, our experiences watching movies we don't understand, as well as stuff that's much more imaginative.

Charney: As surreal as things get, they're always based on a truth.

Metropolitan: I think that's why you appeal to young people who don't often see theater.

Vogl: That's right. In part, I think, it's because there's some stigma about theater--that it's either too expensive and stodgy, or it's too avant-garde. We're not really a theater group. We're a comedy group. Our show starts from the minute you walk in. At the December show, we had these activity books for programs. It's about what we do at intermission, what we do afterwards--do people want to linger around and chitchat? How do we encourage that? A Killing My Lobster show is a fun evening. That's the kind of thing that people ... want to bring friends to and try again, hopefully. But there's no substitute for putting in the hard work.

Charney: That is the hard work--the little extra stuff makes all the difference. It's just putting in that extra effort of putting together a fun book or putting on interesting music.

Metropolitan: Is it ever a problem that people's senses of humor are too different?

Charney: I think that's what's so great about this genre. Each sketch can have a different voice. It's not really breaking up the continuity of the show, because it's supposed to surprise you with every turn. If each sketch had the same sense of humor over and over again, that would be redundant to watch and redundant to do.

Killing My Lobster Gets Some Action, San Francisco Fringe Festival, Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason St.; Sept. 10 at 7pm; Sept. 13 at 4pm; Sept. 16. at 8:30pm; Sept. 20 at 2:30pm. $8. Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St.; Friday-Saturday, Sept 11-12, 18-19 at 9pm; $8; 415/267-0642.

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From the September 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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